After coming within a run of winning their first World Series in 68 years last season, it would have been understandable if the Indians’ front office mostly stood pat. Despite all that went wrong – Michael Brantley was effectively out for the season, two starting pitchers went down injured before the playoffs, and Indians’ catchers as a whole slashed an abysmal .185/.244/.320 for the season – the 2016 Indians were on the brink. If just one of those wrongs had gone right, you could argue the Indians would be World Series champions right now. Even if the only improvements they made were to undo some of what went wrong in 2016, the 2017 Indians could have realistically expected to be just as good. Getting Brantley back, getting starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar back, or getting just a little more production out of their catchers in 2017 would all help. That doesn't even mention Andrew Miller, whose services the Indians will have for the full 2017 season rather than just the stretch run.
That was my thinking, anyway. And then the Indians surprised us all, going all in and signing Edwin Encarnación to a three-year contract with a team option for a fourth year.
Traditionally, the Indians have built teams through the draft and trades, only adding free agents to fill in the gaps. Most free agents the Indians sign are reclaimer projects, players coming back from an injury or an off year and looking to prove themselves again. To the Indians’ credit, these signings seem to work out more often than not, like in the case of Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis last season. But like Marlon Byrd last year and Brandon Moss the year before, they sometimes don't. These are just the risks teams take when they sign lower-tier free agents.
Edwin Encarnación, on the other hand, was by far the best hitter on the free agent market this offseason. I went into the offseason hoping the Indians would be able to re-sign Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis; I never dreamed the Indians would be in the Encarnación market. So when the deal was announced a couple days before Christmas, I was thrilled, but also completely shocked.
The Encarnación signing shows that the Indians’ ownership knows the same thing that all of us do: this is it. This Indians team, anchored by a stellar rotation but supported by an excellent offense and defense, is better positioned to win a World Series than any Indians team of the last 20 years. It's for that reason that the Cleveland Indians will enter the 2017 season with the highest expectations of any Indians team since the 1990s.
On paper, the 2017 Indians lineup is the best we've seen in a long time. Second baseman Jason Kipnis and right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall will both miss Opening Day, but ideally they'll both be back by mid-April. So let's look at the lineups when everyone's healthy:
|vs. RHP||vs. LHP|
|1||DH/1B Carlos Santana||RF Brandon Guyer|
|2||SS Francisco Lindor||SS Francisco Lindor|
|3||LF Michael Brantley||LF Michael Brantley|
|4||1B/DH Edwin Encarnación||1B/DH Edwin Encarnación|
|5||3B José Ramírez||3B José Ramírez|
|6||2B Jason Kipnis||2B Jason Kipnis|
|7||CF Tyler Naquin||DH/1B Carlos Santana|
|8||RF Lonnie Chisenhall||C Yan Gomes|
|9||C Yan Gomes||CF Austin Jackson|
Don't let the fact that some of these guys have hit in far weaker batting orders for the Indians deceive you: these are both really solid lineups.
Against right handers, Carlos Santana isn't a prototypical leadoff hitter but excels in seeing a lot of pitches and getting on base, and when he's on the bases he runs well, ranking third on the Indians last year in UBR. It'll be tough to move Francisco Lindor out of the three hole – where he batted nearly all of last season – but I like him in the two hole to take advantage of his excellent bat control and get him more plate appearances overall.
It'll be really nice to have Michael Brantley back this year, and he should see better pitches to hit because pitchers don't want to face the dangerous Edwin Encarnación. And even if they do manage to pitch around Brantley and Encarnación, they'll still have to tangle with José Ramírez and then Jason Kipnis. (You know it's a pretty good lineup when Jason Kipnis is your #6 hitter.)
After Kipnis, the lineup starts to thin a little bit, but both Tyler Naquin and Lonnie Chisenhall are capable of going on hot streaks occasionally. And as for Yan Gomes, he had such awful luck last year – both with injuries and a measly .189 BABIP – that I expect him to rebound somewhat this season.
Against southpaws, I thought about putting Francisco Lindor at the top of the order, but I went with Brandon Guyer instead because he's similar to Carlos Santana in that he'll see a lot of pitches, particularly against lefties, and get on base a lot. Lindor, Brantley, Encarnación, Ramírez and Kipnis are the same, and then Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes and Austin Jackson (or whoever plays center field) round out the order.
One other thing to note: there's only one instance of consecutive batters hitting from the same side of the plate, and that's two righties in a row against a left-handed pitcher. This makes the Indians a really stressful matchup in the late innings for opposing managers trying to use their bullpens.
