The Indians enter the 2017 season in the best position to play deep into October on an annual basis since they dominated the AL Central from 1995 through 2001. While their run to Game 7 of the World Series last season may have been unexpected, it was not a shock.
They will open this season with a healthy rotation — they were down to two-and-a-half starters through much of the postseason last year — with the return of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. Andrew Miller, Dan Otero, Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen, the core of their bullpen, are back. So is the man, manager Terry Francona, who turned postseason baseball upside down with his handling of that bullpen.
Just before Christmas, they filled a big hole in the middle of their lineup by signing free-agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year, $65 million contract. Last year, the Indians found out the value of a big right-handed bat in the middle of their lineup when Mike Napoli reached career highs with 34 homers and 101 RBIs. Encarnacion is Napoli squared, which should bode well for an offense that finished second in the American League in runs, especially if Michael Brantley is able to rebound from two surgeries on his right shoulder that limited him to 11 games last year.
The lineup boasts intriguing young players in Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Tyler Naquin, who are tied to a solid core featuring Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Lonnie Chisenhall and catcher Yan Gomes, who has had problems staying healthy the last two years.
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The Indians’ timing couldn’t be better. While they will try to extend their streak of winning seasons to five straight, the rest of the AL Central is rebuilding or considering rebuilding. If they can stay healthy, they are well positioned to stay on top of the division for the foreseeable future.
Corey Kluber, Carrasco, Salazar, Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer will enter the season as one of the top rotations in the big leagues. Carrasco (broken right finger) and Salazar (right forearm) were injured last September and except for two relief appearances by Salazar did not contribute in the postseason. They are expected to be 100 percent in spring training. Kluber, third in the Cy Young voting last year after winning it in 2014, has established himself as one of the top starters in the game. After winning 18 games in the regular season, he went 4–1 in six starts in the postseason. Ryan Merritt and Mike Clevinger will provide depth in the bullpen or start the season in the minors.
The signing of Encarnacion wasn’t the only indication that owner Paul Dolan, always careful with a buck, was committed to this edition of the Indians. In July they acquired Miller for four prospects and what remained on his contract with the Yankees — an estimated $22 million. Miller, signed through 2018, proved to be the finishing touch to an already formidable pen and an agent of change for the sport. While Miller had the best arm in the pen, Francona didn’t save him for the ninth inning. He was not afraid to use him with the game in the balance in the sixth, seventh or eighth inning. Industrial-strength relievers Shaw and Allen had Miller’s back when Francona went to him early.
Lindor and Kipnis are a good two-way combination in the middle of the diamond. Lindor, 23, won his first Gold Glove last year at shortstop and is the emerging face of the franchise. He’s a switch-hitter with speed and decent power. Kipnis, 30, isn’t as flashy defensively as Lindor, but he’s coming off his most consistent season at second base and is a steadying force in the clubhouse. Kipnis, like Lindor, supplies speed and power to the top of the order.
Encarnacion and Santana are expected to share first base. Last year they spent most of their time at DH, but Encarnacion played 75 games at first with Toronto. Encarnacion is averaging 39 homers and 110 RBIs over the last five years. The switch-hitting Santana is coming off a season in which he hit a career-high 34 homers, while batting mostly leadoff or fifth. The versatile Ramirez moved from left field to third base at the end of July and made it his own. Ramirez, a switch-hitter, has extra-base power and speed. Last year he hit .355 (50-for-141) with runners in scoring position.
Last season, Francona had success using platoons at all three outfield spots. A healthy Brantley could change that in left field, but Francona is expected to stick with platoons in center and right field. Naquin and Abraham Almonte could platoon in center, while Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer platoon in right. Naquin finished third in the Rookie of the Year balloting last year, while the switch-hitting Almonte missed the first 80 games of the season with a PED suspension. Guyer proved to be a valuable right-handed hitter after being acquired from Tampa Bay at the Aug. 1 trade deadline. The Indians have young outfielders Greg Allen and Bradley Zimmer in the pipeline, and veteran Austin Jackson will get a shot in spring training.
When Gomes and Roberto Perez are healthy, the Indians’ catching situation is in good hands, but both missed significant time last year. Gomes played 74 games because of a separated right shoulder and broken right hand, while Perez played only 61 games because of a broken right thumb. Perez did a great job handling the pitching staff in the postseason, and it will be interesting to see who emerges as the starter.
The DH spot is secure with Encarnacion and Santana. The platoon situations will dictate who the extra outfielders are, but Guyer and Almonte are expected to come off the bench on most days. The competition for the utility spot between Michael Martinez and Erik Gonzalez should be entertaining. Yandy Diaz, who has done nothing but hit for the last two years in the minors, could get a look as well.
If Francona wasn’t considered one of the best managers in baseball before, he is now. He’s led the Indians to four straight winning seasons and two postseason appearances on a tight budget. Last year he hit all the right notes, using Miller to perfection, squeezing every ounce of production out of the platoon advantage in the outfield and managing a starting rotation of two-and-a-half starters to Game 7 of the World Series before falling to the Cubs. Chris Antonetti, Indians president of baseball operations, has done a great job of giving Francona a versatile and talented stream of players to work with.
The only thing missing from the Indians’ quest for success is fan support. For the last two years, the organization has remodeled Progressive Field, removing seats, changing concourses and making it more consumer friendly. On the field, they’ve produced four straight winning seasons. But the Indians, who once had a streak of 455 straight sellouts, have continually finished near the bottom of MLB attendance. Will that change following their inspired run to Game 7 of the World Series last year?