Pair of Old Hands Could Be Keys to Tribe’s 2018 Success

What if you were told the Cleveland Indians could add a pair of former two-time All-Stars to their lineup? Add to that statement that neither player had anything to do with the Tribe’s epic 22-game winning streak this past summer, one that helped launch the club to the best record in the American League. Also, add to that that neither player was much of a factor in a disappointing five-game ALDS defeat at the hands of the New York Yankees. Now what if you were told that the Indians would have to give up nothing to add the All-Star veterans to a lineup that neither was really much of a part of in the second half of 2017?

You would probably happily take this scenario, just before asking how the Indians could add two quality pieces to their everyday lineup without giving anything up. That part is simple. The two players are Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley.

With Carlos Santana now gone to Philadelphia, Brantley and Kipnis serve as the Indians’ longest-tenured players. They probably serve as two of the biggest keys to Cleveland’s hopes of winning a third straight American League Central Division title and, more importantly, getting back to the World Series for the first time in two years and winning it for the first time in 70 years.

Both Kipnis and Brantley had different 2017 campaigns. Brantley was an All-Star for the second time in his career, following a strong first half that served notice that he had put his 2016 shoulder issues behind him. Instead, a bum ankle wiped out nearly all of his August and September and then made him a shell of himself as a designated hitter in the ALDS when thrust into the lineup daily after Edwin Encarnacion‘s own ankle injury. Brantley did not have the sweet swing Tribe fans have become accustomed to from Dr. Smooth during the postseason, which may have very well been because he was essentially in spring training form after being out of action nearly two months and getting three at bats in the Tribe’s final two regular season contests.

When Brantley was playing early in the season, he was playing at the All-Star and MVP-caliber level  he was at in 2014 and 2015. He was limited to just 90 games thanks to the second half ankle woes. However, he hit .299 with nine home runs and 52 RBI. When healthy, he was still one of Cleveland’s best offensive players.

As for Kipnis, his entire season was muddled by injuries. He began the year on the disabled list with an injured shoulder. He had a pair of other DL stints due to a bad hamstring. All told, he played 90 games. He never was quite right at the plate, hitting a career worst .232. He hit 12 bombs and collected 35 RBI. The power was still there when he was able to get into the lineup, but his overall hitting was off.

Neither Kipnis or Brantley played a single game during the best run of success in franchise history and the second-best winning streak in the history of the sport. The club did not miss a beat, thanks to MVP-caliber seasons from Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor to go with the usually mashing from Encarnacion. Santana and Jay Bruce, a pair of solid power hitters, were key parts of the Indians’ 2017 success. Santana is gone and Bruce is likely to follow out the free agent doors. That makes rebounds from Brantley and Kipnis almost imperative. With two key pieces from last year’s team gone, the return to full form of two key pieces of Tribe teams in years past would be a huge boon to the Indians.

When going at their best, Brantley and Kipnis are All-Stars who can both hit for decent power, have good speed, and can both hit for high averages.

Kipnis is just a year removed from his best season in 2016 when he was a huge factor in the Tribe’s run to the World Series. He had career high of 23 homers to go with 82 RBI while hitting .275. He hit a career-best .303 in his 2015 All-Star campaign. He stole 30 bases while collecting a career-high 84 RBI in his 2013 All-Star season. That year was just one off his watershed stolen base mark of 31 in 2012. Clearly he is a strong presence in the Tribe lineup when healthy.

As for Brantley, he did well when he played this past season, after missing all but 11 games of the 2016 campaign. His biggest years were 2014 and 2015. The first of those he was third in the American League MVP voting when he hit 20 dingers, drove in 97 runs, scored 94 runs, stole 23 bases, and hit .327 (all were career-best numbers). He followed that up with a strong 2015, when he had 15 bombs, 84 RBI, and hit .310 in 19 fewer games than the season before. It was the end of that season when he injured his shoulder, setting in motion what became a frustrating year-and-a-half of surgeries and questions about whether he could ever again be the same player.

Brantley proved he could put the shoulder issues behind him. Now he needs to prove he can put October’s ankle surgery behind him as he hopes to get back in time for the start of the 2018 season. There are no such concerns with Kipnis. He should be a full go by mid-February when a new baseball calendar kicks off with spring training.

The return to form of both Kipnis and Brantley would certainly boost the Tribe’s chances to have another great regular season and sustained playoff run. Imagine the two of them at their peaks in lineup with Lindor, Ramirez, Encarnacion and the newly acquisition Yonder Alonso. Throw in Yan Gomes or Roberto Perez at catcher and the makings are still there for a potent lineup even with the free agent departures this winter.

Kipnis and Brantley have been teammates with the Indians since 2011. They are the Indians’ longest-tenured players, having seen the lean times of 2011 and 2012, the good times under Terry Francona from 2013-2017, and the great times of an October to remember in 2016. There is still work to do for this team to finally get over that last hurdle and hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy after a fourth World Series victory. It seems almost right for those hopes to rest largely on two of the club’s veteran leaders.

Photo: Ron Schwane/Getty Images

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