As spring training opens up, I am always reminded of the idiom, “hope springs eternal.” That phrase is defined as, “it is human nature to always find fresh cause for optimism.”
Nothing causes optimism quite like hearing that spring training is beginning. All thirty MLB teams believe that if things go their way they can have an outstanding season.
In reality, from year to year, there are about four to eight teams that have a legit shot at winning the World Series. The Indians come into this season with a realistic shot to get back to the World Series. That feeling of unfinished business and the real possibly of making it back to the World Series has put very lofty expectations on them. There’s a lot of reason for optimism, but there are also some reasons to try and temper expectations.
Reasons to be overly excited
The Indians are essentially returning the very same team that was one win away from winning the whole thing. If anything, they added to an already strong roster. The signings of Edwin Encarnacion, Boone Logan and to a lesser extent Austin Jackson helped to fill up any holes from the few players that left.
Edwin Encarnacion is a hitter that the Indians haven’t had since the mid-90s. Yes, Mike Napoli had an outstanding year in 2016, but he isn’t Encarnacion. Encarnacion has only struck out over 100 times in two of his twelve seasons, while Napoli has struck out over 100 times in seven of his eleven seasons.
There is no way the Indians could have predicted Napoli to have the outstanding season he had with 34 home runs and 101 runs batted in. Napoli had been in a decline over the last few seasons and it is a real likelihood that the Indians just squeezed the last productive year out of him. Over the last four seasons Encarnacion has averaged 38 home runs and 110 runs batted in, while batting a healthy .270. From the eye test I think Encarnacion will be much more consistent than Napoli. There won’t be those long slumps during the season. At the end of last season Napoli looked like he had run out of gas.
Boone Logan was outstanding last season. In 66 appearances he held opposing batters to a .166 batting average while only allowing 4 home runs in 46.1 innings. He is another left-handed strikeout machine. Last season he averaged 1.24 strikeouts per inning, for comparison Andrew Miller averaged 1.66 strikeouts per inning. Basically, the Indians added another wipe out lefty. That should take a lot of pressure off of Andrew Miller during the regular season and give Terry Francona another weapon out of the bullpen.
The Indians were without two players they thought would be major contributors in 2016 in Yan Gomes and Michael Brantley. Yan Gomes should return healthy for this season which will be a huge boost to this team. Roberto Perez played well in his absence, but to me if Gomes performs to the level he can he is the better player. The fact that Perez showed as well as he did just adds to the Tribe’s depth. If he can regain his form from 2014 Gomes is one of the best catchers in baseball. He adds a solid hitter with some pop to what should be an already deep line-up.
At the moment, there seems to be some optimism around Michael Brantley being able to contribute in 2017. If the Indians can get anything close to what Brantley was before the injury they might have the best line-up in the American League. Adding Brantley somewhere between Kipnis, Lindor, Encarnacion, Ramirez, and Gomes would be a nightmare to opposing teams.
The Indians are the only team in the American League Central that made themselves significantly better this offseason. There isn’t a team in the division that can matchup with the Indians.
The Minnesota Twins should be better than last season, but lack pieces to be a serious threat. The Chicago White Sox traded away their best pitcher, Chris Sale, in order to build for the future. There is still some offensive talent there and they have a chance to be very good in a few years, but aren’t there yet.
The Detroit Tigers still have plenty of talent to be a thorn in the Indians side. Any team that boasts Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez will have a chance, but there are plenty of questions marks with them. The pitching staff outside of the top two guys is questionable at best and the bullpen had a rough season last year.
The Kansas City Royals have the track record to contend. They’ve been there before and understand what it takes to be successful, but the pitching staff is less than ideal and could stop them from contending. They most likely won’t have the dominant bullpen that was such a weapon for them during their playoff runs. The offense still has good players and should score plenty of runs. If they can find some pitching they should push the Indians, but I don’t think they can catch the Tribe.
Reasons To Pump The Breaks A Bit
It is hard for teams to repeat getting back to the World Series. Since 1980, that feat has been accomplished eight times. A lot of people are just assuming the Indians are going to be right back in the Fall Classic in October. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy, as so many things can happen over the course of a season with injuries, poor play, and dissention which can all derail a team. No two teams are alike, and even though the Indians are bringing back almost the same team, each season is different for every player. Consistency is a hard thing to achieve in baseball.
Jose Ramirez was nothing short of spectacular last season. He batted over .300 drove in 76 runs and added 22 stolen bases. It was a great rebound from a poor 2015 season. It’s hard to assume that he will have the same type of season. He hasn’t shown the track record to expect that from him. Granted he is only 23 years old, so there is a chance that the light clicked on for him, but until he repeats another successful season he is a question mark.
Another question mark for the Indians is the outfield situation. It is probably not realistic to think Michael Brantley will be ready for Opening Day. So that puts a question mark in left field. Right now the outfield is a combination of Abraham Almonte, Tyler Naquin, Brandon Guyer, Austin Jackson and Lonnie Chisenhall. There is a chance that Yandy Diaz and/or Brad Zimmer could even be added to that list at some point this season.
Each of these guys are good in their own right, but if they were good enough there wouldn’t be a need for the platoons. If Zimmer or Diaz end up in the majors this season they will be thrust onto a team that is contending. That is a lot of extra pressure on a player that already is pressing to contribute in their first chance at the majors. It will take another masterful job by Terry Francona to put each of those players in the best position to succeed, but it is still up to those players to produce.
Either way….ENJOY IT!
No matter what happens this season, enjoy the ride. Everything points to this team being very good. The offense has the potential to be better this season. The pitching staff will return to full strength and should be outstanding again. The bullpen will have a full season of Andrew Miller, they added Boone Logan and return Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen. I believe there will be a level of comfortability in the bullpen that they haven’t had in years. Everybody should have the same role as last season which I think will help them to excel.
At the end of the day this team does have a shot at returning to the World Series, but don’t wait until October to go out and watch this team. Get down to the ballpark and take in what should be a fun summer down at Progressive Field.