Last offseason, I responded to a challenge from WFNY Editor-in-chief Scott Sargent to figure out how the Indians could improve by 13.5 games (the amount the finished 2015 behind the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals). The Tribe would only improve by 13 games in 2016, but it was enough to win the AL Central Division. From there, the Terry Francona led team dominated the postseason until the final three games of the World Series left them two runs short of a championship.
The good news is that the Indians do not need to improve by another 13 games coming into the 2017 season. However, if the Tribe is going to continue to compete for a championship with the Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, and the rest of the American League (let alone the Chicago Cubs and the NL), then a careful examination of their roster is in order. Herein is an evaluation of the present state of the roster and where the Tribe might still want to look to improve either through a late free agency addition or trade.
Please note that all statistics in the tables are the actual 2016 numbers are do not portend any projections for 2017 unless stated otherwise.
Positional Player WAR
For simplicity, I assigned each player to their main position rather than completely cluttering up the table by breaking them down by innings per position. Players in a red box are no longer on the Indians, while players in a blue box are still under contract or entering arbitration with the Indians for 2017.1
The only players on the 2015 Indians with a WAR above 3.0 were Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, and Francisco Lindor. Brantley missed all but 11 games of 2016, but the Tribe added Carlos Santana and Jose Ramirez to those ranks with Kipnis and Lindor repeating (and exceeding) the feat.
All five of those players are expected to return for the upcoming season though there is still concern over the health of Brantley. Rajai Davis and Mike Napoli were the biggest losses of value (2.1 WAR overall are leaving). Edwin Encarnacion obviously is expected to far exceed Napoli’s WAR, but the Tribe might need to get by with internal replacements for Davis. Potentially adding to the mix are minor league stand-outs Greg Allen, Yandy Diaz, and Bradley Zimmer. Diaz is considered the most-ready of the bunch, but each could see time with the big league club.
Starting Pitcher WAR
It is easy to forget just how dominant the Indians starting pitching was for the vast majority of the 2016 regular season. In the American League, the Indians starters had the best FIP and xFIP, second-best ERA, best K-BB%, and third-highest fWAR. The group is relatively young and inexpensive as well.
The Indians not only return their entire five-man rotation, but also their two most significant other starters (three if you include Ryan Merritt into that discussion). The Indians will need at least seven starters in 2017 (every team does), so each member here is important.
The only issue is health. Danny Salazar battled arm issues from June through the end of the season, and Carlos Carrasco missed the postseason with a broken hand. Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin, and Trevor Bauer each put on additional mileage compared to a regular year due to the extended nature of the Indians postseason push.
Relief Pitcher WAR
The Indians non-tendered Jeff Manship or they could have returned the Top 7 most-used relief pitchers from 2016. As it is, they are returning the top five relievers in terms of value, and the team will have Andrew Miller for a full year. They are only losing 0.2 in 2016 WAR from the players who are leaving.
While bullpens can vary more wildly year-to-year due to the small sample size component of their role, the Indians bullpen has been quite good each of the last two seasons. In 2016, the Indians bullpen was among the AL leaders in many categories including ERA (2nd), FIP (2nd), xFIP (2nd), K% (5th), K:BB% (6th), GB% (1st), and HR/9 (5th), all with a .288 BABIP — meaning there was not a large element of luck to those numbers.
The bullpen should continue to be a strength for the Tribe in 2017. The main questions will be which youngsters step up to provide the team needed depth between Shawn Armstrong, Perci Garner, Ryan Merritt, and others. The other question is if Bryan Shaw and/or Cody Allen run out of gas after being used extensively by Francona the past several seasons.
WAR per position compared to MLB averages
The chart above gives a better feel for where the Indians might best look to improve upon as it compares the Indians WAR with the MLB average WAR per position. If the difference is in red, then the Indians were at a 2016 deficit. If the difference is in green, then the Indians were better than average there. The difference in black means it was a relative push.
For the Indians to have had league average pitching with the same overall team value, they would have had to add the relative WAR of both Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis to the lineup. That is how impressive the relief and starting pitching was compared to an average MLB team in 2016.
