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.
The Indians, coming off of 94 victories and coming within one run of their first World Series crown since 1948, could have stood pat and brought back the same group of players. The team would have still been picked by most people to win a second straight American League Central Division title and go back to the playoffs. Cleveland’s deep thinkers, much to the delight of the team’s fans, were not satisfied with the status quo and went the route of upgrading.
Edwin Encarnacion and his powerful bat replace Mike Napoli‘s powerful bat. Encarnacion has a more consistent track record than the now former Indian and is a surer bet to help the Tribe maintain its strong lineup that finished fifth in the big leagues in runs in 2016.
The free agent addition of left-hander Boone Logan strengthens an already deep and strong bullpen. He gives the Indians the lefty specialist that they lacked last year.
Austin Jackson, if he rebounds from last season’s knee injury, gives the Tribe needed depth in the outfield. He is a veteran who can hit at a decent level and be a headache for opposing pitchers on the base paths. He is also a good insurance policy if star left fielder Michael Brantley continues to struggle with his return from a late-2015 shoulder injury that robbed him of nearly all of the 2016 campaign.
All told, the Indians upgraded a roster that went as far as it could go this past season without actually winning it all.
Hope always springs eternal during the February and March Cactus League portion of the Tribe’s baseball calendar. This year, it resonates quite a bit more. In 2015, there was hope, but it was false hope, when Sports Illustrated proclaimed the Indians as a championship contender in the publication’s preseason predictions. At that time, there was not a lot to go on. Cleveland had the hopes of a solid starting pitching rotation, but had only won 85 games in 2014, missing the playoffs. The majority of the players on that 2015 roster had but one game of postseason experience – the failed 2013 Wild Card showing – under their belts. The 2015 prediction was based more on possibility than on anything the team had previously done to prove it belonged in a championship conversation.
Now, when prognosticators forecast a deep run through October, it is a little easier to listen and digest. The Indians proved their mettle and talent last season. The club, in the four years under manager Terry Francona, has had a winning season in each. They have been the best team in the A.L., record-wise, since Tito took the helm. The Tribe is now chalk-full of veterans who have experienced winning and expect to get to the mountain-top again. The fans and the team have a real hope as camp opens this week and spring training games commence in two weeks.
It has been quite some time since Cleveland’s fans have been able to anticipate the start of baseball season with so much optimism. In 2008, the Indians were coming off a 2007 campaign that ended in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. Like this year’s squad, that team was just starting to grow together and gel. That is where the differences end. The 2008 Tribe was not coming off four straight winning seasons. The 2006 group finished six games below .500. That 2008 team was also on the verge of breaking up as Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia was entering his free agent year and there was little to no hope of the Indians retaining him. These Indians have almost all of their key players locked up for two-plus years and a window of three or four seasons of contention staring them in the face.
It goes all the way back to 2001 when there was anything resembling this much optimism the day pitchers and catchers reported for spring training. That would prove to be the final season of Cleveland’s run of sustained success that started in 1994 with the opening of Progressive Field, known as Jacobs Field at that time.
So, 16 years ago was the last time Indians fans truly felt good about their team breaking through to championship glory for the first time in decades. Hope has sprung eternal each year since, but never quite with feelings today’s start of spring training brings.
Today, walking into camp, are the likes of former A.L. Cy winner Corey Kluber, superstar reliever Andrew Miller, an amazing closer in Cody Allen, and a whole host of other amazing talents on the pitching staff that the Tribe hopes will help lead the team to the promised land.
In a city that has cried “wait til next year” quite often over the years, Indians fans cannot wait for THIS year. This season is as anticipated as any by the Tribe and its fans in a decade and a half. There is still more than a month until real baseball games are played. However, the arrival of pitchers and catchers is the first step toward the dawning of a new season – a season in which the Indians faithful can rightfully dream of cold October nights and warm wishes of the club’s first World Championship trophy in 69 years.
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