You can almost smell it, can’t you?
If you close your eyes and take a deep breath, you can catch the distant whiff of spring; baseball at Progressive Field, the hot dogs smothered in Bertman Original, the leather of freshly oiled baseball gloves stacked in the Indians’ dugout, and the fresh cut grass of the finally coiffed turf.
You can hear it too. The symphony of sounds that resonate from Opening Day onward. You’ve been hearing those sounds in your dreams over the past five months during the dead of winter since your Cleveland Indians danced in the scintillating 2016 World Series.
If you tilt your head just right, you can hear a Corey Kluber sizzling back-door two-seamer popping into Roberto Perez’s framed glove. You can catch the laughter of Francisco Lindor joyfully fielding balls in the deep confines of the soft dirt at shortstop. You can imagine the crack of Edwin Encarnacion’s bat after launching a moon shot towards the reaching arms of a packed porch.
You may just see the shadows of Rajai Davis. The launching a two-run laser and pointing to the sky with LeBron James muscling up in a private box, overlooking the field. You may hear the rain begin to fall… pausing the game just a moment too long.
There’s nothing more satisfying than hearing the tap of a bat on home plate, spikes rolling off of the dugout cement, a JRam helmet plunking off ground after a gapper to the outfield, or a middle infielder and a speeding basestealer hitting the bag at the same time.
It’s almost spring here at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario, and despite a North Coast refusal to give up on winter, visions of baseball’s sugar plums have begun to dance in our heads.
Spring Training is humming along at a break-neck pace. While the WBC has stolen several of the Indians’ best and injuries are threatening several others, the bulk of the Lake Erie Warriors are home in Goodyear, Arizona, prepping for a return to baseball’s championship. Hope does ‘spring’ eternal for your Cleveland Indians whether it be growing in the fans that have been following through it all or the new fans curious of the serious championship contender.
The Indians were within’ one breathless hit of the World Championship that has eluded the city since Lou Boudreau brought the trophy home in 1948. In four seasons with the Indians, Boudreau’s present day managerial counterpart, Terry Francona has given this city two playoff runs, four winning seasons, and a 352-and-294 record. His .545 winning percentage is 6th all-time for Indians’ managers. He’s a long way from surpassing Boudreau’s 728 victories, but Tito is currently eighth on the all-time wins list too.
There’s only one major piece to the puzzle that can make 2017 better than the countless amazing parts of the 2016 season. Winning four games in the World Series. Corey Kluber’s fine season left him third in the Cy Young voting, and he essentially hoisted the Tribe on his back in the playoffs after Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar were both injured. Neither made a postseason start unlike rookie Ryan Merritt who made the first start of his MLB career during the run.
Yet they were one hit away from a World Championship. Ponder that.
As brilliant as Kluber was, the offense stole the show, which was led by wunderkids Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. They formed a sub-25 year old 1-2 punch that carried the team throughout the season. Lindor finished ninth in the MVP vote, while JRam showed up at 17th.1
The rotation is built to battle with the best (when healthy), and the line-up is now anchored by the offseason signing of Encarnacion. That line-up still boasts Ramirez, Lindor, Jason Kipnis (when/if healthy), Carlos Santana and potentially Michael Brantley (when/if healthy). The bullpen has two of the best seven or eight relievers in baseball, including Andrew Miller- who may be the best. Behind him, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Boone Logan and Dan Otero will anchor the best unit on the club. As good as the rotation can be, this bullpen will be just as good, and I think better.
The championship eluded them after a brief flirtation through four games, but there’s something in the back of every Cleveland Indians’ fan’s mind that clicks when you think about this team. They were close. If karma had tilted just a centimeter, allowing a ball to drop slightly differently, the Indians would have won the World Series.
As Darryl Hall and John Oates said in one of their greatest hits, the 2016 Tribe was “So close, yet so far away…”
If you squint just a little, that 2016 team were World Champions.
Carlos Carrasco didn’t play.
Danny Salazar pitched in two playoff games, and in only three innings.
Trevor Bauer was losing battles with his drone.
And yet they were up 3-1 in the series.
They won games with the bullpen starting and/or pitching the entire game after the starter left with a bleeding finger.
They won games against teams that were favored.
They just kept winning.
Enough squinting. Enough pondering. It’s time to look at this 2017 Cleveland Indians squarely in the face because this is a team on the precipice of something special. It’s a baseball team that should have one of the top five rotations in all of baseball; if they can stay healthy. It’s a team that added their most valuable free agent in the history of the franchise, or at least since Roberto Alomar signed with the team. It’s a team with an award-winning front office, and an award-winning manager with the best pitching coach in the league.
This is a team that is ready to win the World Series.
