This past year brought with it many cherished memories for sports fans in Cleveland. The Cavaliers snapped the city's 50-plus year championship drought with a historic comeback from a 3-1 deficit against the heavily-favored Golden State Warriors. Four months later the Indians were playing in their first World Series since 1997. In between, the Tribe gave us a record-breaking 14-game win streak, 11 walk-off wins including Tyler Naquin's thrilling inside-the-park game-winner and the acquisition of the best relief pitcher in baseball in Andrew Miller.
While most folks won't soon forget those moments nor the magical season the Indians put together in 2016, they still fell short of a title. The good news is they are already well on their way to getting back to the World Series in the new year, thanks in large part to the signing of top free agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion. What else do they need to accomplish that ultimate goal? Here are a few New Year's resolutions to follow to get there.
1. Stay healthy.
This is obviously a no-brainer given how the Indians were decimated by injuries entering the postseason. Granted they went a long way without key players such as Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, but it's hard not to wonder what they could've done with a fully healthy roster.
Based on their pre-injury numbers, the Indians had roughly close to nine wins worth of value sitting on the disabled list once October rolled around. Although it's tough to say for certain that the presence of any of the aforementioned players would've made the difference in the World Series last year, it did come down to extra innings in Game 7. Who knows if a few at-bats from Brantley or one or two starts from Carrasco or Salazar could've turned the tables or if the series would've even gotten to that point with Cleveland having owned a 3-1 advantage at one point. That's not to take away from the Cubs or their achievement snapping the longest championship drought in sports, but it still makes you wonder.
That being said, it's not worth it to speculate on the past and play the "what if" game. It's a new year and a new season will soon be upon us bringing with it, hopefully, a clean bill of health for everyone on the roster that will remain at full strength for the duration of the campaign, or at least be ready by playoff time. On paper the Indians stack up as one of the better, if not the best, teams in the American League and should be strong favorites to repeat as division champions and possibly league champions. Staying healthy will go a long way towards helping them realize that potential.
2. Maintain dominance against division.
It's a relatively simple concept: beat your division foes and you can win your division. Well, no one did that much better in 2016 than the Indians as they posted a league-best 49-26 record against AL Central opponents, a divisional record only bested by the Cubs and Nationals in the NL for the best in baseball. This was aided in large part by a combined 28-9 mark against the Tigers and Royals, against whom the Tribe had struggled in past years.
Heading into 2017, it looks as if Cleveland will have a clear shot at another division crown as the other clubs are either rebuilding or struggling to find their identity. Be that as it may, continued dominance of the AL Central is key to securing a playoff berth and the Indians cannot afford to let their guard down against the Tigers or Royals regardless of their records given how they've had their way with the Tribe in recent years prior to 2016. Take care of business within your division and you'll be playing in October more often than not.
3. Keep an open-minded approach on coaching and roster management.
Terry Francona thought a bit more outside the box strategically in 2016. Whether it was moving Carlos Santana to the leadoff spot or the way he utilized Andrew Miller in the postseason, the Tribe skipper seemed less reticent to defying convention and experimenting with his management. Not everything you try is going to pay off with that approach, but when it does, it could make other teams rethink their game plan, as has been the case with clubs prioritizing relief pitching this offseason thanks to Francona's (and Joe Maddon's) unorthodox handling of the bullpen.
That open-minded approach needs to be maintained in 2017 in order to find and formulate new strategies to give the Indians any advantage they can get. Plus, I believe it needs to be applied to roster management. Don't be afraid to call up rookies from the minor leagues if a spot should open up and, likewise, don't hesitate to consider parting ways with a fringe player if they aren't making enough of an impact. I think fans still have painful visuals of Michael Martinez grounding out weakly to end the World Series.
Staying on the cutting edge in every facet of team management is what has made the Indians one of the better run organizations in baseball over the last several years, so there's no sense in slowing up now.
4. Run opposing pitchers and defenses ragged.
This may seem like a given considering that the Tribe was the best team in the AL as far as baserunning is concerned with a league-leading 134 steals and 17.1 BsR rating. Following the model championed by Kansas City during their run to back-to-back World Series and a title, the Indians ran wild on the opposition not only stealing, but also stretching for extra bases and distracting pitchers while on base. That most certainly played no small part in their scoring 777 runs on the season, finishing behind only the Red Sox for tops in the AL.
So that should be easy to duplicate in 2017, right? Not so fast. At this time, Rajai Davis, who led the league with 43 steals in 2016 is still a free agent and, unless he is willing to accept a small payday from the Indians, a reunion is unlikely. Plus, even if they did re-sign him, the chances of him repeating that type of performance at the age of 36 is probably not worth gambling on. That being said, the veteran outfielder and baserunning savant did leave a clear impression on this group and coached them up quite a bit in just the span of one season.
With the young legs of Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Jason Kipnis and others, the Indians should still be a force to be reckoned with on the base paths.
5. Enjoy the ride!
If I may quote Van Halen, come on and finish what you started. The 2016 Indians were fun to watch, but there's still more work to be done. When I look at this bunch, I can't help but be reminded of the 2015 Royals and the 2015-16 Cavaliers, teams that had gotten ever so close the year before and were left more hungry than ever. There is obviously no guarantee that Cleveland will win the World Series this year, but I can tell you that everything is in place for it to happen. They have the right guys in the clubhouse, the right man at the helm and the right people in the front office to make moves when necessary.
Their goal is clear, so my final resolution goes out to the fans: soak all this in, have fun and enjoy the moment! Times like this don't come along too often as we Cleveland faithful should well know. We have the unique opportunity to watch a perennial Cy Young contender in Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller's wicked slider, Francisco Lindor's graceful defense and now the majestic home runs of Edwin Encarnacion all within the familiar confines of Progressive Field. This ballclub is going to do everything it can to bring home a World Series title in 2017 and will more than likely put on a great show in the process.