Posts By Craig Gifford
Over the last couple of years, the Cleveland Indians have done well in finding veteran free agents no one else wanted and watching them become diamonds in the rough, so to speak.
Dan Otero last year and Jeff Manship in 2015 were both free agent relievers the Tribe was able to bring to spring training on minor league contracts. Both had histories of past success but were trying to rejuvenate careers that had fallen off in the seasons before joining the Indians.
Both veteran relievers proved to be strong contributors to Cleveland’s bullpen. Manship spent two seasons with the Indians before being casualty of management deciding not to make him an arbitration offer this past winter. Part of the reason was the emergence last year of Otero, giving Cleveland a deep bullpen without Manship. Both hurlers were important parts of an Indians club that went to the 2016 World Series.
The concept of the World Baseball Classic is a good one. The execution of when it is played out could use some work.
Spring training is supposed to be an important time for baseball teams to gel together, get to know each other, learn how to play with and integrate new teammates, and get ready for the long grind of a 162-game regular season schedule to come in less than two months.
Every four years, the WBC robs teams and their players of that important time. Not only that, but it puts key members of a regular Major League Baseball roster at unnecessary risk of a preseason injury.
Pitchers and catchers are set to report to Goodyear, Arizona, today for the start of Cleveland Indians’ spring training. It puts an end to the shortest offseason in team history and kick starts a year that is as filled with hope as any in nearly two decades.
After playing in a seven-game World Series that saw their season end in heartbreak on the second day of November, the Tribe is looking to get one more postseason win in 2017 than it did in 2016. Cleveland’s management did its part in the offseason to help the team improve.
When it comes to the Cleveland Indians and their pitching staff, there are few weaknesses to be found. After last season’s big trade-deadline of left-handed super reliever Andrew Miller, the only real issue that plagued the Tribe’s pitching staff was injuries and depth. Player-for-player, however, their rotation, plus bullpen, could match up with most in Major League Baseball.
There was one flaw, however. That was the likes of a trusted southpaw in the relief corps outside of Miller. Indians manager Terry Francona did not have a lefty he could trust as a situational pitcher against tough, left-handed hitters. With Miller being a setup man/closer, there was not another trusted left-hander to turn to in the middle innings.
Other than figuring out the first base/designated hitter situation, adding a solid lefty to the bullpen seemed like the next biggest need for the Tribe this offseason. In December, the Indians answered the first need with the signing of the slugging Edwin Encarnacion. He will replace the departing Mike Napoli as the Tribe’s main power source and cleanup hitter.
Rajai Davis and his 43 stolen bases have gone off to Oakland. Superstar left fielder Michael Brantley is not a 100 percent guarantee to rebound from multiple shoulder surgeries to regain his form that made him an MVP candidate in 2014.
Cleveland, looking to bolster its outfield depth, could end up with a major steal – pardon the pun – in this free agency class. Veteran outfielder Austin Jackson was inked to a minor league contract with an invite to spring training on Wednesday. If he can rebound from a knee injury that cost him the second half of the 2016 campaign with the White Sox, he will be a fine replacement for the 36-year-old Davis.
Jackson, who will turn 30 on Wednesday, does not steal quite as many bases as Davis, but has proven to be good for 20 or so per season throughout his seven-year career. He has exhibited a little more power and ability to get on base than the elder Davis. An ability to play all three outfield spots, as he showed in 2015, makes him a great fit in an outfield that will see a lot of platoon play, regardless of whether or not Brantley is fully healthy all year.
The latter half of the 1990s were certainly a fun time to be a baseball fan in Cleveland. The Indians were a consistent championship contender for eight straight seasons. The league had numerous players breaking records and doing things never before done. Baseball hit something of a peak, both nationally and locally during that time.
Now, fans are being reminded about all that was good during that period of baseball. Over the last few years, a number of players from that period have gained entrance into the hallowed halls of Cooperstown with enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame. This past Wednesday, Jeff Bagwell, Ivan Rodriguez, and Tim Raines were named the newest inductees. Bagwell and Rodriguez were at the tops of their games during the Tribe’s memorable run of success from 1994-2001. Raines’ best seasons came a little earlier.
Starting next year, Indians fans will really get to take a trip down memory lane as two of the team’s all-time greats will be eligible for induction alongside the best who have ever played the game.
Last season, Carlos Santana finally put on the power display that Indians fans had been expecting since his Major League debut in 2010.
As a catcher in the minor leagues, Santana had the kind of pop in his bat that most baseball pundits believed he would settle perfectly into the heart of an MLB batting order. While showing some power with the Indians, hitting 27 bombs in 2011 and 2014, he has never consistently been quite the middle-of-the-order hitter that the Tribe may have expected.
There have been numerous theories as to why Santana has not been able to maintain a consistent level when it comes to mashing the long ball. In five full seasons before his big burst of power in 2016, Santana hit more than 20 taters only those two times. He once hit exactly 20 and was at 18 and 19 the other two seasons. That 19-homer campaign came in 2015, right before he hammered a career-high 34 out of the park last summer.
The Indians are saying “goodbye” to a pair of popular veterans who played integral roles in helping the Tribe reach Game 7 of the the 2016 World Series. It was the first Fall Classic for the Tribe in 19 years. Gone are the power-hitting Mike Napoli and base-stealing Rajai Davis. Both veterans were signed to one-year deals before last season and both proved there was still a little something in the tank.
Napoli has yet to sign on the dotted line with another team. However, Cleveland’s big free-agent addition of first baseman/designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion means there is no room for Napoli. Encarnacion, who is a more consistent hitter over his career, is an upgrade there. The middle of the Tribe’s batting order got better on Thursday with the official announcement of the contract agreement.
Davis and his 43 stolen bases are also gone. The Indians did not sign an upgrade or a similar player as they did for the first base/DH job. Instead, the speedy 36-year-old shortstop inked a one-year, $6 million pact with the Oakland Athletics last week. Unlike Napoli and his power, it is unlikely the Tribe will reach outside the organization for a replacement to Davis’ feet.
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.