It’s their turn.
As WFNY begins our preview series over the next few weeks, and I launch my first Corner of Carnegie and Ontario column here at the site, it’s time for my yearly State of the Union address. It’s time to take a quick look at how this team stacks up in 2017 before the rest of WFNY dives deep into several key components as we steamroll towards April 3rd with the excitement of a team that came close, but might not have even hit their stride yet.
Mr. Dolan, Mr. Antonetti, Mr. Chernoff, Mr. Francona, members of the Indians’ front office, field management, the players, and, most especially, my fellow fans; today at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario, it’s time to take a closer look at this baseball team who’s four-year run of momentum has brought us to this very moment.
The Dolans, who have owned this team four more seasons than did Dick Jacobs before him, have continued to build a World Series contender with the help of Team President, Chris Antonetti. Gone are the conservative days of Antonetti’s predecessor, Mark Shapiro. While Mr. Shapiro was a brilliant hirer of men, his lack of striking while the iron was hot cost this team a chance at taking the next step several times. Mr. Antonetti has chucked such philosophy. The signing of Edwin Encarnacion to the Indians’ biggest free agent contract in the history of the franchise demonstrated the clear vision of how to create a window of success.
Experts who laughed at the Indians’ chances heading into the 2016 playoffs are hopping on the bandwagon. Not only are the Indians a trendy pick in 2017, but they have the depth, leadership, and skill players to make sure the trend turns into a habit. This team has three potential Cy Young candidates, if you believe a reliever could still win it. They have multiple All-Star candidates. They have youth and depth to supplement the club all year long.
This is a team built to win baseball games. They have defense, speed, IQ, power, pitching, pen, leadership, and, after last season, experience. To the Indians’ nation reading this, your Cleveland Indians just might be the favorites to win the World Series this year, and that’s WITH the current shoulder status of both Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley.
It’s time to put down thoughts of the 90s teams that made winning the A.L. Central as normal as tying your shoes. Instead, it’s time to look at the future. This team, because of it’s pitching, might have the best chance to win that elusive World Series of any team in the post 1954 era.
While there are several leaders on this team, the face of the franchise is the team’s youngest starter. Shortstop Francisco Lindor played his first full season, and what a season it was. His defense breeds memories of Omar Vizquel, and if you ask the right person, Lindor’s defense supersedes Vizquel’s at the same point in their careers. When Lindor plays shortstop, you are often left confused at why he’s fielding balls on the second base side next to Kipnis, or charging toward the line behind third base. How is it possible he could cover so much ground, and looking like he was supposed to be there. It’s the efficiency that’s offputting, as opposed to the Vizquel flair. Lindor is all business, and his flash comes from getting to grounders that nobody has any business attacking. His arm is full of IQ, knowing just the right speed to peg a runner, and just the right angle to bounce it in, if he has to.
His offense remains a mystery, yet the floor of that offense is clearly higher than anyone thought. He had a .301/.358/.435 slash, with a respectable .324 BABIP. His 6.3 bWAR led the team, and his 15 home runs and 19 stolen bases showcase a growing player that has 20-20 written all over him, with the thoughts of 30-30 not as funny as they once were.
Next to Lindor, at third base, is a player that is equally as important, for his malleability, as well as his spark. Jose Ramirez has always hit. He’s always been a good fielder. He’s always been the energy of the team. He’s always been willing to do whatever it takes to make the Indians better. He’s also willing to piss off Paul Molitor, which I think is just grand. While he found time in left and center and second and short, his home became third base. He locked down a position that had been a hole in year’s past, both defensively, and with a bat that just continues to do what it’s always done: hit.
Ramirez, in his first full season, rolled out a .312/.363/.462 slash, hit 11 homers, with 22 SB, a .333 BABIP, and a 4.8 WAR. Not bad for a player that many chucked aside multiple sides. Thank goodness those folks were fans, and not anyone that makes decisions.
It was announced today that Indians’ second baseman Jason Kipnis has a wounded shoulder, bringing forth memories of another recent All-Star player, Michael Brantley. There are question-marks surrounding both at the moment, but it’s likely they will find the field. While Brantley seems closer than does Kipnis, this sort of feels like an all-or-nothing sort of year for the Indians left fielder. While it’s likely his days of sorta close to average defense is over, the key is whether or not Brantley can stay healthy to hit – let alone reach the 2014-2015 levels of leading the team with his bat. Kipnis, who continues to reinvent himself from year-to-year, is a worry. The shoulder feels chronic, but if he can get healthy, his power up the middle, and improved defense can be an anchor for the team.
