Announcement: After peaking as the #3 book among all baseball books on Amazon last year, my new book, The 2016 Prospect Digest Handbook, is on sale! Check it out here!
What a year a difference makes, eh? Rolling into Opening Day last season the Indians became the trendy pick among pundits, fans, and analysts alike. Sports Illustrated (in)famously tabbed the franchise as World Series favorites. ESPN ranked them as the fourth best team in baseball. And CBS Sports wrote that: “on paper, this team is as strong as any in the AL.”
All aboard the hype train!
But despite that, though, I tried to pump the brakes on the World Series Express, writing the following in last year’s preseason analysis: “In the end, no, I don’t think the Tribe will be able to live up to the preseason hype. They’ll likely finish around an 86-win campaign and on the fringes of the playoff picture (barring some moves by the front office).”
Well, I wasn’t too far off.
According to the club’s Pythagorean Expectation, a formula used to determine how many wins (and losses) a team has based on runs scored and runs allowed, the Indians were an 84-win team in 2015. Not too shabby.
So, without further ado, here’s this year’s preseason analysis for the Tribe…
Catcher: Yan Gomes’ season was essentially over before it even started last year. The Brazilian-born backstop appeared in just five games before a home plate collision with former Tiger – and current teammate – Rajai Davis knocked him out of action for about six weeks. The culprit: a sprained MCL in his knee. But even after Gomes returned in late May he hardly looked comfortable at the plate, finishing the season with a disappointing .231/.267/.391 triple-slash line, easily his worst season to date.
But Gomes’ absence helped push backup Roberto Perez into the lineup. And Perez proved to be a revelation of sorts.
In 70 games, the short, stocky catcher batted .228/.348/.402 with nine doubles, one triple, and seven homeruns en route to topping the league average offensive production by 10%, the tenth best showing among all big league catchers with at least 200 trips to the plate.
Behind their starting rotation, catching has quietly become one of better strengths of the ball club. When he’s healthy, Gomes is easily one of best – and most underrated – players at the position and Perez, who’s defensive prowess was on full display, could start for more than half the teams in baseball if asked today.
First Base: I’m easily one of Carlos Santana’s biggest supporters in the state; hell, probably the entire country – even as rumblings have started stewing from fans about potentially dealing the switch-hitting former catcher. But Santana remains an incredibly versatile, underrated asset in the Tribe’s equally underrated offense.
First off, the conversation begins – and will always circle back to – his innate ability to find first base via the walk. It’s like a newborn instinctively breathing. Santana will always walk an absurd amount of time. Last year only four other players – Joey Votto, Bryce Harper, Paul Goldschmidt, and Jose Bautista – walked more often. And, of course, taking a free pass does two important things: (1) it doesn’t burn up one of the offense’s 27 total outs and (2) it helps the lineup chew through the opposition’s pitching staff. More than two years ago I wrote how the Indians magic number is 145 – or in other words, a team will win a game around 70% of the time if their hitters see 145 pitches per game. And let’s just say Santana’s doing everything he can. He trailed only Mike Trout in that department last year (4.37 vs. 4.30 P/PA).
The front office brass, led by new GM Mike Chernoff, also brought in aging veteran slugger Mike Napoli into the fold this offseason.
Napoli, like his position-mate, walks a ton. He’s sporting a career walk-rate north of 12%. His offensive production took a noticeable downturn in 2015, but he a right-hander power bat in a lineup bereft of right-handed power. At worst, he’s a league average bat. At best, well, he’s another Carlos Santana.
Second Base: All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis bounced back from easily his worst professional season to have another strong campaign last year, hitting .303/.372/.451. His overall production, according to Weighted Runs Created Plus, topped the league average mark by 26%, tied for the best mark in baseball among all qualified second baseman. And his 5.2 wins above replacement total (per FanGraphs) was the 18th best among any hitter in the game.
So how likely is it that Kipnis can come close to that level of production again?
Well, pretty decent actually.
Kipnis was pretty banged during his dramatic decline two years ago as he dealt with a litany of injuries including lower leg issues, an abdomen strain, and a wonky throwing elbow. Otherwise, the lefty-swinging second baseman has topped at least 3.4 fWAR in his other three full big league seasons.
Third Base: Easily – EASILY – the biggest black hole on the offensive side of the ball for the club last season. Indians third basemen hit a combined .235/.286/.342, tied for the third worst showing among all 30 ball clubs. Factoring in their defense – and by that I mean Giovanny Urshela’s positive contributions – the group tallied 1.2 wins above replacement, good enough for sixth worst total in the game.
Enter Juan Uribe, a better, older, huskier version of Urshela.
