Happy Opening Day everybody. The long awaited 2017 Cleveland Indians baseball season is upon us. Game 7 of the World Series is so far in the rear view that the almost hero, Rajai Davis, is now playing for the Oakland Athletics, and the Party at Napoli’s will be in Arlington. No worries, however, as Edwin Encarnacion and the boys are ready to give us a thrilling season as they compete to complete the World Series championship that was almost won a year ago.
As we have for each of the last few seasons, the WFNY staff will give their thoughts on what will transpire over the course of the spring, summer, and—hopefully—fall. Here we go.
What is the biggest strength of the Indians?
Hattery: There is no clear cut best unit which is the teams ultimate strength. The rotation features a top three with dynamic stuff, the bullpen has the best 1-2 punch in baseball with Miller and Allen, the offense was one of the best in baseball in 2016 and added Encarnacion, a massive upgrade over Napoli. The team does not have to ride one unit to the playoffs which is its biggest strength.
Dave: Stability. The list of Indians players who are under contract for a few years is long and lustrous like Mike Clevinger’s hair. The ownership is in harmony with the front office, which is in turn in harmony with the best manager in baseball. All the tools are here we just have to execute.
Jim: You could point to the bullpen, or the infield, or the rotation. You have a future hall-of-fame manager, and a front office that routinely is the best in baseball. This organization is insanely good, so I’m going to just say pure depth, and quality as well. The top-end of the rotation is one of the five best in baseball, and you really could mix-and-match Tomlin, Bauer, Clevinger, Plutko, Merritt and Morimando, depending on the situation. The lineup, once Brantley and Kipnis return, has all-star potential at one-through-six, and maybe deeper than that if Gomes and Naquin hit. The bullpen was essentially locked, minus the last slot, and Shawn Anderson seemed to really turn a corner this offseason. We’ll see four or five guys from the minors make appearances as well. The system is full and replenishing, and with Greg Allen, Yandy Diaz and Bradley Zimmer close, it’s time other organizations start pondering whether or not the Indians are the best, top-to-bottom, in baseball.
Joe: The team’s biggest strength is their starting pitchers. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar are three pitchers with the talent to be the top starter on many rosters around the league. Add Trevor Bauer, who has the stuff to be lights out, and Josh Tomlin, who was pretty darn good in the playoffs season, and you have a great starting rotation. They just need to stay healthy.
Josh: I don’t think they have a clear-cut strength, and that’s not a bad thing. Whether it’s their starting rotation, bullpen, lineup, infield, or other areas of the Indians, the Indians are very deep (and good) in plenty of areas. That, along with the fact that they were one win away from winning the World Series last November, is the reason why there’s a good possibility that they can get back to the Fall Classic this season.
Pat: Pick your poison. You want great starting pitching? You’ve got Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, and a handful of solid options behind them. You want a stellar bullpen? You’ve got Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw, Dan Otero, and one of the best closers in the game in Cody Allen. You want to see the long ball? You can ogle Carlos Santana and welcome Edwin Encarnacion to town. You like good, fundamental hitting? The Indians have a treasure trove of great hitters including Michael Brantley, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Jason Kipnis. I can’t pick just one strength for this team, it’s too hard. I won’t do it.
Corey: The Indians’ biggest strength is their stability. While a few players did depart (pour one out for Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis) the team retains both the dominant pitching staff and offensive engine that made the 2016 team run. Terry Francona can claim plenty of credit for that consistency; his level demeanor should keep the ship stable as Cleveland looks to return to the World Series.
Bode: Valid arguments could be made for the defense, starting rotation, or offense. But, I think the obvious answer is the bullpen. A full season of Andrew Miller. Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw continuing to provide quality innings. Folding in a super-LOOGY in Boone Logan because why not. Opposing teams not only have to deal with an outstanding starting staff, but they know they won’t get much relief when facing our relievers.
Scott: Not being able to pin-point a specific group as the clear-cut strength is a good problem to have. I know it’s a dangerous gamble as bullpens are typically the most volatile unit on any Major League roster, but I’m going with the boys on the other side of the fence. They won’t be utilized as they were in the playoffs as it’s incredibly unnecessary during a regular season stretch, but it’s good to know that the Indians have the ability to make every game one of six or seven innings in the event the bats do their jobs. As fun as it was watching Andrew Miller for the second half of last season, getting him for a full year this time around is going to make every game must-watch deep into its final innings.
What is the biggest weakness of the Indians?