If the Indians have these four players healthy and performing, they are immediately contenders. Yet, we still haven’t gotten to the best part: Edwin Encarnacion. The big right handed 1B/DH has hit 42, 36, 32, 39 and 42 home runs over the past five seasons in Toronto, walks a ton, doesn’t strike out a lot, and pisses off opposing teams at a high rate. For years, the Indians’ fans have looked for a hitter to take the Indians over the edge, and it appears Encarnacion could be that hitter.
Carlos Santana is coming off what many think is his best offensive season. Wherever Encarnacion isn’t, his good friend Santana will be. He hits lead off or fifth, walks even more than Encarnacion, and is in a contract year. While Encarnacion is a Top 10 hitter in the league, Santana is among the Top 20 or 25. It took his 34 home run season for many average fans to see how special he really is. I wouldn’t be surprised if his 29-year old season wasn’t a stepping stone for the upcoming one.
Behind the plate is the mix-and-match duo of Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez. Who is going to start more games? It may be the most interesting story of the year. Perez seems to be everyone’s favorite. Why? In a lost 18 months for Gomes, Perez has filled the gaps with top five defense. He has garnered trust from the rotation, has a cannon of an arm, an elite eye behind the plate, and might have some mystery upside offensively. I’ve seen him up close and personal in the minors, and he has the skill set. He’s a smart player, and a guy that learns from his surroundings. While Gomes is still the leading candidate to start Opening Day, Perez commanded a rag tag group through the playoffs like he’d been there before.2
If Gomes stumbles, this job will be all about Roberto.
But Gomes has a lot to prove and may not have to press to do it. His defense has diminished the past two years, but he’s been injured. His offense has been non-existent, but he’s been injured. While it’s easy to say he’s done, he’s only 29. He is finally healthy, likely doesn’t feel pressure to hit with a deep offensive lineup, and still has something to prove. If he finds his groove again- finds that offense- he could “break-out” without the pressure of having to.
Either way, I like our two-headed catcher.
The outfield is a mish-mosh of questions, but the mediocrity is loaded with potential. In center, Tyler Naquin is there to split time with someone. Naquin finished third in the AL-ROY voting, and, while he’s not good defensively, it’s hard to think he can’t be better. He’ll be supplemented by Abraham Almonte or Austin Jackson, or both. Almonte returns from missing much of last year after getting pegged for PEDs. We still don’t know what we have in Almonte, but he appears to be our best defensive outfielder, and will likely make the club because he can play all three outfield positions. Austin Jackson might be done, but he has been playing injured the past three seasons. Like Gomes, he is only 29 years old and could rebound. Or not. If he makes the team, it might only be because Tito loves the veteran presence.
In left, it’s likely Brantley, unless he can’t make it back for Opening Day. If he can’t, it will be some sorta conglomerate of Almonte and perhaps Jackson or Brandon Guyer. There’s an outside chance that Yandy Diaz could win this spot, holding it down for Brantley. But, there seems to be a Diaz conspiracy, making him sound like a defensive enigma. He isn’t. He should make the club, but won’t.
In right, you have a solid platoon in Lonnie Chisenhall and Guyer. Guyer destroyed left-handed pitching last year, hitting .333 with a ridiculous 181 wRC+. Lonnie pounded righties to the tune of .291, with a 107 wRC+. Put them together, and you get one heckuva right fielder. Chis is a solid fielder, although I’m still bullish on it. I think he’s athletic enough to make plays, but I still worry that he can smoke and mirror at times. Guyer isn’t good defensively.
I would make a case that the Indians should move Naquin to right, and trade Chisenhall. Naquin hit .301, with a 138 wRC+ from against righties, and the move would hide his defensive deficiencies, and improve his offense all the more in a straight up platoon. The opening in center would give rookies Bradley Zimmer or Greg Allen a shot at the full-time job. Both would be a defensive upgrade and offer interesting skill-sets to the line-up. Zimmer’s new swing, power, and plus baserunning would be fun. Allen’s a classic lead-off hitter.
It won’t happen now, but maybe later this year.
The rotation will be anchored, once again, by Corey Kluber. Kluber went 18-9 with a 3.14 ERA, a 3.29 FIP, and a 3.50 xFIP. He had his third straight 5+ bWAR season, with a 9.5 K%, and a 2.39 BB%. It’s important to note a few things about Kluber, entering his age 31 season: most of his numbers are slightly diminishing, even though they are fantastic. My point isn’t to expect the bottom to fall out, but instead, to understand that Kluber is really good, dependable, and still electric. He just might not be the best pitcher on the staff.