Last year the Indians were fifth best in baseball in defensive runs above average, and third in UZR/150. Since the Indians are bringing back most of the same personnel it should mean they'll be just about as good this year. Looking at the advanced metrics, Edwin Encarnación and Carlos Santana are slight upgrades at first base compared to Mike Napoli, while Michael Brantley in left is a slight downgrade compared to Rajai Davis. But advanced defensive metrics still don't tell quite the whole story, so you can take those with a grain of salt.
It will be interesting to see what happens this season if Yan Gomes’ struggles at the plate continue, because defensively Roberto Perez is superior in both pitch framing and playing his position. If the Indians aren't getting much offense out of Gomes anyway, they might consider replacing him with Perez and at least get an improved defensive backstop.
The starting rotation will look about the same as it did last year before everyone got hurt.
One through three in the Indians rotation should be about as solid as you can hope to get. Sure, these guys will lose a few games here and there, but there aren't many teams in baseball that wouldn't trade their top three pitchers for the Indians’ top three.
This is a big year for Trevor Bauer. Bauer had a better 2016 season than you probably realize, finishing the season 12-8 with a 4.26 ERA and 190 IP. That's a really good year for a fourth starter. But everyone who has seen him pitch over the last few years knows he can be even better if he's able to pitch more consistently in the strike zone. He has all the physical tools; with Bauer it's more often than not an issue of just trusting his stuff.
Josh Tomlin is the longest tenured Indians pitcher and despite sort of falling apart in August last season, he was excellent in the first half, putting up a 3.51 ERA over 100 IP. Tomlin has the least dominant stuff of any Indians starter, but what he lacks in physical tools he makes up for in competitive toughness. Tomlin is good enough that he'd be the third or fourth starter in most rotations; it's only because everyone else is so good that Tomlin is fifth.
Cody Anderson is out for the season to undergo Tommy John surgery, so the next man up should the Indians need another starter is probably Mike Clevinger or Ryan Merritt, both of whom have pitched well in pressure situations. (Against the Blue Jays, no less!)
The bullpen's big three of Andrew Miller, Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw are all back, and if the Indians enter the seventh inning with a lead, they should feel pretty good about handing the ball to those three guys to finish out the game. Rounding out the bullpen are returning veterans Dan Otero and Zach McAllister, along with newcomers Boone Logan and Shawn Armstrong.
Like it has been throughout the Terry Francona era, I expect the bullpen to be a strength for the Indians. Last season, the Indians went for long stretches without any left-handed relievers on the roster, much less dominant ones like Andrew Miller and Boone Logan, and the fact that they'll open the season with those guys in the ’pen cannot be overstated.
You can, but probably shouldn't, take these predictions to the bank. Wild Card winners are denoted with asterisks (*).
2016: Red Sox, Orioles*, Blue Jays*, Yankees, Rays 2017: Red Sox, Blue Jays, Yankees, Rays, Orioles
After the retirement of David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez, the torch of the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry has been passed completely to the next generation of stars; for right now, the edge goes to the Red Sox. They'll miss Big Papi's bat in the lineup, but adding Chris Sale to a rotation already featuring Rick Porcello and David Price should more than compensate. The Blue Jays, after reaching the ALCS in consecutive seasons, are now minus Edwin Encarnación. The Jays did manage to sign Jose Bautista, but his skills are declining and the team didn't really do much else in the offseason. For the Yankees, all the hype is around their young talent like Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Clint Frazier (possibly). But their rotation is questionable, and if one of their aging starters goes down, it could get ugly in a hurry.
The Rays have a solid rotation and some decent pieces on the field, but they're honestly not in the same tier as the top three teams in this division and I expect them to do some retooling around the trade deadline. The Orioles have a lot of power hitters, but the pitching in their division has only gotten better, so I expect them to struggle.
2016: Indians, Tigers, Royals, White Sox, Twins 2017: Indians, Tigers*, Royals, White Sox, Twins
I'm picking the Indians to win the Central because they're the most complete and deepest team in the division. The bottom two teams aren't even trying to compete yet, and the Tigers and Royals simply don't have the pitching staffs to match up with the Indians (at least on paper). Nonetheless, I think the Tigers will claw their way to a Wild Card spot; veterans Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler have at least one more good year in them. The Royals got bit by the injury bug last season, but even with everyone healthy this is an older team that's sort of in between competitiveness and another rebuild.
