Dan Vermilya and Simon Gutierrez collaborated on this preview.

 

Associated Press

A Ben Zobrist double in the top of the 10th inning of Game 7 of the World Series paved the way for the passing down of a dubious distinction: the Cleveland Indians had taken over for the Chicago Cubs, the very team that just edged them out, as the MLB franchise with the longest World Series Championship drought.

If you believe the electronic pages of Cleveland.com, the 2017 Indians defied expectations, picked by most bloggers and “experts” to finish behind the Royals in the AL Central, although it’s worth noting that FanGraphs projected the Tribe to win the division.

Indeed, Cleveland won the AL Central handily, finishing 94-67, and eight games ahead of the second place Tigers. The team finished second in the AL to the Red Sox with 27.4 cumulative offensive/defensive WAR, to go along with a .262/.329/.430 team slash line. The team leaned heavily on good base running, defense, and pitching, finishing 2nd in the AL in team ERA (3.86) and FIP (3.91).

The fact that the team came a small series of events short of a championship in 2016 suggests similar success for 2017, given that the team is almost identical to last year’s squad, with the exception that two of its best pitchers, conspicuously absent from the World Series, are expected to be healthy.

Let’s take a look at this year’s team…

 

The Offense:

Cleveland’s offense surprised many in 2016, ranking second only to the Red Sox in the American League with 777 runs scored. They accomplished this feat without arguably their best hitter in former All-Star Michael Brantley, who only had 43 plate appearances. Certainly, a lot will be riding on the health of Brantley in 2017. The jury is still out on whether Dr. Smooth can return to his All-Star caliber, MVP vote getting form of 2014, but the Indians would likely take even half of that if they could get it. If PECOTA is right in projecting Brantley to be at around 2.4 WAR, having him back in the lineup will certainly give Cleveland’s offense a major boost in 2017.

But where will Brantley hit? Will he have any extra help in his injury comeback season? Ever since the days of Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez, Indians fans have been clamoring for the team to acquire a right handed power bat. Sure, sure, Clevelanders have had the chance to watch future Hall of Famer Jim Thome, as well as the slugging prowess of that guy they called Pronk—Travis Hafner—but still fans have been yearning for power from the right-hand side of the plate. Last year, the stars aligned, and the veteran Mike Napoli brought 34 home runs on a one-year deal. Unfortunately, Napoli’s bat all but disappeared down the home stretch, turning in an abysmal month of September and having little impact during the postseason run, hitting .173 with a .571 OPS in 52 plate appearances in October.

While Napoli had a tremendous clubhouse presence, his age, high strikeouts, and subpar defense meant that the Indians were interested in seeing what other options were out there on the open market. The team had discussions with Napoli, but, fearing the price was too high, paid keen attention to the developing First Base/DH market, especially the most prized bat of the winter, Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion. When the demand for Encarnacion dipped—he turned down a four-year, $80 million offer from Toronto, which ended up being the best offer he received—Tribe president Chris Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff were ready to pounce, offering three years and $60 million to reel in arguably the biggest free agent acquisition in franchise history.

Encarnacion’s numbers over past five years are nothing short of stunning. He has averaged over 38 home runs a year, with a total WAR of 21. The biggest upside to Encarnacion might be his dramatically lower strikeout rate as compared to Napoli. While Napoli set a franchise record with 194 Ks last season, Encarnacion strayed over the 100 K mark for just the first time of his career with 138. 2016 was an outlier compared to Encarnacion’s career numbers, and PECOTA projects him to rein them back below 100 in 2017. With Edwin penciled in at cleanup, hitting behind Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor, he should have plenty of opportunities to earn his new paycheck and improve the Tribe’s prolific offense.

Encarnacion’s presence might be helpful in other ways for Cleveland too, especially for another Dominican born slugger who will now be his teammate. Carlos Santana is back on a $12 million club option this year, possibly his final with the club. Cleveland fans have had a love-hate relationship with Santana for years. Not everyone can appreciate the finer points of having an excellent walk rate and OBP, even if Santana’s bat did not always deliver the power so many hoped it would. 2016 changed that, with Carlos tying Napoli for the club lead in 34 home runs. He also struck out almost 100 times fewer than Napoli. Now in his walk year, and with a fellow Dominican masher to help carry the weight of the club’s power production, Santana should be poised for a big 2017, with PECOTA projecting him to hit 26 home runs and put up 2.7 WAR. If Terry Francona continues to bat him leadoff, Santana should do well for setting the table for what could be one of the more prolific offenses in the league once again.

