There was a catchphrase during the Vietnam War, a cousin to John Lennon's "War is over if you want it." It went: "What if they gave a war and nobody came?" The idea in both cases was that, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed, so if enough of the people withdraw their support, no policy can survive their absence.
It turned out to be true, or maybe it didn't, and it's not even clear that if it was true then that it's still true now -- those are topics for another column on another site. In terms of baseball, though, it applies to this year's versions of the Central Divisions in both leagues. In the American League, the Tigers are off to a good start at 14-9. Everyone else has problems. The Indians, last year's Cinderella team, are playing at a 64-98 pace. The Pirates, the NL version of the same, are on a pace to go 58-104 after being swept out of Thursday's doubleheader with the Orioles. Aside from the shocking Brewers, the rest of the teams in the division have yet to find consistency. For Detroit and Milwaukee, they gave a war but nobody came -- at least, not so far.
That either the Indians or Pirates might lose 100 games, baseball's traditional mark of abject failure, is beside the point. What is salient here is that sometimes everything you know is right. The story of the offseason for both of those teams was how quiet they were, their lack of urgency, their unwillingness to add more weapons to winning teams. It was almost as if they worried that the seasons they had were flukes and then set about to create the conditions that would fulfill that evaluation.
The Indians had the winter with the far higher degree of difficulty because the two pitchers they had to choose to re-sign or walk away from, Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, had given ample reasons to distrust their future performances, even within their successful 2013 campaigns. Walking away from both was not unreasonable. Failing to acquire anything like reliable replacements, even with prospects Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer on hand, was less reasonable and has led directly to the Indians' current predicament, which is partially attributable to the club's 13th-place standing in starter's ERA. (So far the score on that decision is good call on Jimenez, bad call on Kazmir.)
Note that this is not as intractable a problem as it might appear at first due to the Indians' problematic defense. They're currently dead last in the AL in defensive efficiency, the percentage of balls in play a team turns into outs, and are also tied for first in the league in strikeout rate. Fielding-Independent Pitching (FIP) credits them with having the third best staff in the league. Yan Gomes, who was a boon to the pitching staff down the stretch last year, has already made seven errors (all but one of them on throws), Michael Bourn is not being what he used to be, and whatever gains were supposed to be realized from moving Carlos Santana to third base remain elusive given that his bat vanished along the way.
The way the team is structured it's going to be difficult to remedy the defense. Shortstop Francisco Lindor's time has not yet arrived (.281/.354/.416 as a 20-year-old at Double-A). The 21-year-old shortstop/second baseman Jose Ramirez, who had a cup of coffee last September, was just called up to take the abdominally-disabled Jason Kipnis's place on the roster. Kipnis has never been the kind of defensive second baseman who is a threat to Roberto Alomar's Gold Glove total, but he's been reasonably solid, three errors this season notwithstanding, and Ramirez does nothing to replace his bat. He also can't cover for both Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera, who seems to have hung out a "gone fishing" sign and gone to join Judge Crater (Joseph Force Crater: human example of Schrödinger's cat).
So far, the team's main action on the pitching front has been to punt Carlos Carrasco (6.46 ERA in five games, but a 3.58 FIP) from the rotation. His replacement has yet to be confirmed, but the options seem to be Bauer, who has pitched very well at Triple-A Columbus, or Josh Tomlin. Tomlin has been good in the minors this season as well and has an amazing ability not to issue walks, but is also like the price the Indians paid to the universe to have Bob Feller or Sam McDowell -- he's severely below average in the strikeout department, and on a team that can't pick up the ball, he seems like a really bad idea.
You never look as bad as you do when on a six-game losing streak, and no doubt the Indians will rebound to some degree in the near future just by virtue of the law of averages taking pity on them. However, given the lax winter, the lack of frontline starting pitching, the sketchy defense, and one other item we've only touched upon in passing, a soft offense that is likely to get only so much better, manager Terry Francona and General Manager Chris Antonetti would seem to stand little chance of saving the season.
The Pirates' story is as familiar as that of the Indians. Last season they had the National League MVP and their other sources of offense were not guaranteed to repeat at a high level. The same could be said of the starting rotation, with only Gerrit Cole having more upside than mystery -- and that would have been true whether A.J. Burnett had returned or not. Andrew McCutchen has more or less picked up where he left off, but with the exception of second baseman Neil Walker, virtually the rest of the lineup has struggled to get going -- Pirates shortstops, for example, are hitting an aggregate .149/.214/.160 in 104 plate appearances. The next-worst NL team, the Reds with their Cozartian disappointment, are hitting .192/.243/.288 at short, which still works out to something like 4.5 times as good.
You hear a lot out of Pittsburgh about when ultra-outfield-prospect Gregory Polanco is coming up, which makes sense given that he's hitting about .400 at Triple-A, no exaggeration. He would likely help, assuming he has no adjustment problems -- Pirates right fielders are hitting better than their shortstops, but that's about the only compliment you can pay them -- but there's service-time to manipulate and other pressing problems, like exactly when the Gods of Baseball stop teasing and Edinson Volquez ceases to be able to post a 3.21 ERA while striking out barely five batters per nine innings, or about 13 percent, in a year in which the typical NL hitter whiffs more than a fifth of the time.
Is it too soon to give up and bury these teams, whose stories were so heartening in 2013? Objectively, we are forced to say "No." Realistically, the answer is yes, warnings from Edgar Allan Poe be damned. Sure, the Indians went 21-6 last fall, but they were also seven games over .500 when they kicked that off. So, sure, it's all over. They punted in November and December. Someone else will get to wear the glass slipper this year, possibly the Brewers. Arguably, they've done as much to earn it as last year's Pirates and Indians did, and if they make it all the way to the postseason it will be fascinating to see if they spend next winter trying to press their advantage or take the Pennsylvania-Ohio way out.