Posts By Craig Gifford
Nearly every baseball team that finds success in any given season can point to unexpected contributions from a player or two along the way. The Cleveland Indians had several of those during their 2016 run to Game 7 of the World Series.
Tyler Naquin and Jose Ramirez certainly fit that bill. However, both of those players are young and were hoped to eventually become solid Major League contributors at some point in their careers. It just happened that that point came this past season.
For last year’s Indians, the most unexpected important contributor to the success of the team was a guy who was on three rosters in a span of a month and a half.
Christmas came a little early this year for the Cleveland Indians and their fans. When the Tribe added free-agent power-hitting first baseman/designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion to the club on Thursday night, it was a huge boost to a team hoping to do just a little better than the 2016 squad that got to within one run of winning its first World Series crown since 1948.
Encarnacion, his 42 homers, and his league-leading 127 RBI will be a major presence in the middle of the Tribe’s batting order. He is an upgrade over the beloved and likely departing Mike Napoli, who helped steer Cleveland’s offense with 34 long balls and 101 RBI this past season. He is a major reason the Indians were playing October baseball. In the end, Encarnacion, who will turn 34 on January 7, has proven to be more consistent than Napoli over the years. He is more of a sure thing to continue his mashing ways than Nap, who had a career year in 2016 while Encarnacion’s numbers were about on par with his last half decade worth of work.
So, now that the Indians have their slugger for the middle of the lineup locked up for the next three seasons with a team option for a fourth, what could Tribe fans dream of next? While Cleveland’s roster as is is currently a title contender, there is more that can and probably will be done. Certainly there are some stocking stuffers that can be added to the team to help Tribe fans fill out their holiday wish lists.
A run to the World Series like the Indians had in 2016 will often raise the bar for a lot of the players on the roster. It will also transform a younger, inexperienced, untested squad into one that is a little older, a little wiser, and knows how to handle big games and big moments.
A season like 2016 will also go a long way toward creating strong leadership in a clubhouse. That was something the Tribe really did not seem to have much of before this past campaign. Now it may be there in abundance.
Since his first call up to Major League Baseball in 2011, Cleveland Indians right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall has been maddeningly inconsistent. It seems as though his career has gone through more stops and starts than city traffic with a street sign at every corner.
Before 2016, the former third baseman saw return trips to Triple-A Columbus in every season besides 2014. Even that campaign was headed towards a need for further minor league seasoning by the last day.
However, a longer-lasting light may have finally clicked on at the end of the 2015 campaign. Chisenhall started tasting MLB success after a year’s worth of struggling. He was in a prolonged slump that had begun in the second half of 2014. That was a season that saw him hitting a ridiculous .393 on June 11. After slogging through a forgettable final three months, he finished with a .280 batting average that season.
The Major League Baseball All-Star Game, a fun exhibition to get the sport’s best players on the field at the same time, will be just that once again. After 14 seasons of trying to give the Midsummer Classic a little extra meaning, the league’s powers that be finally restored it to what it should be.
The newest collective bargaining agreement, inked by the game’s owners and players union in the late hours of Wednesday night, wiped out the rule that home field advantage in the World Series would be decided by which side won the mid-July contest. It was a good move to go back to that all-important edge being decided in games that count and going to the team with the best record.
Granted, the now-vanquished award for winning the All-Star Game did help the Cleveland Indians this past year. The Chicago Cubs were far and away the best team in baseball during the regular season. They were the only club to hit the 100-win mark. However, because the American League squad won this season’s 87th All-Star Game, it was the Tribe that hosted four of the seven Fall Classic contests and had the chance to have the deciding Game 7 on familiar grounds. Even though that final game did not go the Indians’ way, playing a seventh game of a postseason series at home is always more of an advantage than hitting the road.
Fresh off an unexpected run to the World Series, the Cleveland Indians have finally seemed to have regained the good will and following of a fan base that seemed to have lost a lot of interest in the last decade.
Following a 2007 trip to the American League Championship Series, the Tribe was a hot team in town. However, Cleveland fell out of contention in 2008 and began selling off key players from that roster. That included trades in consecutive years of Cy Young Award winners C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee. The fans turned on management for jettisoning those loved athletes, along with catcher/designated hitter Victor Martinez. Attendance went into a nosedive as the Indians struggled from 2008-2012. Fans stayed away from the ballpark even as the Tribe turned in winning seasons from 2013-2016, which included a pair of postseason runs.