One big question for the 2017 offense is whether it can replicate the club’s excellent base running from 2016. Rajai Davis led the American League with 43 steals, being a major contributor to the Tribe’s well executed running attack on the bases. The next closest were Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, with 22 and 19 stolen bases respectively. Ramirez looks to be the best base runner on the 2017 squad, with FanGraphs projecting him at a 2.2 BsR (he had 8.8 last season), but that is still a long way off of the 10 BsR Davis had in 2016 (he is forecasted at 1.8 this year). The Tribe will likely have to look for marked improvement from others such as Lindor, Tyler Naquin, and Brantley to make up for the loss of Davis.

Based on the prospect of Brantley returning to full health, the addition of Encarnacion, as well as Francona’s typical lineup in 2016, this is how the Indians order projects for 2017:

  1. Carlos Santana
  2. Jason Kipnis
  3. Francisco Lindor
  4. Edwin Encarnacion
  5. Michael Brantley
  6. Jose Ramirez
  7. Lonnie Chisenhall/ Brandon Guyer
  8. Yan Gomes/ Roberto Perez
  9. Tyler Naquin

No doubt Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, and Jose Ramirez will continue to play a key role in the Tribe’s defense of its AL Pennant. PECOTA has them at 796 runs, giving them the highest production in all of baseball.

 

The Rotation:

The Indians had the luxury of leaning on one of the league’s best pitchers at the top of their rotation, riding Corey Kluber hard throughout the postseason. Kluber finished the year with a 3.14 ERA/3.26 FIP, starting 32 games, logging 215 innings, and racking up 5.2 WAR. Behind him, Carlos Carrasco put together an impressive 3.32 ERA/3.72 FIP, with 9.23 K/9 and only 2.09 BB/9 over 25 starts, before getting hurt and missing the playoffs. Danny Salazar was also impressive over 25 starts, with a 3.87 ERA/3.74 FIP and an impressive 10.55 K/9, but he also got hurt down the stretch.

The injuries to Carrasco and Salazar forced the Indians to elevate Trevor Bauer (4.30/4.02) to its #2 starter, and Joshn Tomlin to #3 starter, despite his pedestrian 4.42 ERA/4.90 FIP. This, in turn, forced them to rely on the likes of Cody Anderson, Ryan Merritt, Zach McAllister, and Mike Clevinger to round out the rotation toward the end of the year. That quorum of underachievers combined for 22 lackluster starts, most of which could be charitably described as dumpster fires.

Heading into 2017, the team is looking forward to a healthy top of the rotation, with Bauer slotted more appropriately in at #4, and Tomlin at #5, where we think most would agree the soft-tossing righty, who averaged 87.5 mph on his fastball, belongs.

One thing to consider this year is Kluber’s heavy usage in the playoffs, and World Series in particular. Kluber pitched twice on short rest, starting games 1, 4, and 5, and the extra mileage on his arm has to be considered when you establish expectations for 2017. Terry Francona has already indicated Kluber will be brought along slowly, even possibly not making the team’s Opening Day start. There’s only so much you can do after the fact to preserve a pitcher’s arm, though, so there has to be some serious consideration given to the possibility Kluber could miss some time this year.

As for what we can expect performance-wise, the ZiPS projection system developed by Dan Szymborski is surprisingly bullish on the entire rotation, with each and every starter projected to take a slight step forward. Carrasco and Salazar, in particular, are poised to improve to 3.30 ERA/3.15 FIP and 3.51/3.54 respectively, with similar strikeout and walk numbers numbers. That’s pretty optimistic, bordering on unrealistic, if you ask us, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see someone, Tomlin, in particular, taking a step back.