Dave: Cleveland thinking. The other shoe isn’t going to drop. The curse isn’t going to come back. As I said we just need to execute and avoid the injury bug.
Jim: Health is something that stood out in spring training, but their depth is something that should cover injuries, unless it’s an honest-to-goodness epidemic. My only fear with this team is top-end rotation depth, and outfield defense. As the EHC guys have been saying for multiple years, Tyler Naquin is a good defender. We aren’t following the metrics, the metrics are following us. Austin Jackson hasn’t been good in three years, and Guyer and Brantley are sub-par as well. When your outfield is dependent on Lonnie Chisenhall for defense, you know you’ve got issues there. I also fear the worst with power arms like our big 3. Kluber is as healthy as it gets, and Carrasco’s injuries seem random, but Salazar has had so many problems over the years. While there’s rotational depth, it’s of the match-up variety. We lost a couple of cannon arms for a long period of time, and we could really ding up the bullpen. The good news? These are chance occurrences, and with our pitchers ground-ball dependent, our outfield issues will likely be maximized.
Joe: The team’s biggest weakness is its health. The Indians are going to be without Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall to start the season. But, the team also is a spot where Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and Yan Gomes are all coming off injuries. The injury situation is the biggest question mark about the Tribe.
Josh: Health. They were able to almost beat the Cubs in the World Series without Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar last fall, but imagine what they would have done if those players were healthy. The Indians have the lineup, rotation, and bullpen to win it all this year, but the key for them is staying as healthy as possible. Also, getting Jason Kipnis back (and 100 percent) is ideal as well.
Pat: Yeah, I’m going with health as well. This team is an absolute monster if everyone can stay relatively healthy, and there is good depth as well, but a rash of injuries will put the brakes on our title hopes.
Corey: Has anyone said health yet? Everyone? Cool that should cover it.
Bode: The obviousness of the worrisome injury status is being well covered. Let’s go with outfield defense. Having a new offensive age where hitters are trying to get more balls in the air coupled with a bunch of players not on the team for their defense covering the outfield grass is well, not great. Brantley, Guyer, and Naquin are all poor defenders who do not have a ton of range. Jackson and Almonte can be good, but not always. Chisenhall might be the team’s best outfield defender, but he opens up the year on the 10-Day DL.
Scott: Health health health. The injury bug tried its damndest to derail the magic of last season, and appears to have wasted little time again this year. No team gets by without injuries to key players, so the Indians will have to do their best to properly assess and treat their guys back to full health. It’s not the year to take risks.
Who is your favorite player? Why?
Hattery: Jose Ramirez. Jim Pete will cover in great detail his many splendors but Ramirez is just fun to watch play baseball. Lindor and Ramirez are talented but they also bring a flair, a natural charisma that makes this team an absolute joy to watch.
Dave: Andrew Miller. The slim frame, the leg kick and the nasty, nasty stuff made him a favorite as soon as we traded for him last year. My wife refers to him as funky-leg, and he was so great in the playoffs last year that it has to carry over to this year.
Jim: When you are lucky enough to cover the Indians pretty thoroughly in the minors, as I did, you get to hear a bunch of little stories that are just special. Jose Ramirez was one of those players. While Ramirez is most known for his firebrand behavior, his orange tinged hair, and his helmet that flies off whenever he motors around the bases, his minor league life was all about wearing his infamous fur coat, constant practical jokes and Jose-being-Jose. Through it all though, Ramirez plays with a fire that is unmatched by everyone in the organization with the exception of Francisco Lindor. While Lindor will carry the mantle as the face of the franchise, Jose Ramirez will alway be considered the engine. In the end, he plays the game of baseball the way it should be played. He has fun, and works his ass off. There’s really nothing better than that. He’s the team’s moxie, and their attitude, and now he’s locked up until his 30’s. #JRamForever.
Joe: My favorite player is Jose Ramirez. Jose has the enthusiasm and playing style of a kid who just loves to play baseball. He runs wildly with his helmet falling off almost every time. But, he is also a great hitter and a good defender. His versatility to play multiple positions and spots in the lineup give the Indians such a unique and valuable player to the roster.
Josh: Is it bad that I don’t have a single favorite player? I love the way Francisco Lindor plays the game. Whether it’s his bright smile or just how good he is, any MLB fan would love to have him on their team. Then there’s Jose Ramirez. The hair, his versatility, or the fact that his helmet seems to fly off every time he has an extra-base hit, J-Ram is among my favorites as well.
