Balanced attack carries Tribe to top tier of AL

Cleveland controls own destiny at All-Star break

Balanced attack carries Tribe to top tier of AL

CLEVELAND -- The Indians are finally in control of their own destiny. For the first time since manager Terry Francona took the helm in Cleveland, the club will begin the second half in first place in the American League Central. No more playing from behind with only a prayer of reaching the postseason.

"I don't want to get too carried away," Francona said, "because we're still playing, and nobody has a crystal ball. But we've played ourself into a position where every single game we play from now on is fun as [heck]. And I don't doubt our guys will embrace it and see how good we can be. That's the whole idea."

Cleveland headed into the break in first place for the first time since 2007, which is the last time the Tribe won the division. The Indians have soared to the top of the standings behind one of the top starting rotations in the game, a solid defense and an offense that has received contributions from up and down the order.

Indians go on 14-game win streak

The starting five of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin has been as advertised. Kluber and Salazar represented the group at the All-Star Game. Offensively, All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor picked up right where he left off last year, when he was the runner-up for the AL Rookie of the Year Award. Veterans Mike Napoli, Rajai Davis and Juan Uribe have also done their part both on the field and in the clubhouse. Carlos Santana has displayed more power, rookie Tyler Naquin has excelled and utility man Jose Ramirez has filled in admirably for the sidelined Michael Brantley. Everything clicked at once during a franchise record 14-game winning streak that ran from June 17-July 1.

Salazar's scoreless start

Brantley, who underwent surgery on his right shoulder in November, appeared in only 11 games in the first half and continues to work on a comeback. Catcher Yan Gomes was expected to enjoy a strong bounce-back campaign, but he has struggled mightily behind the plate. Injuries also impacted Carrasco and backup catcher Roberto Perez. Cody Anderson opened the year as the No. 4 starter, but he labored to the point of being sent back to Triple-A Columbus. Inconsistency has plagued the bullpen, and two outfielders (Abraham Almonte and Marlon Byrd) were hit with suspensions due to testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

The Indians look like the real deal. Many preseason projection systems pegged Cleveland as the AL Central's top team and a World Series contender. To date, the starting rotation, combined with some encouraging performances up and down the lineup, has backed up the early praise. If the Indians' rotation stays healthy and productive, and Brantley can return to positively influence the team in the second half, the Tribe could be looking at more than the one-and-done Wild Card playoff experience it had in 2013.

Lindor is young in age (22), but he is playing like a veteran for Cleveland. His 4.1 WAR (per Fangraphs) leads the Indians, and the switch-hitting shortstop headed into the All-Star break with a .306/.363/.460 slash line to go along with 10 home runs, 45 RBIs and 60 runs scored. Lindor has hit third with Brantley sidelined, and he has turned in AL Gold Glove Award-caliber defense on a nightly basis. It was no surprise that Lindor made his first All-Star team. With the way he has played, Lindor could be worthy of AL Most Valuable Player Award votes at the end of the season, too.

Lindor's two-homer game

Salazar broke onto the scene in 2013, when he flashed enough talent to convince Cleveland to hand him the ball for the AL Wild Card Game that fall. Three years later, the hard-throwing right-hander has developed into one of the top arms in the game. Salazar went 10-3 with a 2.75 ERA in 17 first-half starts, leading the league in strikeout percentage in the process. He could have had a case to start for the AL in the All-Star Game, but a bout with mild elbow discomfort took him out of the running. If Salazar keeps up his first-half pace, he could be in the mix for AL Cy Young Award consideration at season's end.

Brantley's injury, combined with Almonte's suspension to start the season, created an opportunity for Naquin in the outfield. He won an Opening Day job with an impressive spring showing, and he has turned his game up a few notches over the past six weeks. Through 58 games and 159 at-bats, the left-handed-hitting center fielder has turned in a .314/.374/.591 slash line to go along with 21 extra-base hits, 22 RBIs and 26 runs scored. All nine of his home runs have come since being recalled from Triple-A on June 1, following Byrd's suspension.

Naquin's two-run blast to right

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.