In 2016, there were two distinct versions of Cleveland starting pitcher Danny Salazar. This year’s Indians need the one that pitched in the first half of last season in order to get their season going in the right direction and accomplish their mission of the ball club’s first World Series title in 69 years.
Salazar’s 2016 campaign, his fourth in the big leagues, got off to such a good start that he was named to his first All-Star squad. Soreness in his right forearm forced him to be spectator for the festivities in San Diego rather than a participant. That is really where his second half troubles began.
Before the Mid-Summer Classic, Salazar was brilliant, enjoying a breakout season. He had shown promise, with good numbers as a rookie in 2013 and then a promising 2015 campaign. However, he was hitting a special kind of level in helping the Indians be the surprise of baseball at the annual summer break.
A season ago, the Cleveland Indians made a habit of winning games late and in their last at bat. They had 11 walk-off victories. Wins of that variety can be both very stressful and very exciting for the fans. They can be galvanizing for a baseball team.
Winning in a late fashion can pump life into a ball club that a blowout win just can not. You do not see postgame Gatorade baths or pies in the face – though those are now banned – for players who hit a home run in the middle frames of a 9-2 victory, for example. However, hit an eighth- or ninth-inning bomb or get a big RBI in the final couple stanzas and the postgame celebration has some sizzle and entertainment.
In 2016, the Indians got to within one win of the World Series. They were known for being a tight-knit group that had each other’s backs. When the going got tough late, the Tribe really got going and was at its best. Late inning comeback wins seemed to forge a bond and a resiliency with the unit that nothing could break the squad.
Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber has spent his career proving doubters wrong. So, why should this season be any different?
First, he had to prove that he could be a consistently effective Major League pitcher. Tabbed as a fourth round draft pick in 2007 by the San Diego Padres, Kluber was merely decent, at best, in their minor league system and then in the Tribe’s farm system after his 2010 trade to Cleveland.
When the Padres traded Kluber three years after drafting him, he had to prove to the Indians that he was worth receiving in a three-team deal that saw the Tribe send dependable veteran starter Jake Westbrook to St. Louis.
There has not been a lot of good news for Michael Brantley and his injured right shoulder since a fateful, late-season attempt to dive for a ball at Target Field on September 22, 2015. Since then, he has undergone two surgeries, multiple setbacks and appeared in just 13 games. Things seem to be headed in a better direction for Brantley these days, however.
Two of those 13 contests he has played in since the initial shoulder woes began came at the end of the 2015 campaign. He missed 10 of the final 12 games that season. Last year, a comeback attempt lasted but 11 games as the one-time All-Star and MVP candidate could not get his ailing shoulder to a point where there was not pain when he swung the bat.
His 2016 numbers – 43 plate appearances, nine hits, two doubles and seven RBI – were more a tease for Tribe fans than anything else. It was a window view of the player the Indians missed during an otherwise unforgettable year that saw the club get so agonizingly close to its first World Series title since 1948.
The Cleveland Indians are going to need one extra outfielder and perhaps two when the regular season starts in April.
Right field is the only spot among the three positions currently fully settled. Lonnie Chisenhall will roam the spot when the opposition sends a right-hander to the mound, while it will be Brandon Guyer who will take over against an opposing lefty. That outfield position is known and well-manned.
The other two spots in the Tribe outfield have question marks. Tyler Naquin, who finished third in last year’s American League Rookie of the Year balloting, has done nothing this spring to suggest he is in danger of losing his spot in center field. However, he mostly plays against right-handed pitchers and was used in a platoon last year. His platoon partner was Rajai Davis, who is now gone to the Oakland Athletics. There is a door open there.
The word “platoon” can sometimes be a red flag word when referring to a player. A manager can oftentimes see that word as a burden. However, when it comes to the Cleveland Indians right field situation, it is more the term for something of a perfect marriage.
On August , last season, Brandon Guyer and Lonnie Chisenhall became joined at the hip as the co-right fielders for the Tribe. Alone, each has a fatal flaw. Together, they form something of the perfect right fielder for Indians manager Terry Francona to trot out to the position each day.
Chisenhall, a left-handed hitter, has been with the Tribe organization since he was tabbed as a highly-touted 19-year-old prospect in the first round of the 2008 amateur draft. He started as a third baseman, where he could barely cut it in the field. Late in 2015, the Indians converted Chisenhall to right field, where he has seemingly found a comfort zone. He’s not the most graceful of athletes, but covers a lot of ground.
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.