That honor will fall to a healthy Carlos Carrasco. You get the impression that the best is yet to come for Carrasco, who just cannot stay healthy. Carrasco hurt his hammy in late April, causing him to miss a month, and then was drilled in the hand in September, breaking his pinky, and ending his season. He ended his inconsistent year with a 3.32 ERA, and a 3.72 FIP, and a 3.32 xFIP. His 2.5 bWAR was half his 2015 total, but again, the inconsistency of the year was clearly a factor. He has five pitches in his arsenal, and they can all be wipe-out pitches because he just knows how to use them. His curve, slider, sinker and change and fastball are all out pitches, or ground ball inducing mind-benders. Look for him to take over the ace status this year, and make his own run at the AL Cy Young Award.
Then there’s Danny Salazar, who continues to vex with health and consistency issues, and that stamina will keep him from becoming the ace that his stuff would suggest. He has a 10.55 K%, but a rather distressing 4.13 BB%, which was a sizable spike. His fastball-changeup combo are two of the best pitches in baseball. He does throw a four-seamer, a two-seam sinker, a slider, and an occasional curveball all to set up that split change, which is just unhittable. If he continues to improve his pitch sequencing, he has as much natural ability as the Big Two.
Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin continue to battle for the No. 4 and No. 5 slots from different places. Bauer has a vexing and deep arsenal, but his vast IQ sometimes brings along some insane baggage. He’s got elite stuff, and the kind of moxie that makes you think eccentric ace, but he has to get past the off-the-field stuff that seems to get in the way. But boy, if it all clicks. Bauer had 190 innings pitched last year, and is rubber-armed. Tomlin locked down the No. 5 position after his playoff performance. While he struggled in the World Series, he may have been the hidden MVP in the ALDS and the ALCS. Without him filling a starters role, it’s hard to imagine how the Indians would have gotten through.
In Columbus, the Indians should have at least four starters to shuffle back and forth, depending on the situation. Mike Clevinger has high ups, a ton of velocity, but struggles with control. Adam Plutko is Bauer’s buddy from UCLA- equally an IQ guy- but lacks the overpowering stuff that can wipe hitters out. He’s a polished arm who lives on ground balls. Ryan Merritt and Shawn Morimando are there as well; with Merritt showing up in the playoffs. There’s depth, but supplemental depth.
It could be the best rotation in the American League if it all clicks, but it has to click, and stay healthy.
I don’t like bullpens, but I do like this bullpen.
Andrew Miller is the best reliever in baseball, and he resides in Cleveland. His mid-90s fastball is only something that gets him to that unhittable slider, that he throws from a variety of angles and velocity, which leaves most hitters staring at someone or the sky, wondering what the hell just happened. He had a 1.45 ERA, with a 1.68 FIP and a 1.18 xFIP. He struck out 15 per 9, and only walked 1 per. I knew those numbers, and still stare at them with my jaw dropped. On top of that, he can go 30-40 pitches if needed though it won’t happen until the playoffs, if at all.
Cody Allen has been the anchor and the closer from the start, but he’s now malleable with both Miller and Bryan Shaw to whatever role is needed. Allen strikes out almost 12 per nine innings pitched, but he still has that elevated walk rate (close to four), which can make things interesting. It will be fun to see where he ends up game-to-game with Miller on the roster for a full season. Perhaps the higher leverage situations will end up with Miller; allowing Allen to excel in some easier situations.
Bryan Shaw can give up a big inning, but that’s the life of a pen arm. His strikeout rate jumped over a strikeout per nine innings, up to 9.3, but his walk rate made the same jump, to almost four. You could make a case that his season was better than Allen’s last year. Either way, as the third pitcher in the pen, he, like Allen, could slot into a better role that keeps the high leverage at a minimum.
Beyond the big three, LOOGY Boone Logan joins the fold, and Zack McAllister and Dan Otero round out the top six. A sleeper in all this mix is Shawn Armstrong, who really put the work in this offseason to take the next step. He’s always been a mover in the system, but hasn’t been able to take the next step. This could be the year. There should be a mix of arms in the minors, who make their way to the big league club throughout the season as Francona loves to manipulate the pen.
One final sidenote is the new 10-day DL, which could allow Francona to experiment with protecting the rotation and the bullpen in new and interesting ways. We shall see, but the arms that are here are spectacular.
On paper, this team has everything, even with the Kipnis and Brantley shoulder issues.
This Cleveland Indians’ team is built to win, and win now… in 2017.
The 2017 World Series is in play from Opening Day, and not just because everyone has a chance before the season begins.
It’s because they are the best team in the American League both on paper, and in past performance… and it should take them all the way to October.
It’s been 69 years since the Indians won their last World Series Championship. There’s a really good chance that it won’t get to 70.
Bringing back Boudreau may be the theme of your 2017 Cleveland Indians.