Uribe, one of the organization’s few offseason expenditures, has been remarkably underrated for the last seven seasons; he’s averaged nearly 3.5 fWAR per 162 games during that span. Defensively speaking, he’s everything the Tribe lacked at the position (when Urshela wasn’t starting) and he provides enough wallop to offset his poor on-base skills.
Shortstop: How’s this for impressive: Indians shortstops led MLB with 5.4 wins above replacement, nearly a win higher than that of the runner-up (Astros). How’s this for impressive (Part II): Francisco Lindor was responsible for more than 85% of that in just 99 games.
Lindor was everything a franchise hopes for in a young shortstop: he can pick it like Omar, swipe 20 or so bags, showcase above-average offensive skills, and he’s mature beyond his years. Last season was the first time he’s flashed any serious pop, so it remains to be seen if it were beginner’s luck or a promising step forward. Either way, though, he’s likely to find himself in an All-Star uniform in 2016.
Outfield: For the overwhelming majority of the season it was the Michael Brantley Show. That is, until Lonnie Chisenhall resurrected his career by flashing leather better than anyone else in right field for a handful of weeks. But it remains to be seen if he were a flash in the pan or something more.
Jump forward a year and the outfield is largely unknown.
Brantley just recently made his return to action after offseason shoulder surgery and isn’t expected to be ready come Opening Day. Chisenhall has looked underwhelming in Spring Training, so much so, in fact, that the front office signed aging veteran Marlon Byrd as insurance.
Rajai Davis, perhaps the Juan Uribe of the outfield given the fact that they both fly under the radar, will fill in between Brantley’s soft start and center field if rookie Tyler Naquin proves to be nothing more than a fourth outfielder.
It’s a weak group, really. One that’s highly dependent upon Michael Brantley’s health, Rajai Davis’ ability to continually stall Father Time, and the combination of Naquin/Chisenhall/Byrd coming up more than triple zero.
Starting Rotation: Here’s the strength of the team – bar none. The Tribe’s top five – Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, and Josh Tomlin – could match up with any other club’s rotation. Plus, the organization has the likes of Cody Anderson, T.J. House, Mike Clevinger, and Adam Plutko ready to step once the inevitable injury (or injuries) strike.
Kluber’s been one of the top arms on the planet the past two seasons; only Clayton Kershaw has bested him in wins above replacement since the beginning of 2015. Carrasco plays Robin to Kluber’s Batman. The former Phillies top prospect has tallied 8.0 fWAR during the same period, the 18th best mark among all pitchers, and has become an absolute dominant force that could easily front the majority of MLB rotations. Fire-balling right-hander Danny Salazar has been plagued by the homerun, but misses more than a bat per inning with typically above-average control/command. Trevor Bauer has the potential to develop into a solid mid-rotation arm if he can overcome some wavering control. And Josh Tomlin has been a pitcher transformed since coming back from injuries two years ago, posting a combined 151-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in just 169.2 innings.
As for the potential injury-fill-ins, Anderson showcases a dominant, above-average fastball but hasn’t missed a whole lot of bats through the majority of his professional career. At worst, he’s better than replacement value who can chew through plenty of innings. House, who lasted just 34.0 innings last year courtesy of shoulder woes, seems to be healthy. Clevinger, whom I ranked as the club’s sixth best prospect, was pilfered from the Angels for the corpse of Vinnie Pestano. The big, hard-throwing right-hander has been a bit old for his levels of competitions, but has the makings of a poor man’s Corey Kluber. And Plutko could be the serviceable backend starter for the better part of a decade.
It’s deep. It’s supremely talented. It’s going to be dominant.
Bullpen: While it – clearly – doesn’t match up with the team’s rotation, the bullpen should be ranked among the better half in the game. It shakes out as the following:
Closer: Cody Allen
Eighth Inning: Bryan Shaw
Seventh Inning: Zach McAllister
Top Lefty: Kyle Crockett
Allen’s been borderline dominant over his first two seasons as the team’s closer. Shaw is a reliable, innings eater with a seemingly rubber arm. McAllister, whom I’m still holding out hope for that he turns into a solid member of the rotation, really blossomed in his role last season, fanning 84 in just 69.0 innings. And Crockett is a serviceable southpaw.
Joba’s fastball has reportedly crept up above 95 mph has seeing a downturn with Detroit last season. Manship is likely headed for a rather noticeable decline from his breakout season last year. And Otero/Detwiler are replaceable arms at this point.
This team is undoubtedly better entering the 2016 season when compared to the ballyhooed bunch of a year ago. The infield should prove to be one of the better groups in baseball. The outfield remains…a work in progress, though that might be buoyed some by Bradley Zimmer’s second half arrival. And the pitching is simply one of the best in the game.
After pegging the club as an 86-win team last year, the Indians have the makings of playoff contender that should finish around 88 or 89 wins (barring some catastrophic injury or terrible statistical luck).