Target on the Tribe as They Look to Defend American League Title
Bob Toth | On 03, Apr 2017
This season may very well be the most anticipated season for the Cleveland Indians since the glory days of the mid and late 1990s. Luckily for Indians fans, it just so happened to be the shortest offseason in franchise history, not that it necessarily felt like it.
Cleveland enters the 2017 season in an unfamiliar position. Accustomed to being the hunters, the team is clearly thought of as one of the elite teams right now in the American League and one of the clear cut favorites to contend for the pennant once again. Not only is the team set up to win and is coming off of an improbable and magical run in 2016, the squad is locked up together for the foreseeable future, making an imposing lineup and a frighteningly good pitching staff something that teams will fear for years to come.
The starting rotation returns intact and, more importantly, appears to be both healthy and rested after the short but needed offseason.
Corey Kluber will once again lead the staff after a dominant Cy Young worthy season a year ago. He steadily maintained the results that make him the team’s number one starter and one of the better arms in the league. He was named to his first career All-Star team midseason and his efforts in the postseason garnered him the attention and accolades that he deserves but does not routinely receive. He went 18-9 with a 3.14 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP with 227 strikeouts over 215 innings in the regular season. He added in another 34 1/3 innings in the playoffs, going 4-1 with a 1.83 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP in six starts over the three rounds, pitching on short rest several times due to the injury-depleted starting rotation.
A full and healthy season from Carlos Carrasco would do wonders for the Tribe in their attempts to repeat as champions of the AL Central. He was limited to 25 games last season, posting an 11-8 record with a 3.32 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP with one complete game shutout. He was at the 150-strikeout mark in 146 1/3 innings when his season came to a close. His absence from the postseason rotation was clearly felt and there was some concern about the status of his right elbow this spring, but the team took the slow and cautious route with him while limiting his workload in games that do not count in the final season standings.
Danny Salazar returned in the final stages of the playoffs in a relief role, but he was missed from his role in the starting rotation as the team had to rely on Kluber, Josh Tomlin, and Trevor Bauer to get by after his right arm injury in September. The 27-year-old started the season strong, putting up All-Star worthy numbers while receiving the honor for the first time in his career, but injuries began to pile up and his second half numbers were a polar opposite of his numbers over the first few months of the season. He went 11-6 with a 3.87 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP for the season, but was just 1-3 in eight second half starts with a 7.44 ERA and 1.87 WHIP when injuries hounded him. More of the 2016 first half Salazar would go a long way in returning the Tribe to meaningful October baseball.
The bullpen remains nearly unchanged from a season ago and earned a reputation in the second half on into the playoffs as being a group of men batters should not want to stand 60 feet six inches away from, even with a bat in their hands.
The Indians will benefit from a full season of work from Andrew Miller. In his 26 games with the club after being acquired at the trade deadline, he won four games, saved three, earned nine holds, and posted a minute 1.55 ERA and a 0.55 WHIP while registering 46 strikeouts and just two walks over 29 innings of relief. He will not get the multi-inning heavy workload that he carried in the postseason, but will still factor into games late for the Tribe while covering save opportunities when the matchup is right.
Miller will pair with closer Cody Allen (3-5, 2.51 ERA, 32 saves in 35 chances over 67 games last season) and Bryan Shaw (2-5, 3.24 ERA, one save, 25 holds in 75 games) to once again give Cleveland a lethal combination in the back end of their bullpen.
New to town is veteran 32-year-old left-hander Boone Logan, who signed with the club early in February on a one-year, $6.5 million deal with a team option for 2018. Pitching in the high altitude of Coors Field over the last three seasons, he showed much better results last season when he posted a 3.69 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP while earning a save and 27 holds. RIght-hander Jeff Manship is gone after two seasons with the club, as he was released in January and signed on to pitch in Korea.
Joining the above four will be right-handers Dan Otero (5-1, 1.53 ERA, 0.91 WHIP in 62 games), Zach McAllister (3-2, 3.44 ERA, 1.45 WHIP in 53 games), and Shawn Armstrong (0-0, 2.53 ERA, 1.31 WHIP in ten games), who won the final spot on the relief staff with good numbers in spring in a tightly contested battle. Armstrong had one of the best camps on the pitching staff, going 2-1 with a 0.84 ERA and a 0.84 WHIP in eleven games (10 2/3 innings). A high strikeout guy throughout his minor league career, he averaged nearly one per inning in Cactus League play but has yet to be able to bring the results consistently at the Major League level in limited opportunities. He could see heavy travel back and forth to Triple-A this season when the Indians are in need of fresh arms in the bullpen.
Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez return once again behind the plate with both hoping for happy and healthy seasons. Gomes, a former Silver Slugger Award winner, will need to find his way at the plate in order to maintain the bulk of the playing time from Perez. He hit just .167 last season, but half of his hits fell for extra bases (including nine home runs). His spring was productive, as he hit .370 in 18 contests with six doubles and three home runs. The Tribe’s backup backstop Perez was awarded with a four-year contract extension for $9 million over the weekend, giving him plenty of security on a team-friendly deal. He appeared in 61 games last season with a .183 average and spent much of spring camp with Team Puerto Rico during the World Baseball Classic.