Pat: He has that winning smile. He has that exciting personality. He brings fun to every single game in which he plays. It’s Francisco Lindor. You could say that I have a massive man crush on the kid. He’s so freaking cool. Oh yeah, and he’s also really, amazingly good at baseball.
Corey: For me it’s all about Jason Kipnis. Never forget that Kip’s first big league hit was a game winning single against the Angels. Since then he has earned two All-Star Game appearances, and anchors both the lineup and second base. The sooner he gets back to full health the better.
Bode: It might surprise some, but my favorite player is still Carlos Carrasco. He continues to overcome adversity, and he does so with a smile on his face. He has top-shelf talent, and is a top-shelf person as he continues to invest in our community. So, here’s a tip of the cap to our newly-minted fellow American, Cookie.
Scott: Francisco Lindor, easily. I was a shortstop growing up, so I naturally gravitate toward the position. To have a kid with his skill set and talent play one of the most integral roles in a defense is an added bonus. He’s incredibly fun to watch, and is still years away from his peak. Buy those No. 12 jerseys, kids.
What player do you expect to have a breakout year? What player do you expect might have a disappointing season?
Hattery: Yandy Diaz and Shawn Armstrong will breakout in 2017. Diaz will ride elite discipline and contact skills while Armstrong will ride swing-and-miss stuff to hide a dangerous walk rate. Bryan Shaw will disappoint. Of course, he has never been more than average but a command based collapse is innocent.
Dave: I expect Yan Gomes to come back strong after an injury troubled year. I am too optimistic to curse someone into having a disappointing season…
Jim: Danny Salazar is just too damn good to not eventually put together a full season like his first-half in 2016. I know the worries: his arm is frail, he won’t stay healthy, and he doesn’t have enough in his arsenal to be a solid starter. While the arm stuff will always be a concern because of the torque on his arm, what’s unquestioned is his arsenal, and his overall ability. People clearly forget that he was arguably the best Indians’ pitcher through June, before arm issues slowed him down. He has his four-seamer, which he throws through walls, as well as a sinker. His calling card is his changeup, which comes at hitters at 86 MPH. He throws it a couple of different ways, making the pitch hard to judge, and sometimes looking like a slurve, or even a split-finger. Sometimes it goes in, and sometimes it goes out. It’s one of the best pitches in baseball. If he stays healthy for a full season, he may be the Indians’ best starter.
Joe: I expect Michael Brantley to have a breakout year after losing basically the entire season last year with a shoulder injury. He has the talent to be a game changer in the middle of lineup and really raise the level of the entire lineup. He may not return to his MVP-level form (I think he can), but with the hitters already in the lineup, he does not have to be at that level on the team.
I am not really confident in Tyler Naquin. He really fell off late in the season. He looked completely lost at the plate, flailing at the high fastball with extreme frequency. I am just not sure he will be able to return to the level or close to the level he was at early in his rookie season. Plus, his fielding will not help him remain in the lineup if his bat continues to struggle.
Josh: Michael Brantley may not ever be as good as he was in 2015, but I think he will surprise some people with the way he is able to bounce back at the plate this season. If he can be hit anything more than .275 in the three-hole, the Indians’ lineup is going to be so, so good. I don’t want to answer the second part of that question.
Pat: I’m going to go the other way than some of the other folks here. I think Tyler Naquin shows growth this year and learns how to lay off the high fastball out of the zone, and I think his batting stats will show the progress. This is a guy who was able to hit at every level, and I think he’s too smart not to figure things out at this level. Also, I want to have the image of the “rock on” salute after the game-winning slide burned into my memory for all time. The player I’m going to pick to have the disappointing season is Jason Kipnis. His shoulder injury is a big concern. I have this nagging feeling that he’s going to be this year’s version of Michael Brantley.
Corey: I think Yan Gomes will have a renaissance behind the plate. He never seemed to get a handle on last year and with an offseason to appeal to the baseball gods they should shine upon him at last. As for disappointment, I’m looking right at Edwin Encarnacion. I fully expect the slugger to knock 25 homers and 80 RBI, but I have my doubts that his numbers will live up to his significant contract.
Bode: After seeing how he handled himself in the World Baseball Classic, I believe Francisco Lindor is about to make himself a nationally known name. He is ready to break through and provide the overall baseball community with what we know about him. That he’s fantastic. An advance in his offensive statistics in 2017 will have him competing for the AL MVP Award, which is all he needs to complete his transition. Tyler Naquin is one who will have a tough time living up to his rookie-year hype. His struggles down the stretch were real, and he has yet to demonstrate he has overcome them.
