CLEVELAND INDIANS: 92-70 (Second Place in division, winner of 1st wildcard)
Projected Lineup/Batting Order:
CF Michael Bourn
1B Nick Swisher
2B Jason Kipnis
DH Carlos Santana
LF Michael Brantley
SS Asrubal Cabrera
RF David Murphy
C Yan Gomes
3B Lonnie Chisenall
Projected Starting Rotation/Key Bullpen Arms:
SP Justin Masterson
SP Danny Salazar
SP Corey Kluber
SP Zach McAllister
SP Trevor Bauer
RP Josh Outman
RP Brian Shaw
RP John Axford
The Indians had a magical season last year. Terry Francona led this franchise to an improbable run up the AL Central to finish in second place and take home the first wildcard slot. They hosted a playoff game at home against the Rays, but took a tough loss. Their storied run was incredible, but unlikely to be a repeat performance. The offense looks solid, but pitching was the Achilles heel of this team last year, and got nothing but weaker in the offseason. That may be their downfall.
The offense looks to be in good shape. Their best player is second baseman Jason Kipnis, one of the best young players at his position. He led the team with a 284 AVG and 84 RBI. He also added 17 HR, 86 R and a team high 30 SB. He got on base at a 366 clip and had an OPS over 800. He’s a 5-tool player who is the heart of this team. The offense runs through him and he will anchor the lineup, hitting third. The Indians hope he can be one of their top run producers and drive in the men at the top of their lineup, Michael Bourn and perhaps Nick Swisher. Bourn is the leadoff man, but only played in 130 games last year, due to injury. That also may have contributed to his down numbers. He hit 263 with only 23 SB and 75 R. He has been known to strike out and his OBP plummeted to 316. If healthy, expect to see him get back to 30+ SB and maybe 100 R. But the days of 120 R and 40 SB are likely gone as he gets older and runs less. I put Swisher in the number 2 hole, though they may drop him to 5th if his power is needed lower in the lineup. He hit 246 in 145 games with 22 HR and 63 RBI. He’s not an ideal middle of the lineup bat as he isn’t a superior run producer and his AVG isn’t what you’d want from a man hitting second. But he can do both well, and perhaps staying in one spot or the other will enable him to focus on getting on base, or hitting the ball over the fence. He’ll never hit 300 and he likely won’t get to 30 HR either. But a 260 season with 20+ would be a great help for Cleveland as his veteran leadership in the clubhouse is one of the main things the Indians wanted him for. The biggest bat in their lineup belongs to Carlos Santana (not the singer, but that’d be cool). He had a bit of a down year in the power department with only 20 HR. But he did raise the AVG to 268 with 74 RBI and 75 R. He got off to a blistering start, but wasn’t as hot at the end of the year. They need him to be a little more consistent, and wouldn’t mind an increase in the power department. He also volunteered to move to third base if that would help the Indians out. He started at third in the minors, but moved to catcher. He’s still a catcher, but does less of that to stay healthy. Many teams move their great hitting catchers to other positions so they can play more games (Bryce Harper, Joe Mauer, Mike Napoli). We’ll see how it works. He’s apparently getting better, but he likely won’t play there everyday. He also plays some first, giving Swisher time in right or at DH. If he can play the field occasionally or perhaps start games there before being replaced, that will keep him out from behind the plate, but not block the DH position. But playing third is a risk, one that I don’t understand them taking. They have 2 solid guys for third and obvious starting options at first and catcher. He could be the full time DH, like David Ortiz or Billy Butler. That’s what I would do, and I’m sure we’ll see a lot of that. The Indians also have Ryan Raburn on their bench. The super utility man played in 86 games last year hitting 272 with 16 HR and 55 RBI. He can play second, third and the corner outfield positions. He likely won’t spend time at DH, but he can spell Kipnis occasionally, play third when Santana or Chisenall need time off, and be back up for David Murphy, coming off a career worst season in Texas. Murphy has played well in the past however, so the Indians signed him to a make good contract for an amount of money that doesn’t put the Indians too much on the hook, but also was enough to get him to sign with a young team. Despite the 220 AVG, he did have 13 HR. If he can raise that AVG a bit, perhaps get to 15 HR, then he will be a quality addition to the middle, back of the Indians lineup. The rest of the lineup is made up of Asdrubal Cabrera, Yan Gomes, Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenall. Chisenall has not lived up to expectations from his days as a prospect with a 225/11/30/30 line. That’s not nearly good enough for a corner infielder. I have him in the starting lineup, hitting 9th, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he loses lots of time to Carlos Santana, if the third base experiment works, and Ryan Raburn occasionally whether the Santana experiment works or not. Yan Gomes is now the everyday catcher with the great season he had at 294/11/38/45. And that was only in 88 games. They don’t think he’s better than Santana, but they want him to start behind the plate, perhaps seeing Santana catch only once a week to keep him healthy. Asdrubal Cabrera is the one most likely to end up on another team if Cleveland struggles. He had a down season last year hitting 242 with 14 HR and 64 RBI. The 2 previous years saw 25 and 16 HR, and he’s a 273-career hitter. He can also swipe a bag with 9 the last 2 years and 17 the year before that. His struggles dropped him to 6th in my lineup, but they’d love him to hit second, moving Swisher’s bat down to 5th and giving the heart of the lineup some serious depth. The last member of the middle of the order is Michael Brantley who had a great year last season. He hit 284 with 10 HR, 73 RBI, 66 R and 17 SB. He may be a good option to hit second as well with his speed and ability to get on base. Options abound for Cleveland, a team with depth and youth. Mike Aviles is a great up the middle back-up option, if Cabrera does get traded or Francona wants give Cabrera or Kipnis a day at DH. They also signed Jeff Francoeur to a minor league deal, to give more outfield depth, besides Raburn. Overall this team is in good shape offensively, with lots of options and backup plans.