The Indians’ biggest issue coming into the season was how to deal with the loss of second baseman Jason Kipnis, who has been dealing with shoulder issues throughout the spring. To solve the problem, the club will move Jose Ramirez from third base to his natural second base position for the time being, which allowed prospect Yandy Diaz to make the team while serving primarily at the hot corner.
Ramirez was rewarded for his breakout season last year with a $50 million extension last month that could keep him with the club through the 2023 season. He hit .312 last season in 152 games while filling in mainly in left field and third base. He finished second in the league with 46 doubles while adding in three triples, eleven home runs, and 76 RBI with 22 stolen bases. Diaz, to his credit, forced his way onto the Indians roster with an impressive spring as he slashed .458/.544/.708 over 20 games in Cactus League play after splitting last season between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus.
Francisco Lindor will look to make it two straight All-Star appearances while building off of a .301/.358/.435 season at the plate that made him a face of the franchise. He was a regular in the Tribe lineup, missing just three games over the course of the season. In his first full season in the big leagues, he had 182 hits (30 doubles, three triples, 15 homers) and drove in 78 runs and stole 19 bases while working as the team’s number three hitter. He struggled some in the spring, hitting .229 with two doubles, a homer, and four RBI in eleven games. His more encouraging numbers of the spring came in his seven games in the World Baseball Classic while playing for the Puerto Rican team. He hit .370 with a .419 on-base percentage and .630 slugging percentage with a double, two homers, and four runs batted in
Michael Martinez beat out Erik Gonzalez for the bench role on the 25-man roster. Able to cover multiple infield and outfield positions, the 34-year-old could also help ease the loss of Kipnis by filling in frequently around the diamond, but a crowded outfield should limit how much time he sees in the grass. Gonzalez performed well in the spring, hitting .308 with two doubles, a triple, two home runs, and eleven RBI, but struck out a lot and could benefit from consistent playing time every day as opposed to the as-needed appearances in the Indians lineup.
The addition of Edwin Encarnacion more than makes up for the loss of Mike Napoli in free agency. He will pair with Carlos Santana, coming off of a career year hitting first and fifth in the lineup, to give the Indians power-packed weapons at both first base and designated hitter. Encarnacion signed a three-year, $60 million deal with an option for 2020 and is coming off of another solid offensive season at the plate. He appeared in 160 games in his 12th big league season and hit .263 with a .357 OBP while supplying 34 doubles, 42 homers, and a league-leading 127 RBI. The name of the three-time All-Star can be placed in the fourth spot on the lineup card in ink. Santana put up similar numbers to Encarnacion’s, playing in 158 games while hitting .259 with a .366 OBP. He hit 31 doubles and set new career-highs with 34 homers and 87 RBI.
Encarnacion and Santana, who is in the final year of his contract with Cleveland, are expected to split time at the spots.
The outfield saw its biggest upgrade from within, as the team will get its former MVP candidate Michael Brantley back into the lineup and in his spot left field. His late spring return answered a significant question that the club had regarding its outfield makeup for the season after Rajai Davis left in free agency and Coco Crisp was not re-signed.
Tyler Naquin is back to man center field, but will need to show that he can adapt back to the league’s pitchers after their adjustments caused him issues late last season. He finished the season with a surprising .296 average with 43 RBI from the bottom of the lineup, but averaged nearly a strikeout per game and hit 51 points lower against left-handers.
Lonnie Chisenhall will start the season on the 10-day disabled list, but is expected to be back in the lineup and in right field by the time the team comes home next week for its home opening series with the Chicago White Sox. He worked in 126 games in a platoon role last season, hitting .286.
Brandon Guyer (the human piñata), Austin Jackson, and Abraham Almonte can all spell relief in the outfield and could see time at multiple spots. When Chisenhall is activated in a week, it could mean a trip down I-71 for the switch-hitting Almonte, who hit .352 in the spring with four doubles, three homers, and 12 RBI in 21 games.
The right-handed hitting Guyer is thought to be a platoon partner with Chisenhall in right, but saw a lot of time in left field for Cleveland after coming over in a trade with Tampa Bay last season and could give Brantley some needed days off, especially in the early going. Jackson signed a minor league deal with the club and made the roster, earning a $1.5 million salary for the season with addition incentives possible. He hit .333 in an injury-shortened spring, making into 13 games while hitting six doubles and a homer with eight runs batted in.
What happened last season for the Indians is now in the past. They are now the hunted and the slate has been wiped clean. The club will have to go out and repeat its dominance in the AL Central and show the world that it is playoff worthy once again. The Indians are constructed for success, both short and long term, but they will need to avoid the injury bug that has already been biting at the roster throughout the spring. Inning limits and tighter pitch counts may be a reality at times for the rotation and a more balanced blend of relief work to ease the burden on the bullpen could come into play, with a likely revolving door utilized for the seventh spot on the relief staff. The offense could be better than that of a year ago, but there will be a drop off in manufactured runs coming from fewer stolen bases. A full season of Miller in the bullpen is scary and Allen is one of the more underrated closers in the game.
Spring has sprung and baseball is back, which means at least six more months of fun in the sun to come. There will be plenty of excitement all year long in one of the most anticipated seasons in recent history as the Indians look to get back to the postseason and bring the city of Cleveland another championship parade, one that would be even more fulfilling when knowing it could spell the end of 69 long years of suffering on the shores of Lake Erie.
Photo: Elsa/Getty Images