In the event of an injury to someone like Kluber, the Indians have some depth at the back of the rotation in McAllister, Anderson, and Clevinger. Clevinger is arguably the most interesting of the three, given his average fastball velocity of 93.4, touching 95 on occasion. He’s 6’4”, and was one of the Indians’ Minor League Players of the Year. In ten starts, he put together only one of which you might consider impressive, giving up one run over 5.1 innings. His 5.26 ERA/4.86 FIP raise eyebrows only for the wrong reason, but there’s some physicality to dream on with him, and the chance he makes some positive adjustments. FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris thinks he needs a new pitch, considering he put up a 10.90 FIP the third time through opponents’ batting orders.

Overall, the Indians’ rotation looks to be quite formidable, with the biggest question again being health. If everything goes right, which it rarely does, the club has four, if not five, legitimate major league starters, three of whom have top-of-the-rotation stuff. Not a bad place to be heading into 2017.

 

The Bullpen:

And what of the Tribe bullpen, which carried the team on its back all the way to Game 7 last fall? The Indians are returning the key pieces of this unit as well, with Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, and Dan Otero all looking to continue their success this season. Francona cycled through seemingly countless options last year looking for a solid left hander to complement Allen, Shaw and Otero, a search that only ended with the arrival of Norse god Andrew Miller via trade, turning what was already a solid bullpen into arguably the team’s biggest strength. When injuries to Carrasco and Salazar hampered the rotation for the playoffs, Francona relied heavily upon his bullpen arms, using built in days off to help them shoulder the heavy burden of innings. While there is some concern about the lingering affect that last fall’s heavy usage can have on the 2017 group, Francona and Mickey Calloway are reportedly addressing those worries by holding back Allen and Shaw in camp. Because Miller is participating in the World Baseball Classic for Jim Leyland and Team USA, Francona and Calloway will have to use extra caution in preparing their strong lefty for 2017.

The good news here is that, just as they added a shiny new free agent piece to fix the biggest hole in their lineup, the Indians front office delivered for the bullpen as well, adding lefty Boone Logan on a one-year deal worth $6.5 million, with a 2018 option. This move is significant in a number of ways. It gives the ‘pen more certainty, adding in a solid, proven left-handed matchup pitcher with great numbers. Over the past three years, Logan’s ERA dropped from near 7 to 3.69, he has had at least 11 K/9, and his WAR has risen steady, reaching 1.3 last year. Certainly, being used increasingly against left-handers has helped his numbers, and the good news here is that is almost guaranteed to continue. Francona will undoubtedly use Logan primarily against lefties, saving Miller to be his bullpen’s secret high leverage weapon, similar to how he was used in the postseason. At least that’s the working theory. Logan both absorbs extra work that could have fallen on Miller and gives Francona greater flexibility, making him a key under the radar addition for the Tribe’s bullpen.

As for the closer role, Terry Francona has already made clear this spring that Cody Allen would return to serve in that capacity. While Andrew Miller gained the accolades, fame, and attention last year, the team also relied on Allen being able to slam the door in the 9th inning. Allen’s presence is sometimes lost in the discussions of Francona’s bullpen usage, but he was also a key contributor to the Tribe’s success. The only hope for the relievers is that, just as with the starters, the heavy innings from last fall don’t linger and have a negative effect. Injuries could quickly derail this unit, forcing Francona to deviate from his intended plans and rely on a bevy of AAA starters and peripheral relieves to piece together his bullpen.

The Tribe’s bullpen will likely look like this:

Cody Allen
Bryan Shaw
Andrew Miller
Dan Otero
Boone Logan
Zach McAllister

With Francona sure to add at least one or two more relievers to this group, this last bullpen opening is one of the only roster spots up for grabs in camp. Among the contenders are Shawn Armstrong, Perci Garner, Kyle Crockett (unlikely, as he is another lefty), or one of a number of non-roster invites to camp. Francona used a variety of AAA starters to add to the bullpen last year, including Mike Clevinger and Cody Anderson, but the team is having them focus on lengthening out as starters again this spring. It won’t be until late March that clarity will emerge on who the final piece to the bullpen puzzle will be.

