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.
The Indians are in something of an enviable position, as they do not need to do much else over the course of the offseason. Their everyday lineup is now in great shape. The starting five is all but set in stone and the top four or five bullpen spots are essentially declared. There is little room to add at this point. Still, there are some things that can be done.
Cleveland needs to add depth to its vaunted pitching staff. A lack of arms was the team’s eventual undoing in this year’s World Series. Injuries to Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and then Trevor Bauer proved to be too much despite the valiant efforts of Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen to pitch the Tribe to the cusp of a championship.
While the Indians will have all of their hurlers back by spring training, safe-guarding against another rash of injuries would be wise. That is especially so in a year that includes the World Baseball Classic. Played in March and taking players away from their teams in spring training, the WBC has caused injuries or ineffectiveness to some pitchers who ended up unprepared to start the Major League Baseball regular season. Former Tribe reliever Vinnie Pestano is an example of that.
At any rate, their are plenty of starters and relievers out there to be had on the open market. The Indians will need to see who is in their price range and is looking for a team come mid-to-late January when the push is on for a pitcher to be inked and ready for big league training camp to open in February. Someone like a Joba Chamberlain, Jake Peavy or Tim Lincecum – veterans looking to rebound their careers – come to mind here.
Speaking of price range, Cleveland’s is probably a lot lower now that Encarnacion is on board for roughly $20 million for the next three seasons guaranteed. Reports have the Tribe’s payroll set to be around $135 million for 2017. That is quite the hike for a team that is regularly in the $90 million range. The windfall from a trip to the World Series and expected spike in attendance this season is helping the bigger spending.
Where the Indians may need to open up the pocket book a little bit is in the outfield. Bringing on a back-of-the-pen reliever or veteran starting depth will not cost much. However, one more outfielder could and the Tribe could use one more veteran outfielder. On the surface, the Indians seem to be in good shape in the outfield. Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer should continue to form their strong right field platoon from the final two months of 2016 and postseason. Rookie of the Year finalist Tyler Naquin is in center field and the hopeful return of Michael Brantley should have left field set. Then there is Abraham Almonte, who was effective in the second half of this past season following an 80-game suspension for a performance-enhancing substance.
Despite the talent in the outfield, you get the feeling one more guy might be nice. Brantley missed nearly all of last year, struggling to return from a late-2015 shoulder injury. It remains to be seen if he can regain the form that made him an MVP candidate in 2014 and one of the team’s better hitters from 2012-2015. Naquin played in a platoon role last summer and it remains to be seen if he is ready to play every day.
While Napoli is going to be leaving town, one veteran player that it might be nice to see the Indians bring back is Rajai Davis. Davis led the Tribe with 43 stolen bases last year and can play all three outfield spots. He was the main complement to Naquin in center. However, he made $7 million last year and might have to come down a couple million to fit the Tribe’s budget. Now, reports indicate the Orioles may be interested in the 36-year-old speedster to help their anemic base-running game and perhaps help replace Mark Trumbo.
If Davis ends up pricing himself out of the Indians plans, the Tribe could always look at having veteran Coco Crisp return on a one-year pact. Even after he turned 37 on November 1, Crisp is still an effective player, perfect in a outfield platoon situation. The Indians snagged him from Oakland right before the close of the August waiver trade deadline. He was not great but was useful for Cleveland over the final month of the regular season and playoffs.
Christmas came early for the Indians and their fans with the big signing of Encarnacion. Now it is time for the stocking stuffers. Be it in the form of outfield or pitching depth, a veteran or two is likely to be added. It may not come exactly in time for the holidays. In fact, it may come more like a month or so from now. At any rate, there is more to round out a Tribe fan’s holiday wish list, even though most of it has already been checked twice and filled.
Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
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Bring back rajai!!