Finally, this year the Indians made the city of Cleveland take notice of its team that plays on the corner of Ontario and Carnegie. The club was fun to watch, with a lot of younger players. A deep and exciting run through the playoffs brought Indians and baseball fever to a degree not seen in Cleveland since the great run of the mid-to-late 1990s Tribe.
Major League Baseball closers do not fall off of trees. It is not easy to find a truly good one. The Indians have one and now they need to work toward keeping him around for the foreseeable future.
Unlike some teams who go through reliever after reliever in the hopes of finding one who can handle the duties and the pressure of closing a game out in the ninth inning, Cleveland has one of the best in those situations in Cody Allen.
The Cleveland Indians are more than likely going to consider locking up some more of the their young core players to long-term contracts this winter. It has been their business model, and a successful one at that, over the past few seasons.
Contract extensions to the likes of Jason Kipnis, Yan Gomes, Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco have been doled out in recent offseasons. Several more names could and should be high on the Tribe’s list of priorities for this winter.
One of those names that may be on the list of Cleveland’s management team is Carlos Santana. His $12 million club option for 2017 was just picked up. He is coming off of a big offensive season, is one of the longer-tenured members of the team, and will only be 31 years old for most of the coming season. The 2017 campaign marks the last one he is under contract for and is currently set to become a free agent following the season.
It has been said that before someone can walk, they first need to learn how to crawl. The Cleveland Indians had been doing that crawling part for the past few years. This year, they started to walk and quickly moved on to an all-out sprint.
The 2013 Tribe, the one that first made an impression on the city of Cleveland, managed to surprise the baseball world and earn a trip to the postseason as an American League Wild Card entrant. That was the beginning of the crawling state. A team that had started coming together in 2010 and took its lumps with several losing seasons under former manager Manny Acta had begun to inch back toward respectability under new manager Terry Francona.
What happened to the Tribe in that one-game postseason showing was a 4-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. For most of the players on that team, it was their first exposure to being on the national stage in an important, must-win game. Still, getting to that level was the beginning of what would happen with this year’s group that got all the way to Game 7 of the World Series.
The Cleveland Indians’ team approach and mentality has gotten the club to the World Series for the first time in 19 years. That win-as-a-team mentality is costly when it comes to arguably the most prestigious individual honor a player can win – the American League Most Valuable Player Award.
The Tribe will likely have top three finalists or winners of the other three major pieces of hardware that get handed out at the start of the offseason, honoring a player’s or coach’s regular season work. Terry Francona is a good bet to win the A.L. Manager of the Year, Tribe ace Corey Kluber has a decent shot at his second league Cy Young Award and outfielder Tyler Naquin is a likely top three contender for Rookie of the Year honors.
However, when it comes to A.L. MVP recognition, Cleveland does not seem to have a big enough dog in the race. The MVP winner usually comes from a playoff team and leads his league or is near the top of a couple of the major offensive categories. Another big thing MVP voters like to see is a player that carried a large burden and put his team on his back for much of the season in getting to the playoffs.
Terry Francona has received much deserved praise this postseason for the way he has masterfully guided the Indians, with an injury-depleted starting pitching rotation, all the way to the World Series.
In watching the drama and excitement that has been a strong, three-week playoff showing, it is easy to forget the energy and excitement the Tribe brought to the 162-game regular season. However, that is where Francona’s mastery truly began this year.
In skippering a team, with numerous key injuries, to a 94-win American League Central Division championship campaign, Cleveland’s bench boss proved to be quite a few steps above the rest of his managing brethren this year in the A.L. While it is stunning that the group of Indians managed to win seven of eight games in the playoffs to earn entry into this season’s World Series, which starts Tuesday, it would be even more stunning if Francona does not earn his second A.L. Manager of the Year Award.
In 2014, Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber went 18-9 with a 2.49 ERA and 269 strikeouts. Those numbers in what was his breakout season earned Kluber the American League Cy Young Award.
This year, Kluber toted the same exact 18-9 record in the regular season. His ERA was a little higher, at 3.14, yet still was among the best in the A.L. and he struck out 227 batters that he faced. He may have even won more games if not for exiting his final start early and missing his final turn in the rotation.
With comparable numbers to that 2014 campaign, it now remains to be seen if The Klubot can take home this season’s hardware as the league’s top pitcher again. There are some major differences between that magical year for Cleveland’s No. 1 starter and this year.