Heading into 2015, the Cleveland Indians were one of the most confusing teams for projection systems. The roster had a superstar level performer on either side of the ball in Michael Brantley and Corey Kluber, but with neither having much in the way of a major league track record, it remained to be seen if they were a solid core or one-year mirage. While Brantley came back down to Earth a bit — from MVP candidate to “just” a near all star — the offense was bolstered by a return to form of Jason Kipnis and the mid-season promotion of top prospect Francisco Lindor, which allowed them to overcome poor seasons in other areas to post a wRC+ that was exactly league average. Add in good base running and a greatly improved defense, and the Indians had one of the best set of field players in the AL.

The starting pitching had a similar story, with Kluber “falling” from winning the Cy Young in 2014 to a 9th place finish in 2015, but that was offset by improvements by Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar to remain one of the best units in the AL. So why did a team that appears so strong on paper struggle to finish over .500? The normal culprit and this site’s namesake, the bullpen, wasn’t to blame. Led by fireballers Cody Allen and Zach McCallister, the Indians pen posted the second best ERA and tied for best FIP in the AL last year. Bad luck in one run games also can’t be blamed, at least not entirely, as the club was just 3 games under .500 in those tilts at 15-18. A poor start dug a hole, due to the abysmal play of opening day starters Michael Bourn, Brandon Moss, Yan Gomes, and Jose Ramirez, but that was almost entirely gone by the end of May. It seems that the Indians were simply on the wrong end of the dice rolls that make up a baseball season.

Not only will the Indians hope to see a bounce back on the field, but they must do so under new stewardship. Gone is longtime general manager/team president Mark Shapiro, who left to become CEO/president of the Toronto Blue Jays. This transition will be somewhat lessened by the organization with promotions from within, moving GM Chris Antonetti into Shapiro’s vacant presidency, taking the “A” off of assistant GM Mike Chernoff’s title, and promoting director of baseball ops Derek Favely to AGM. With the trio having youth as their defining characteristic (Antonetti is the elder statesman at just 41), it seems likely that the Indians intend to further embrace an analytics focused approach that has come to dominate decision making in the industry.

CleRecordwRC+SP ERA-RP ERA-DRSUZRBsRPay – $M
2013.568 (8)104 (7)99 (13)91 (14)-38 (23)-43 (25)11 (6)93 (18)
2014.525 (25)100 (10)100 (15)82 (6)-66 (29)-72 (30)10 (5)86 (26)
2015.503 (15)99 (9)99 (10)78 (5)17 (6)21 (7)9 (6)77 (27)

 

On the field, the Indians will hope their up the middle core will continue to develop to make them contenders in the AL Central, though they added a pair of veterans to bolster that group. The gem of this double play combo is the aforementioned Lindor. He probably can’t repeat his offensive performance of 2015, having only hit for as much power in the offensively charge AFL, but he is a no shit defensive stud up the middle who can produce at a league average clip with the stick, which will likely be enough to garner all star consideration this year. Flipping to the keystone, Jason Kipnis saw his health improve in 2015, which allowed him to return to his normal standard of play. Kipnis doesn’t have any one standout offensive skill, but his above average ability to put the ball in play, draw walks, and hit for good power for a middle infielder allow him to be one of the best offensive players in the game at a premium spot.

The corners will be manned by a pair of offseason signings, Mike Napoli at first and Juan Uribe at the hot corner. Napoli had the worst year of his career by far in 2015, posting a wRC+ under 100 for the first time in his career. This despite the lowest strikeout numbers in years, though it seems his loss of power is causing pitchers to challenge him more than in recent years. Still, for 1 year and $7 million, he is a relatively cheap bet to regain his form. And even if he doesn’t, the Indians can always move Carlos Santana back to the field from DH. Uribe had a resurgence in 2013 and 2014 with the Dodgers, posting the two best offensive seasons of his career at 34 and 35, driven by a combination of increased power and some of the best BABIPs of his career. While the former remained, the latter fell greatly in 2015. Even more concerning, his typical stellar defense fell to basically league average as well by both UZR and DRS in 2015. All told, he still managed to be about league average by both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference WAR. Much like Napoli, he only needs to be about league average again to have value. But that is two premium offensive positions with players to watch in 2015.

Moving to the outfield, it seems keeping players on the field will be the main concern. Brantley is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and while reports indicate he is ahead of schedule on his rehab, a recent setback confirms he won’t make it back to the field by opening day. Starting RF Lonnie Chisenhall is also slated to start on the DL, due to a sore left wrist, though that doesn’t seem to be an issue that will plague him long term. Further, possible starting CF Abraham Almonte will miss the first half of the season due to a PED suspension. In their stead, the Indians will likely turn to veteran acquisitions Marlon Byrd and Rajai Davis in the corners and rookie Tyler Naquin in center. The former are purely stop gap measures; should Brantley miss an extended period, neither would constitute even an adequate replacement. Naquin, on the other hand, shows promise that may have pushed for a roster spot sooner rather than later even without the missing starters. The former first round pick was ranked 7th in the Indians farm system by ESPN’s Keith Law and 6th by Baseball America. Naquin projects to be a great defender at a premium spot with good bat to ball and on base skills. The defense alone will likely make him the best of the opening day OF, but should the offense be there he will likely continue patrolling center at Progressive Field even when Almonte returns.

Flipping to the other side of the squad, the Indians return one of the best rotations in the majors led by the former Cy Young winner Kluber. Kluber’s string of success was built on a great cutter/breaking ball combo that would work even if either was replaced with a league average offering. While Carrasco doesn’t own a single elite offering, he has a repertoire that is above average across the board. By keeping the batters from being able rest on a single pitch, Carrasco keeps hitters off balance well enough to have one of the better swinging strike rates in the league even without the benefit of an individually brilliant offering. Salazar on the other hand, has a wicked split-change that even allows him to dominate despite a lack of a consistent breaking ball. The back end features former top prospect Trevor Bauer, who despite never living up to his full potential, still has enough stuff to be a decent back end starter even with control problems. There’s also Josh Tomlin, a strike thrower who succeeds by making hitters earn every base. However, the most intriguing name is Cody Anderson. Anderson mostly was able to succeed last year through a great ability to generate pop-ups despite average stuff. He showed up to spring training with extra juice on his fastball, averaging over 96 mph in a start this spring training. His fastball clocked in at approx. 93 mph last year. Per the always hard working Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs, just 7 out of 2,538 pitchers who threw 10 innings as a starter in consecutive years were able to add 3 mph to their fastball, but 46 were able to maintain a 2 mph increase. So while this would be a rare occurrence, it is something to monitor in 2016 that might improve an already great rotation.

The bullpen is headlined by flame throwing closer Cody Allen. Always a great strikeout pitcher, he increased his K rate to be inside the top 10 of all of baseball in 2015, which was a major component of his league leading 1.82 FIP. While he probably won’t be able to repeat that level of play, expect him to stay among the best relievers in baseball. The main setup man is Zach McAllister, a mountain of a man who first started relieving in 2015. Never able to find consistent success as a starter, his fastball velocity increased greatly moving to the short burst of relief and an increased K rate followed. Next up is Bryan Shaw, who utilizes a good cutter to limit hard contact and overcome a middling K rate for a reliever. Also expect the loser among Bauer, Tomlin, and Anderson to move to the pen to until a 6th starter is needed.

All in all, Cleveland looks to be a strong squad in 2016. Assuming they aren’t bit by bad luck bug again, they will be in the thick of the AL Central race for the entire season. My guess: 90-72.

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