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If the Indians are a contender in 2016, it will be for a Wild Card spot and not the AL Central Division championship. They have the starting rotation to win their first division title since 2007, but not the offense. In the offseason, the front office chose to keep that rotation intact instead of trading an arm for a big hitter to put in the middle of the lineup.
As for acquiring a flashy bat through free agency? That’s been a non-starter since the organization’s painful misses on Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn before the 2013 season. Hey, but at least the Indians were able to dump the bodies, trading Swisher, Bourn and an estimated $15 million to Atlanta last August for Chris Johnson and his $17.5 million contract. Then Johnson was designated for assignment and released in December. Still, that doesn’t help an offense that finished 11th in runs and 13th in homers last season in the American League.
To add urgency to the situation, Michael Brantley, the Indians’ most consistent hitter over the last three years, had surgery on his right shoulder in November and could miss the first month of the regular season. It’s been speculated that he could be out longer, but the Indians say Brantley’s recovery is on schedule.
The Indians, in the wake of Brantley’s injury, signed Rajai Davis, traded for Collin Cowgill and will bring a host of other outfielders to spring training on minor league deals to try and strengthen the weakest part of the team. Young outfielders Tyler Naquin, James Ramsey, Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier were expected to get a long look in spring training as well.
The Indians did sign Mike Napoli to a one-year deal to add some thump to the middle of the lineup. A full season from AL Rookie of the Year runner-up Francisco Lindor and a healthy season from catcher Yan Gomes should help as well.
Corey Kluber returns as the No. 1 starter despite going from AL Cy Young winner in 2014 to leading the league with 16 losses in 2015. A lot of those losses could be tied to a lack of offense and a foot injury that the Indians kept quiet. Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, 14-game winners last year, fill the middle of rotation after drawing intense interest on the trade market over the winter. Trevor Bauer completes the top four spots. Cody Anderson and Josh Tomlin, who combined to go 14–5 in 25 starts last year, will compete for the fifth spot. T.J. House, Mike Clevinger, Ryan Merritt and Adam Plutko could help during the season.
The bullpen, despite producing the second-lowest ERA in the AL last season, heads into 2016 with questions. Can closer Cody Allen and setup man Bryan Shaw continue to produce at a high level after three seasons of heavy work? Allen made 223 appearances and Shaw 224 from 2013 through ’15. Following the trade of Marc Rzepczynski at midseason last year, there has been a need for a dependable lefty. Veteran lefties Joe Thatcher, Tom Gorzelanny and Ross Detwiler were signed to minor league deals to compete with Kyle Crockett and Giovanni Soto in spring training. Righties Zach McAllister, Jeff Manship, Austin Adams, Shawn Armstrong, Dan Otero, Joba Chamberlain and Kirby Yates offer plenty of depth behind Allen and Shaw.
Lindor and two-time All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis are key to the Indians’ success. A full season from Lindor will definitely boost the offense. In 99 games as a rookie last year, he hit .313 with 12 homers and 51 RBIs. How he handles a full season will be critical for the offense. Defensively, Lindor helped transform MLB’s most error-prone team in 2014 to a team that tied for second in fielding percentage in 2015. Kipnis plays gritty but effective defense. He sparked the offense last year when he was moved into the leadoff spot, but a right shoulder injury caused him to slump in the second half. Kipnis and Lindor, hitting first and second, form a dangerous combination. It will be interesting to see if Brantley’s injury causes a change in their lineup spots.
The Indians tried to upgrade first and third base over the winter. They bid on Korean first baseman Byung-ho Park but lost out to the Twins. Then they signed Napoli to a one-year, $7 million deal. Napoli is expected to get most of the playing time at first, with Carlos Santana moving to DH. After failing to trade for Todd Frazier, Giovanny Urshela is expected to start at third. Urshela made his big league debut last year and played good defense but didn’t hit much. He dealt with a sore right shoulder in the second half after missing much of spring training with back and knee injuries. The Indians believe Urshela can be a better hitter if he can stay healthy. Switch-hitter Jose Ramirez could see time at third base.
Davis is expected to start the season in left field in place of the injured Brantley. Davis will move to center against some lefties, while Cowgill should get a chance in left and right field. Lonnie Chisenhall made the move from third base to right field after the All-Star break and hit .288 with 25 RBIs in 54 games while shining defensively. Joey Butler or Cowgill are potential platoon partners for Chisenhall. The Indians aren’t certain if Abraham Almonte is an everyday center fielder, but he played like one over the final two months of last season. They also invited outfielders Shane Robinson, Michael Choice and Robbie Grossman to camp on minor league deals.
Gomes and Roberto Perez form a solid catching combination. Gomes has power, frames pitches well and calls a good game. The 2014 Silver Slugger winner was limited to 95 games last year after missing six weeks early in the season because of a right knee injury suffered on April 12. Gomes, who threw out 33 percent (19-of-58) of potential basestealers last season, played catch-up the rest of the year. Perez stepped in when Gomes was injured and threw out 42 percent (18-for-43). Perez hit seven homers in 184 at-bats, and Tribe pitchers posted a 3.71 ERA when he was behind the plate.
In the last three years, Santana has been the Indians’ Opening Day catcher (2013), third baseman (2014) and first baseman (2015). In 2016, he’s likely to be their Opening Day designated hitter with the arrival of Napoli to play first base. Santana led the team in homers, RBIs and walks last year but batted .231 for the second straight season and seemed miscast as a cleanup hitter because of his fondness for walks. Napoli, a top vote getter for the Gold Glove last year, played just 111 games at first base so Santana shouldn’t put his glove in cold storage. Ramirez is expected to replace departed Mike Aviles as manager Terry Francona’s jack-of-all trades. Ramirez can play second, short, third and left field.
Chris Antonetti, president of baseball operations, and Francona went into the offseason with the idea of keeping their starting pitching intact unless they were overwhelmed. Regarding offense, well, they’d worry about that later. The rotation is full of good arms signed to club-friendly contracts, but you have to score runs to win. If Brantley returns on schedule, perhaps the Indians can still deal a pitcher at the trading deadline to fuel a second-half push.
The Indians have put together three straight winning seasons for the first time since 1999-2001, but the paying public has greeted them with a yawn. In that three-year span, the Indians have finished 28th and 29th (twice) in attendance. It’s clear something dramatic needs to be done, but that’s unlikely to happen. The Indians operate on a restricted payroll and play in a division featuring a Kansas City team that has been to the World Series the last two years. The Indians definitely have a playoff-worthy rotation, but scoring enough runs to reach the postseason will be the problem.
Prediction: 5th AL Central
2B Jason Kipnis (L)
SS Francisco Lindor (S)
LF Michael Brantley (L)
1B Mike Napoli (R)
DH Carlos Santana (S)
C Yan Gomes (R)
RF Lonnie Chisenhall (L)
3B Giovanny Urshela (R)
CF Abraham Almonte (S)
UTL Jose Ramirez (S)
C Roberto Perez (R)
OF Collin Cowgill (R)
OF Rajai Davis (R)
RHP Corey Kluber
RHP Carlos Carrasco
RHP Danny Salazar
RHP Trevor Bauer
RHP Josh Tomlin
RHP Cody Allen (Closer)
RHP Bryan Shaw
RHP Zack McAllister
RHP Jeff Manship
LHP Joe Thatcher
RHP Joba Chamberlain
LHP Kyle Crockett