FanGraphs projects a 5.5 WAR out of this bullpen group, while BP has them at 4.4 WAR. Either way, Francona has the tools to continue revolutionizing how bullpens are used in 2017, building off the success both he and his arsenal of arms enjoyed last fall. Given his penchant for going to the pen—over 500 pitching changes in three of his four years in Cleveland—Francona will certainly have the tools to continue mixing and matching his way to success in trying to get back to the World Series in 2017.

 

The Defense:

Defensively, the Indians ranked 6th in the AL with 17 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), and 2nd in Ultimate Zone Rating, with a 35.6 UZR.  Sure, there’s some hemming and hawing still about defensive metrics, but just the naked eye will tell you the club has a premium defender in Francisco Lindor at shortsop, and a couple above-average fielders in Jason Kipnis, Brandon Guyer, and the surprising Tyler Naquin, who manned a competent center field for the team last year. Statistically, Lindor really sticks out, with 17 DRS, and a +20.8 UZR, both easily the highest on the team.  Kipnis posted 4 DRS, with a 7.3 UZR.  After that, things get a little murky, but Jose Ramirez looked average or better, and even Lonnie Chisenhall, a converted third baseman, looked to be capable in right field. Michael Brantley is currently penciled in as the starting Left Fielder, and he’s been average or better there in the past. There’s a non-zero chance he won’t be ready to start the season, which would likely mean more playing time for Guyer, which, defensively, isn’t a bad thing.

Behind the plate, the team turned to a trio of catchers, who split time pretty much equally between them.  In terms of catcher framing, Roberto Perez stood out among his peers, with 8.9 runs above average, according to Matthew Carruth’s StatCorner, which tracks annual framing numbers. Chris Gimenez came in just on the positive side of the spectrum, with 1.2 RAA, and Yan Gomes just the opposite, at -1.7.

 

The Farm:

If there’s any setback with Michael Brantley, or an injury to the likes of a Lonnie Chisenhall or Tyler Naquin, there’s help just about ready to join the club, in Bradley Zimmer, ranked 22nd on mlb.com’s list of top 100 prospects. Zimmer stands 6’5”, weighs in at 220 lbs, and hit .250/.365/.425 at AA and AAA last year, though he did most of his damage at the lower level. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen hangs a 50 Future Value score on him, but Jim Callis and his crew at mlb.com are more optimistic, pegging him as a 55 FV, seeing Zimmer as a potential top-of-the-order hitter, with 20-20 potential. Despite his considerable size, he grades out well as a fielder, and is considered, at least by some, as a future center-fielder.

After Zimmer, the Tribe has Brady Aiken in High-A, who grades out (according to mlb.com) as having a 65 fastball, 60 curve, and 60 change, with 55 control. Aiken, who was drafted #1 overall by the Astros in 2014 until a puny UCL torpedoed the deal, had to have Tommy John surgery to repair the defect, and was picked up #17 overall by the Indians. He’s pitched to a 5.90 ERA/6.11 FIP thus far in roughly 40 innings in the low minors, but enters the year healthy, and still with plenty of potential. Only 20 years old, he’s still a sparkle in the organization’s eye at this point.

A rising prospect, meanwhile, is Francisco Mejia, a catcher with a 70-grade arm and 55 hit tool who hit . 342/.382/.514 in 407 AB at Hi-A last year. He’s on the club’s 40-man roster, with an invite to Spring Training, and has shot up to #40 on mlb.com’s Top 100 prospect list. Logic would dictate the club will take their time to let Mejia develop, but if he tears up AA this year, there’s a non-zero chance he could see a September call-up, especially if management figures he could help the club win this year.

 

The Outlook:

The 2017 Indians are well-positioned to repeat, or come close to repeating their performance in 2016. Essentially all the pieces that got them to the World Series are still in place, with the addition of a legitimate masher in Edwin Encarnacion, who offers a heretofore unprecedented (recently, at least) threat in the middle of the order. That said, a lot of things went right last year, especially given the injuries to some of their top arms, and it stands to reason the team benefitted from some good fortune and timing. There’s also the wear-and-tear on Corey Kluber to consider, and the unknown consequences that might have. Still, the Indians have a solid, young core, and relatively few weaknesses. We like them to contend again this year.

Prediction: 93 wins and the AL Central crown.

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