A year after coming within a rain delay and a Jason Heyward motivational speech (price tag: $21 million) of winning the World Series, the Indians had a good 2017.  They: 1) set the record for the longest winning streak in AL history, 2) made fans debate what a tie really is, and then 3) lost to the Yankees in the ALDS after being up 2-0. The gang (minus Carlos Santana) is all back for another run.

The Stars:

The two biggest stars of the team, Corey Kluber and Francisco Lindor each continued to be their awesome selves. Kluber won the Cy Young award and Lindor merely posted another 5+ WAR/WARP season no matter which site’s metric you prefer to measure value by. There is no reason to expect anything different this year. Lindor is only 24 years old, so it’s possible that he finds the incremental improvements that typically comes as a player moves closer to their prime.

Kluber struck out 160 batters in the 17 starts he made over the last 3 months of the season, walking only 16 while giving up a .529 OPS against. For context, Pablo Sandoval managed a .632 OPS in 279 plate appearances last year, so to expect better from Kluber would be crazy.  However, a top-10 Cy Young finish is well within reasonable expectations.

In 2017, the second bananas to Lindor and Kluber emerged. Jose Ramirez emerged as one of the best all-around players in the AL last year, upping his wRC+ to 148 from 121 while splitting time between 2nd and 3rd and being at least average at both. He traded some grounders for flyballs last year (2% less grounders and 3.4% more flyballs) so if he can keep the gains, then he should be able to have another well above average season at the dish. Another top-3 MVP finish might be a little out of reach, but his performance will still be very valuable.

Carlos Carrasco had a phenomenal season as the number two in the rotation. He struck out batters at a rate of over 10 per 9 innings while logging 200 innings for the first time ever. Carrasco having another fine season would really help the Indians go deep into the postseason. He did triple his infield fly ball rate from 2016, so that should drop as it was a career high 10.1% last year, but considering he struck out 226 batters, he has a larger margin for error than most pitchers.

Cody Allen and Andrew Miller are one of the best relief duos in the game. Individually, they are two of the best relievers in the league. But by being in the same bullpen, Miller has taken a setup role, pitching in the 7th almost as much as the 8th. Manager Terry Francona has the best of both the analytical and traditional worlds. Miller is the fireman and faces the middle of the order whenever it comes up in the late innings, while Allen comes in for the 9th and closes it out. Miller and Allen are both free agents after 2018, but for this year at least the duo will help the Indians bullpen be among the best in MLB.

Key Supporting Cast:

For the Indians to surpass the heights of 2016, they’re going to need two of their veteran position players to return to something close to their previous bests.  Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley both have been above average players in the past and both had injuries last year. Michael Brantley continued the bad injury luck that also took away most of his 2016, playing in only 90 games and undergoing ankle surgery this offseason. He won’t be ready for Opening Day most likely, but with an easy division, the focus is on getting him healthy for a postseason run. For 87 of the 90 games Brantley appeared in last year, he hit 3rd, so Cleveland views him as someone they want to hit in the heart of the lineup. With their outfield the weak link of the roster, a healthy Brantley can go a long way towards bolstering that outfield.

Jason Kipnis missed time with a bad hamstring last year, and looked off when he did play due to missing almost all of spring training with a shoulder injury. He played in CF upon his return for the hamstring injury, and looked competent up the middle.  Having him at second allows Ramirez to play 3rd full time and gives the Indians a great infield, one that could rival the Astros. Having a healthy and productive Kipnis and Brantley will help the Indians lineup to be strong at the top and up the middle, a must for a championship contender.

The rest of the rotation for Cleveland is pretty good as well. Trevor Bauer continued his steady improvement last year, hitting the strikeout per inning mark for the first time ever. While he continues to underperform his FIP, he is still an outstanding option to have as a 3 or 4 in the rotation. Josh Tomlin doesn’t have the elite strikeout numbers, but he limited his walks to just 14 in 141 innings. A back end of the rotation guy who throws strikes and pounds the zone is a plus for any team to have.

Danny Salazar is the wild card in the rotation. He ended up making a couple of appearances out of the bullpen as Cleveland looked to find a way to deploy him in the postseason after a long DL stint for elbow inflammation. He will be deployed as a starter this year with his elbow troubles cleared up, as his ability to miss bats as a starter is an elite skill. If he can stay healthy and cut down his walks to 2015 levels, if not lower, then he can be a power arm in the rotation to join Kluber and Carassco.

Of the other relievers not named Miller and Allen, Dan Otero is a guy to watch. He received a two year deal this offseason as an 2nd time arbitration eligible player, showing what Cleveland thinks of him. As an extreme groundball pitcher, he has been worth 2 fWAR over the past 2 years.  In a league where power is very valuable, a guy like Otero who can get grounders is a very useful bullpen piece — a double play machine that can get out of jams.

As mentioned above, Carlos Santana was the major subtraction for the Indians this offseason. He signed in December with the Phillies for $60 million over 3 years, a contract that Cleveland just couldn’t match. So, they went out and came away with Yonder Alonso for a $16 million commitment over the next two years, with a 3rd-year vesting option. They didn’t have to replace Santana’s bat, as they signed Edwin Encarnacion last offseason for similar money to Santana, with an eye towards him replacing Santana when he left.

The Indians invested in Alonso and his power spike from the first half of last year. For $16 million over 2 years, this seems to be a good bet in that the downside is small compared to the upside. He did cool off over the second half, with a .790 OPS over the last 3 months after compiling a .943 OPS over the first half. Mitch Moreland produced a .769 OPS over the entire season last year, and he got a $13 million deal for 2 years this offseason. For only a little more, the Indians have a player with a higher offensive upside, exactly the kind of move a contender needs make.

In terms of prospects waiting in the minors that could help this year, the best option is Francisco Mejia, owner of a 50-game hitting streak in the minors. He got a taste of the majors last September, and will be called upon if an additional catcher is needed or if Roberto Perez and Yan Gomes can’t produce. He did take some reps at 3rd last year, but longer term he has more value as a catcher. Considering the championship or bust mentality of Cleveland this year, nothing is off the table.  If he can help the parent club, he will be with the parent club.  The only exception will be the beginning of the year, so Mejia’s service clock stays low.  Otherwise, the minor leaguers will help the parent club by bringing back major league talent at the deadline.

Overall Team Outlook:

The Indians are ready to compete for a title this year. This will be the last year of this edition of the team, as free agency and the team’s refusal/inability to have average-sized payroll means that hard decisions are coming, starting with the bullpen this upcoming offseason. With above-average players to supplement the superstars, and other players with a path towards better production, the Indians can surpass last year and get back to the World Series. With Houston, Boston and New York ensuring that the Indians will have two tough playoff series to get through the AL, nothing is guaranteed. Cleveland has the talent to win playoff games, a manager who can manage in the biggest moments, a front office that can make the right moves to get the right talent and a passionate fanbase that will make home playoff games loud.

While most projection systems have Houston as a better team, rightfully so, Cleveland has a chance to win more games considering that 3 of the other 4 teams in the AL Central will be below .500, and the Twins are a good, not great team. The Cleveland Indians will win 98 games this season, have the best record in the AL, and face the AL East team the emerges from the wild card game. That is what happened last year (minus the exact number of games won), but for Cleveland, this year mirroring last year until game 3 of the ALDS would be a great year. That has to make Corey Kluber excited.

 

Thanks to FanGraphs and Baseball Reference for the help in compiling the stats for this preview.

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