2017 MLB Preview: AL Central- Cleveland Indians
Manager: Terry Francona
2016 Record: 94-67
After a heartbreaking World Series loss last season, the Indians enter 2017 with a roster even more promising than the one that won them a pennant last season. Their most notable move of the offseason adds a significant amount of pop to their lineup, bringing in the 34-year-old slugger Edwin Encarnacion on a three-year deal. Encarnacion tied his career high in home runs last season with 42 long balls, and led the American League with 127 RBI’s. The Indians got great production out of Mike Napoli at DH last year, but Encarnacion is a significant upgrade as one of the premier power-hitters in the game.
He will hit behind their star shortstop Fransisco Lindor, who at just 23 years of age has established himself as the top shortstop in the American League. Lindor checked off all the categories of being a five-tool player last season, hitting .301 with 15 home runs and 19 stolen bases. He would also win the AL Platinum Glove award for his play at shortstop. Second baseman Jason Kipnis will join Lindor in the middle of the infield, coming off a .275 season where he topped a career high with 23 home runs. Kipnis however will be out for opening day as he deals with a shoulder injury, which could be a lingering issue as the season goes on.
Michael Brantley missed all of last season with a similar shoulder injury, but is expected to be ready for opening day. People forget just how good Brantley was for the Indians before his injury, with his best season coming in 2014 where he hit .327 with 20 HR and 97 RBI’s. He would go on to have similar success in 2015, which makes it hard to believe that the 29-year-old won’t return to form once fully healthy. Brantley’s injury gave Jose Ramirez and opportunity to play everyday last season, and boy did he capitalize on it. While many were ready to label Ramirez as a bust after a dismal 2015 season, Ramirez would go on to hit .312 with 11 HR and 76 RBI’s, splitting time between third base and left field. Ramirez will be their everyday third baseman, but still has the defensive versatility to play just about anywhere on the diamond.
Tyler Naquin was another pleasant surprise for the Indians last season, hitting .296 with 14 HR in 321 at bats after surpassing veteran Rajaj Davis on the depth chart. He would finish third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, which has the Indians excited about what numbers the 25-year-old could put up over the course of a full season. Meanwhile in left field, Lonnie Chisenhall will open the season in a platoon role with the right-handed hitting Brandon Guyer. This is an ideal situation for the left-handed hitting Chisenhall, who hit .295 in 339 at bats against lefties last season.
Carlos Santana had a career year last season, setting career highs in home runs (34) and RBI’s (87). Santana also proved to be somewhat of a versatile player, spending a good chunk of the season hitting leadoff and even starting a game in left field in the World Series. His days at catcher are over however, as the Indians still view Yan Gomes as their everyday catcher despite his struggles with injuries over the past two seasons. Gomes appeared in just 74 games last season, and even when he was healthy he posted a horrendous .167 batting average. Still 29 years old, the Indians are hoping that a healthy Gomes could return to the power-hitting catcher that earned him a Silver Slugger award in 2014. If his struggles continue, the Indians will likely give backup catcher Roberto Perez more starts at catcher. While Perez doesn’t offer much offensively, he is much better than Gomes defensively.
The Indians rotation is just as strong as their lineup, led by one of the top starting pitchers in the game in Corey Kluber. Kluber continued his dominance in 2016, going 18-9 with a 3.14 ERA and 227 strikeouts while finishing third in the AL Cy Young award voting. Still just 30 years old, there’s no reason to believe that Kluber won’t remain in the Cy Young conversation this season.
It’s scary to think that the Indians nearly won a championship without two of their top young starters, with Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar both injured for the majority of their World Series run. Carrasco wouldn’t make a single postseason appearance, who’s season was cut short in late-September after breaking his hand. Carrasco would still finish the season with an 11-8 record with a 3.38 ERA, yet concerns about his durability remain as the 29-year-old is dealing with elbow issues this spring. There are also durability concerns with the 27-year-old Salazar, who missed most of the second half last season with elbow inflammation. These arm issues would extend into the postseason, making just two appearances in the World Series as a reliever. Salazar was sharp when he was healthy however, posting an 11-6 record with a 3.87 ERA in 25 starts, while earning his first trip to the All Star game.
Trevor Bauer showed improvement last season, finishing with a winning record for the first time in his career while throwing for a career high 190 innings. The Indians still feel that the former top prospect can improve on his 4.26 ERA of last season, adding a split-finger fastball to his arsenal of pitches. Josh Tomlin should keep his job at the back of the rotation, who’s 13-9 record and 4.40 ERA last season is just about all you could expect from a number-five starter. If Tomlin’s numbers drop, the Indians may give 26-year-old Mike Clevinger another opportunity in the rotation, who they are not quite ready to give up on as a starter.
Cleveland’s bullpen will be among the best in baseball, led by arguably the best reliever in the game Andrew Miller. The Indians will continue to save Andrew Miller for crucial situations this season, as Cody Allen enters his fourth season as the team’s closer. Allen saved 32 games in the regular season and picked up six more saves in the postseason, finishing the year with an impressive 2.51 ERA over 68 innings.*
Bottom Line: Given the fact that several of Cleveland’s core players were injured during their postseason run last season, there’s little reason to believe that this team won’t return to the World Series.
*Stats and Info from Baseball Reference
-Featured Image from The Chattanooga Times