Positions where WAR is most likely to fall
CF: Tyler Naquin rode an impressive June and July stint of power-hitting before league pitchers adjusted to his inability to hit the high fastball, then he imploded. While some hope Abraham Almonte can become an everyday starter, he is far from proven.
LF: Who is the Indians Opening Day starting left fielder? With Michael Brantley only reportedly taking non-contact swings,2 there are a ton of candidates, but no one is obvious. The best case scenario might be Yandy Diaz proving he is ready to help.
2B / 3B: As much as I love Kipnis and J-Ram, they achieved such high value in 2016, they might take a small step back in 2017. Anytime on the injury list, for instance, could make it difficult to match their numbers from last season.
SP: The Indians were so dominant last year and have enough question marks on health that they cannot assume they will achieve the same overall value.
Positions where WAR is most likely to rise
RP: Andrew Miller for a full season and all those youthful pitchers gaining more experience. Even a Shaw drop-off might be able to be absorbed (depending on how stubborn Francona would cling to him).
C: Whether Roberto Perez or Yan Gomes grabs onto the full-time catching position, a healthier season should portend to a rise in value. And, if neither player can find an offensive groove, then the front office might have better success completely a trade for a backstop this time around.
1B: Even assuming that Edwin Encarnacion is the primary DH and Carlos Santana is the primary first baseman, Santana should be a big value upgrade over Napoli at first base. Yes, take a moment to remember that the Indians swapped out Napoli for Encarnacion this offseason.
Positions where WAR is needing outside assistance the most
CF/LF: It is possible that the positions will resolve themselves as third base did last year when Jose Ramirez took over. But, despite a bunch of possibilities, they are all large question marks at this point. The free agent market is pretty dry when it comes to center field options and the odds are low that the Indians would do what is needed to sign Jose Bautista for left field. So, if the Tribe is to make an upgrade for 2017, then a trade would be in order. Expect the team to first give a chance to the youngsters.
RP: OK, not really. But, the group is quite right-handed dominant and southpaw Andrew Miller is desired to be used in leverage goals instead of specific matchups. If the Tribe can go and get Boone Logan on a cheap one-year deal, then they should consider it.
Accounting for WAR
Summing the WAR up from the above charts yields a 24.05 WAR for position players, 15.75 WAR for starters, and 6.85 WAR for relievers. Overall, the 46.65 WAR is a good number, as the basic premise is to add it to 48 wins (replacement level wins) meaning the Indians should have won 94.65 games in 2016. Of course, the Indians actually won 94 wins, meaning they matched their value. The WAR from those players is not guaranteed to repeat, so the safest route is to continue improving by as many wins as possible in order to set the team up for another World Series run in 2017.
The table below shows a conservative accounting of expected changes for 2017. It is possible to merely create best-case predictions for all of the players on the team to demonstrate an upper-end goal. But it is more interesting to give conservative predictions because if the players do exceed expectations, then their numbers can cover up deficiencies elsewhere that might not be accounted for in the simple table. For example, the table assumes Edwin Encarnacion only matches Carlos Santana’s 3.3 WAR from 2016, while Santana only improves upon Napoli’s number by 1. Both could be expected to exceed those values, but, if they do, then they can cover up for other unexpected dropoffs elsewhere.
Do I think the Indians are really a worse team entering 2017? No, not really. The above chart still indicates a 93 win team, which should be enough to win the AL Central. It is also quite conservative as the starting pitching could match what they did in 2016, which changes the math immediately. But, it is also instructive to remind us how much went well for the Indians. Yes, there were many injury concerns throughout the campaign, but each seemed matched or exceeded by a positive move (either a returning player shining or a front office move that worked out well).
There are no guarantees in baseball. Every single team is playing with a house of cards they hope they can solidify with enough support to sustain the inevitable twists and turns a 162 season will give them. The Indians have an incredible foundation. They have starting pitching, relief pitching, defense, and hitting throughout the 25-man roster. They added a big-time hitter in Edwin Encarnacion this offseason. The Tribe has a solid minor league system who has several players that can supplement the MLB roster.
Due to their division and that foundation, they might even have the best odds of a return trip to the MLB postseason of any team in baseball. Sure, there are lingering questions to answer and the house of cards could topple, but there is great reason for optimism right now in The Land.