The annual AL Central Previews are back for 2017 at IBI as Jake Dungan goes team by team and examines the strengths and weaknesses of each club heading into the new season as well as how competitive they will be in the divisional race. Be sure to check out our other team preview of the Chicago White Sox.
|2016 Statistical Rankings|
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Key Offseason Additions
- Edwin Encarnacion
- Boone Logan
- Austin Jackson
- Chris Colabello
- Erik Kratz
- Carlos Frias
- Nick Goody
- Hoby Milner
- Daniel Robertson
- Tim Cooney
- Richie Shaffer
- Wily Mo Pena
Key Offseason Subtractions
- Rajai Davis
- Mike Napoli
- Coco Crisp
- Jeff Manship
- Chris Gimenez
- Austin Adams
- Jesus Aguilar
The Indians' 2016 season was special in more ways than one. Not only did they capture the franchise's first pennant since 1997, but they also created a treasure trove of memorable moments throughout the year that folks in Cleveland won't soon forget. Veteran leaders and instant fan favorites Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis have moved on to other clubs and while their legacy in Tribe lore is sealed, their departure has cleared the way for new potential heroes, such as top free agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion.
With a rotation led by Corey Kluber, a lineup fueled by Encarnacion and a bullpen anchored by Andrew Miller, the Indians are, not surprisingly, one of the favorites to return to the Fall Classic in 2017. The big question is can they get healthy and stay healthy for that long haul?
The Terry Francona Indians have always been built on their pitching. With a rotation that features the likes of former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and fireballing arms such as Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, it's no secret where the foundation of this team rests. 2017 looks a little different, though, as it appears to be not just the starting pitching that will frustrate the opposition this time around. Between the blockbuster deadline deal to bring in top reliever Andrew Miller at the deadline last year and the splashy moves of the offseason that have put Edwin Encarnacion, Boone Logan and Austin Jackson in Tribe uniforms, on paper, every facet of the roster projects as above average.
Cleveland was a top 10 team offensively last year in just about every category despite not having arguably their best hitter, Michael Brantley. And even for as much power as Napoli provided, he was still only a one-win player last season, according to Fangraphs. By comparison, Encarnacion was worth 3.9 WAR for the Blue Jays. A healthy Brantley and a blue chip slugger like Encarnacion added to that lineup could take them to new heights offensively.
And let's not forget that bullpen. They were in pretty good hands with Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Dan Otero locking down the late innings, but the addition of Andrew Miller took them from a good bullpen to probably the best in baseball, as was clearly evidenced in the postseason. Now add a guy like Boone Logan to the mix to help take some pressure and much-needed innings of Miller's arm and gives Terry Francona a wealth of options to choose from when the game gets tight.
Speaking of which, never discount the impact of Terry Francona. The 2-time AL Manager of the Year with the Indians continues to prove why he's one of the game's best at not only maintaining a tight-knit clubhouse, but also getting the most out of his players. He broke the curse in Boston and odds are looking pretty good right now that he can also do it in Cleveland.
I think the Indians' biggest weakness heading into 2017 is what also prevented them from taking the World Series against the Cubs last season: health. While the void left by Michael Brantley was filled admirably by players such as Jose Ramirez, you'd still rather have his bat in the lineup than not. Then throw in the losses of Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and (partially) Trevor Bauer and you've got yourselves quite the uphill battle. Now the Tribe may have battled through most of that adversity and taken their fight all the way to extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series, but that isn't something you likely could or would want to repeat.
Unfortunately, the injury bug has already begun to rear its head in spring training as right-hander Cody Anderson has opted to undergo Tommy John surgery, putting him out of commission for the year, and All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis continues to have issues with a strained rotator cuff and overall shoulder inflammation, which will now keep him off the big league diamond for another 4-5 weeks. The good news is Brantley is continuing to progress through his rehab and is slated to return to exhibition games this week. Also, Carlos Carrasco has been dealing with elbow inflammation, but an MRI revealed no structural damage and he should return to the mound in a few days.
While there are no real glaring weaknesses on the Indians roster on paper, the outfield could be an area of concern as it is currently pieced together with platoons and part-time players. Right field is pretty much set with Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer sharing the duties, but center field is up for grabs between Austin Jackson, Abraham Almonte and Tyler Naquin as well as left field until Michael Brantley is healthy again. And even when he is does return, will he be able to stay on the field the whole year? For that matter, will Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar manage to stay healthy all season?
The other wild card is one that will be tested in April as long as Jason Kipnis is on the shelf, which is the Indians' positional depth. On paper, this organization is pretty well covered at most position by minor league talent, but potential and performance are two different things. With prospects like Erik Gonzalez or Yandy Diaz likely being the first called upon to fill Kipnis's spot on the infield, fans will get a firsthand look at that depth in action right out of the gate. Also, there's the chance that top Tribe prospect Bradley Zimmer could receive his first major league call-up in 2017, which could provide a snapshot of his long-term future with the club.
If one were to divide the current MLB power rankings into levels, it would appear the Cubs, Indians and Red Sox would occupy the top tier as the clubs with the highest win potential entering 2017. Now, of course, it's a long season and anything can happen. After all, teams like the Dodgers, Nationals, Astros and Rangers aren't too shabby either.
For the defending American League champs, however, they were hard at work during the offseason to improve an already-strong roster and will have that hunger of coming so close to the ultimate prize to have it slip away in the final inning. This is a ballclub that is talented, deep, motivated and with strong leadership in place. If they stay healthy, another division title is almost assured along with a second chance at that elusive World Series championship.
2016 Final Record: 94-67, 1st in AL Central
PECOTA Projection: 92-70, 1st in AL Central
My Projection: 97-65, 1st in AL Central