Scott: My choice last season was Yan Gomes and that didn’t quite happen. If he gets the at-bats, however, I do like his chances to improve off of last year’s injury-plagued stretch. I’m hoping Yandy Diaz gets the shot and his upside makes him a great bet here, but if I had to pick one guy who will do better than last year, it’s Michael Brantley. The bar is low, and the expectations should be lower, but the kid has a chance to really make a difference for this squad. On the disappointment side, I’m going with Tyler Naquin. I’m not buying the bat staying as hot, and the fielding is a game-long liability. The leash may not be as long as some would hope.
Who is the most formidable division opponent?
Dave: The Cleveland Indians. They can only beat themselves.
Hattery: Dave is right, really only the Indians can get in the way of themselves. The Tigers are the only team that could piece together a strong challenge but that requires 90th percentile performances from Cabrera, Martinez, Kinsler, and Verlander. This sort of expectation is absurd considering the age of the players this team will rely upon..
Jim: I like Dave’s answer, but this division will be pure trash. I don’t think the Indians will play it that way, but there truly isn’t a team build to win. The next best team will likely be the Royals. They have a core of players from that World Series run that understand this is probably their last year together before it all gets blown up. With Ventura’s death, there could be a closeness to that team that’s hard to gauge. I could see them winning games they shouldn’t for awhile, before it all implodes. Never count out the Tigers, but no way they do what they did two years in a row.
Joe: The Detroit Tigers are the most formidable division opponent. They still have a potent lineup with Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Justin Upton and company. Also, Justin Verlander returned close to his former self, while Michael Fulmer provided a nice to one-two punch at the top of the starting rotation.
Josh: Dave’s answer is perfect. If the Indians stay healthy, they can only beat themselves in order to lose the AL Central.
Pat: The Indians were finally able to return the favor. After struggling for a couple of years to be a real challenge to the Detroit Tigers, the Indians flipped the script last season and beat Detroit like a drum, winning 14 of 18 games. I don’t expect to have the same level of success this season, and I think the Detroit Tigers will be a formidable opponent. The top five hitters in their lineup are all dangerous and their starting pitching rotation is good enough to dole out some headaches.
Corey: Kansas City has many of the same pieces from their 2015 title run still in play and they will be hungry after missing the playoffs last year. They’ll likely come up short, but don’t be surprised if they are in the mix in August.
Bode: Don’t sleep on the Detroit Tigers. It is tough to realize because the Indians destroyed them all year in 2016, but the Tigers were better than the Indians when facing “other opponents.” All games count and the Tribe is the better team on paper, but if there is a team to challenge for the AL Central Division crown, then expect it to be the Motor City Kitties.
Scott: The Tigers are always a challenge and shouldn’t be counted out. The Indians will win the division if they stay healthy, but if they’re forced to manage some timetables, Detroit could easily sneak into the picture.
Do you believe the Indians will win the division? If not, what about the AL Wild Card?
Hattery: They are the best team in the division by perhaps 10 games. If they don’t win the division it will be a disappointing season. Very confident they win the division.
Dave: Yes, if they execute they will win the division.
Jim: I don’t like overconfidence, so this is really, really hard to say, but the Indians are as close to locks as you can get. There are always things that can happen that you can’t foresee, but if the Indians don’t lock up the division early, or heaven forbid, don’t win the division, it would be an incredible upset of fortunes. This is the Indians’ division to win.
Joe: I believe the Indians will win the division with relative ease and space over the rest of the teams. The Indians have the best starting pitchers in the division, the best bullpen in the division and I believe at full strength the best lineup in the division.
Josh: If they don’t win the division, it will be a major disappointment.
Pat: Unless the Indians sustain an incredibly unlucky streak of injuries, no other team in the division should come close to them. Did I stutter? Indians by a furlong.
Corey: According to Vegas, fivethirtyeight, bookies, local media, national media, and the eye test — yes. Super confident in the division title. Perhaps foolishly so.
Bode: The AL Central is back to the 90s. The Indians are the clear favorites with several other teams in complete rebuilds. The Tribe needs to take advantage with the unbalanced schedules to lock it down, but they should run away with it.
Scott: The Indians are favorites to repeat as AL Central champs for a reason. It’d take an epic injury for this not to happen. Screw that second wild card slot.
What team in the American League concerns you the most if the Indians make it back to the postseason?
