Indians hope rotation depth will tilt balance their way in AL Central

The Indians have won three consecutive American League Central titles on cruise control. There wasn’t a need to win a critical series in the final weeks.

In 2016, Cleveland beat second-place Detroit by eight games. In 2017, the Indians beat the second-place Twins by 17 games. Last season, they finished 13 games ahead of the Twins.

Any wonder then that Indians pitcher Mike Clevinger said the final weeks of the last three seasons have felt like glorified spring training games? No intensity down the stretch can be difficult.

This season is different.

The Indians looked done when they were 11 1/2 games behind the Twins on June 3. They had a sputtering offense and four starting pitchers injured. Speculation ran wild about their sell-off trades.

Now, after a weekend in Minnesota, Cleveland is as potent of a team as it has ever been, thanks to a rotation that could be as strong as those of the Dodgers, Astros and Cubs.

The Indians won three of four against the Twins, thanks to Carlos Santana’s 10th-inning grand slam Sunday that gave them a 7-4 victory in a playoff-type setting at Target Field.

Cleveland went into the series two games back. Now the teams are tied.

At the start of the season, Cleveland’s rotation was going to be Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Clevinger, Shane Bieber and Trevor Bauer.

Injuries changed all of that.

Kluber, 33, hasn’t pitched since early May because of a line drive that broke his arm. The two-time American League Cy Young Award winner made seven starts.

Kluber is pitching rehabilitation games in the minors and could be back by the end of August.

Carrasco, who hasn’t pitched since May 30, has leukemia. His return is uncertain. It’s the same for Danny Salazar (groin).

Clevinger was sidelined with a back issue, and has since returned. Bauer was traded to Cincinnati.

Bieber, 24, the MVP of the All-Star Game in Cleveland, is the only member of the rotation to make each of his starts. He’s 12-4 with a 3.28 ERA.

The rotation has been held together by prospects Zach Plesac (3.13 ERA), Adam Plutko (4.68 ERA) and Aaron Civali (1.00 ERA).

Civali, 24, drafted by the Indians in 2016, pitched six strong innings Sunday in Minnesota.

He’s made three big league starts, all quality starts, striking out 18 and walking four while giving up two runs in 18 innings.

Jefry Rodriguez, former Nationals prospect, was a rotation substitute early in the season, but he’s out with a sore arm. He had a 4.74 ERA in eight starts and could return in September.

Rotation depth is the reason the Indians could trade Bauer to fix their lack of home-run power.

In a three-team trade before the July 31 deadline, the Indians were able to get two outfielders, the Reds’ Yasiel Puig and San Diego’s Franmil Reyes.

And, when José Ramírez, who finished third in the AL MVP voting in 2017 and 2018, shook off his first-half slump and started hitting, the Indians actually had three new power bats in their lineup.

Ramírez, a third baseman, has an OPS of 1.035 since the All-Star break. He was at .652 at the break. Ramirez is hitting .328 in the second half after hitting .218 in the first.

At the time of the trade, the Indians were in the bottom third of the most telling offensive statistics, including 10th in runs scored and 11th in home runs.

Reyes and Puig had combined for 49 home runs the day of the trade. Puig is a free agent after the season and Reyes is under team control through 2025. So the acquisitions help this year and in later years.

Puig has a .413 on-base percentage in his first 11 games for the Indians. Reyes has started slowly, but he’s a dangerous bat.

Reyes hit 17 of his 27 home runs for the Padres in their home park, Petco Park, where dimensions favor pitchers.

The Twins’ strength is their defense and power-hitting offense, but they have injuries.

Their center fielder, Byron Buxton, is injured and so is Nelson Cruz, their best power hitter; so are Michael Pineda, one of their starters, and Sam Dyson, the relief pitcher they acquired in a trade from San Francisco.

The Indians’ next three series are against Boston at home and then back-to-back series in New York against the Yankees and Mets.

Minnesota finishes August with home-and-home series against the Tigers and White Sox as well as playing the Brewers and Rangers.

The Twins and Indians play six games in September.

The Twins were a wild card playoff team in 2017.

After losing the World Series to the Cubs in 2016, the Indians lost in the AL Division Series in each of the next two Octobers.

Were they flat after lack-of-drama finishes the final weeks of the seasons?

The Indians aren’t sure, but they’d love to battle through September and try again in October.