Defensively they look good everywhere. Brantley, Bourn and Murphy range from good, to great, to solid (respectively) and if they add Francoeur then the defense gets even better (that may be the only part of his game that is still worth having). Cabrera and Kipnis are both strong up the middle. Not Gold Glove caliber, but very good. Swisher plays a good first and Chisenall is fine at the hot corner. Santana at third will likely include growing pains, and his defense at first is weaker than Swisher’s. Swisher is fine in the outfield and Raburn is good everywhere. Yan Gomes behind the plate completes the picture and gives the Indians no real weaknesses anywhere with the leather.
While the offense and defense look to be in good shape, it’s the pitching that many question in Cleveland. 2 of their best pitchers, Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jiminez had great seasons, resurrecting their careers. However Kazmir is now with Oakland and Jiminez is with Baltimore. Justin Masterson is their ace with a team leading 14 Wins, 195 Ks and 3.45 ERA (now that Ublado Jiminez and his 3.30 ERA are out of town). He did all that in 193 IP, so they are set at the top of the rotation. The rest of their guys are solid, but unproven. Danny Salazar had the next best numbers (aside from those who are no longer on the team) but had that terrible outing against the Rays to end the season. I’m sure he’ll bounce back, but he’s only got 10 starts under his belt. He was good with a 3.12 ERA in those games, but they are not ready to call him the number 2 starter at this point. Zach McAllister went 9-9 with a 3.75 in his 24 starts. That’s pretty solid for a young pitcher in the AL. Corey Kluber was even better with an 11-5 record and 3.85 ERA in 24 starts as well. They are young and played well. If they can do that again, things are looking good for Cleveland. But that’s a lot to hope for with guys this young. The last spot in the rotation is Trevor Bauer’s to lose, and if he plays like he did last year he may lose it. Bauer only made 4 starts with Cleveland going 1-2 with a 5.29 ERA before being shipped off to Triple A Columbus to work on his mechanics. If he has fixed things, then he’s got the stuff to be a big league pitcher. But that’s a huge if. The Indians have talented young pitchers on their team, but they are unproven to this point. If they hit, then this team has a chance to return to October baseball. But not expecting any of these young guys to experience growing pains as hitters get more film on these guys is unreasonable and extremely unlikely. In the bullpen they have a ton of live arms. Chris Perez was sent packing after a season with 25 Saves and a 4.33 ERA. Vnnie Pestano was supposed to be their future closer, but didn’t get the job done with a 1.64 WHIP and 274 BAA. That’s not good at all. They will still utilize him, but he won’t be the closer at first. The Indians signed John Axford after a disastrous season in Milwaukee to another low risk deal. He didn’t register a single Save and had an ERA over 4 as a middle reliever. If he can be their closer, it would be a coup, but he needs to find his old form again. He says that he’s been tipping his pitches and the Cardinals pitching staff helped him with that. If that’s the only problem, then maybe he can be an All Star again. But that’s another major IF for the Indians. They have other quality relievers in Bryan Shaw and Josh Outman in the bullpen that can help the team make another improbable run, or they can be flipped for prospects at the trade deadline. That’s how re-building teams operate, and with those 2 players the Indians are in good shape.
The Indians think they have the necessary pieces to return to the playoffs. It’s a real possibility. But a LOT has to go right for the Indians to get that done. They have a bevvy of young pitchers, both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen. That’s the good news for the long-term outlook, but not always the recipe for success in the short term. The offense should be solid and the Indians have an ace atop their starting rotation. But everyone coming back and not missing a beat as they get more experience is unlikely. And if the Indians struggle, there are a number of players they can trade away (Josh Outman, Bryan Shaw, Asdrubal Cabrera, John Axford, Mike Aviles) to start a re-build. No one looks forward to re-building, but with a strong young core in place that may be what the Indians need to do. It’s rare that you talk about teams that just made the playoffs preparing to re-build, but this team over performed last year. And believing they are better than they truly are is what buries teams in the basement for decades. Hopefully the Indians correctly read their situation.
I really don’t think this is a playoff team. They have plenty of talent, but everything magically aligned for them last year. I don’t see that happening 2 straight years. I think this team falls off significantly, perhaps 10 games or so, to finish around 80 games and in third place in the AL Central.