Hattery: None. The playoffs are 95 percent variance driven, perhaps the Red Sox are scarier than others but no team should be daunting in a five or seven game series.
Dave: It has to be the Toronto Blue Jays for me at the moment. I know we took Edwin from them, but they still have a great line-up and decent pitching.
Jim: It’s a toss-up between Boston and Houston, to me. The Red Sox lineup is loaded with young stars like Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi. With Sale and Porcello at the top end, and if Price can find it, they could be scary. The Astros have a nice mix of youth in Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa, mixed with interesting old dudes like Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann, matched with a rotation led by Dallas Keuchel, and a nice looking pen led by a bounceback candidate in Ken Giles, they could be the team to beat, outside of the Indians.
Joe: The Boston Red Sox concern me the most because of their starting pitchers. They are loaded with great arms after acquiring Chris Sale this offseason. They are a team who can match the depth and talent of the Indians rotation and probably best it. The only question mark I have with them is how they replace Big Papi both on the field and in the locker room.
Josh: Boston. Although they lost David Ortiz, the lineup-rotation combo that they have is lethal. Adding Chris Sale this offseason was tremendous, but David Price’s injury could also seriously hurt them as well. If I were to predict who will be in the ALCS, it would be the Indians and Red Sox.
Pat: The Red Sox just seem to reload every single year. They add Chris Sale to an already dominant starting pitching rotation and their lineup is as good as any team in the American League. I would love for another team to do the work for the Indians and take them out in the playoffs before the Tribe faces them again.
Corey: Boston seems to be in win-now mode and if they made a mid-season trade to go for the hardware it wouldn’t surprise me.
Bode: The American League has some stacked teams at the top. Despite the fact that Boston, Texas, Toronto, Baltimore, and New York could all prove troublesome in a postseason matchup (and hey, maybe Seattle or Los Angeles), the Houston Astros are the team that could match up well against our Indians. They are a young, hungry team who want to prove they are capable of competing and have the talent to do so. Hopefully, we all get the chance to see the match up.
Scott: The Red Sox with Chris Sale and a full-year slate with Andrew Benintendi will be really, really good, but I’m going to echo Jim above and add Houston here. Correa should be an MVP candidate and they should win the AL West. So sorry, Jonathan Lucroy.
What team would you prefer to avoid in the World Series if the Indians can repeat the AL pennant?
Hattery: None. Give us a piece of Chicago with Carrasco/Salazar/Brantley fully healthy.
Dave: San Francisco. I know it is an odd-numbered year, but they are dangerous just the same.
Jim: I’m going to look at it the same way that Francisco Lindor does. In an interview this past week, Lindor discussed the Chicago Cubs as a team he’d look forward to playing down the road in the World Series. When asked, he said simply, “They’re the best team in the league right now, right? I like the way they play.” You could see it in his eyes, this cold little flash of steel that silently said, “Give us the best team, because they aren’t the best.” I don’t care who they play if they make it to the World Series. If they’re healthy, they’re the best team in baseball, period.
Joe: No doubt the Chicago Cubs. They have the best lineup in baseball, in my opinion, and a starting rotation that really did well against the Indians last season. They are also the defending champs, so the respect is earned.
Josh: The damn Chicago Cubs. They’re stacked. Then again, a World Series rematch would be marvelous. But, if the Indians get back to the World Series, I will be ecstatic no matter who comes out of the NL.
Pat: I want the Cubs again, and I bet Cleveland’s players do as well. I’ll go with the St Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants. Quite frankly, I’m just tired of one of those two teams making the World Series all of the time. They can sit out this dance.
Corey: I don’t want to play the Chicago Cubs again until the schedule makers require it and it’s a meaningless regular season game.
Bode: As annoying as it would be to hear and see all the 2016 montages if we were to play against the Cubs again, I would prefer to face them than the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers are stacked and have a whole bunch of upside that has yet to be realized.
Scott: If we’re talking about the highest likelihood to disrupt our plans of the Indians winning the entire thing, I would prefer to avoid the Cubs and Dodgers. For as many injuries as Cleveland had last season, let’s not forget Clayton Kershaw dealt with back issues. Kenley Jansen is unhittable in the ninth, Joc Pederson’s a year older, the other Seager is coming off a fantastic year, and Adrian Gonzalez and Justin Turner are middle-of-the-order game-changing bats. The NL is going to be a ton of fun this season. I’m very glad Cleveland is in the AL Central.