2016: Rangers, Mariners, Astros, Angels, Athletics 2017: Astros, Mariners*, Rangers, Angels, Athletics
The Astros disappointed out of the gate last season, but they're still probably the most talented team in this division and I expect that this will be the year they put it all together. The Mariners haven't made the playoffs since 2001 but most projections see the Mariners as second or third in the division; I'm going to go out on a limb and say they'll grab the second Wild Card slot too. The Rangers were unbelievably and unsustainably lucky in one-run games last year, and this luck should run out somewhat. I keep waiting for the Angels to wake up and realize they have Mike Trout, that winning this division should be easy, but their pitching staff isn't nearly as good as their division rivals, even with the return of Garrett Richards. Finally, don't expect any Moneyball-style worst-to-first stories from the Athletics this year; they're definitely rebuilding.
2016: Nationals, Mets*, Marlins, Phillies, Braves 2017: Nationals, Mets*, Marlins, Braves, Phillies
The Nationals have the best rotation, best offense and best bullpen in this division and should win it easily. The Mets have a pretty solid rotation of their own, and while they'll struggle to score runs, I expect them to claim a Wild Card spot. The Marlins have some nice pieces but they'll miss Jose Fernandez in more ways than just on the field. The Braves are a trendy sleeper pick but while I wouldn't be surprised to see them get off to a fast start, this team isn't built to be competitive this season and they'll eventually fall off. And the Phillies are… the Phillies.
2016: Cubs, Cardinals, Pirates, Brewers, Reds 2017: Cubs, Pirates, Cardinals, Brewers, Reds
The defending champion Chicago Cubs (wow, it felt weird to write that) should win this division with ease, even if their rotation and defense aren't as historically great as they were last season. I'm predicting the Pirates, thanks to a resurgence from Andrew McCutchen and Gerritt Cole, will sneak into second place and contend for a Wild Card slot. No one in the Cardinals rotation scares me, and I don't think the Cardinals offense is powerful enough to overcome the lack of pitching, so they'll struggle to a third place finish. The Brewers and Reds will battle it out for fourth place; the Brewers should pitch a little better so I'm penciling them in for the fourth slot.
2016: Dodgers, Giants, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Padres 2017: Dodgers, Giants*, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Padres
You may not realize this, but the Los Angeles Dodgers have won the NL West four straight times. This year they're projected to win more games this season than any team except the Cubs, so it makes them an easy pick for a fifth straight division title. The Giants have made the playoffs four out of the last seven seasons, and on the strength of their pitching staff they'll get the second Wild Card slot, shortly after winning the World Series of Best Garlic Fries. This is a stacked division, and while the Dodgers and Giants are clearly the favorites, the Diamondbacks and Rockies will also be better than people might think. And like the weather in San Diego, which is always stuck at 75 degrees and sunny, the Padres of San Diego are always stuck in rebuilding mode.
- ALDS: Indians over Mariners in 5, Red Sox over Astros in 4
- NLDS: Dodgers over Mets in 3, Cubs over Nationals in 4
- ALCS: Red Sox over Indians, in 7
- NLCS: Dodgers over Cubs, in 6
- World Series: Dodgers over Red Sox, in 6
A lot of experts are picking an Indians-Cubs rematch in the World Series this year, but it's really tough to repeat as champions of anything, particularly in baseball. In the case of the Indians, I hope I'm wrong.
I'll say this again: the 2017 Indians will face greater expectations than any Indians team has in the last 20 years. A large factor of the Indians’ success or failure this season will be their ability – or inability – to bear the weight of those expectations. Baseball isn't played on paper; it's played by humans who are all at least somewhat susceptible to folding under pressure. But if the Indians are able to withstand those expectations and play like they're capable of, we're in for another special summer.
If you're an Indians fan, and you're able to get to the stadium, you need to get to Progressive Field this summer. This is it; this is the team you've been waiting for. Every player on the Indians plays hard and plays with a smile. The excuse that Progressive Field is a lame name for a ballpark is obsolete, and thanks to Guaranteed Rate field in Chicago, it's not even the worst in the division. The excuse that “ownership doesn't spend any money” is also obsolete: this past offseason, the Dolans spent top dollar to make what was already pretty great team in 2016 even better for 2017.
(On the other hand, the excuse that it's offensive to watch people in the stands put ketchup on their hot dog, along with or instead of Bertman's Original Ballpark Mustard as God intended… remains valid. Just look the other way and judge them silently in your head.)
Get to Progressive Field (and save me a hot dog). You'll be glad you did. Happy baseball season, and go Tribe!
Thanks to Sara Rowe for reading a draft of this post.