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How will the Cleveland Indians Fare in 2017?

Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, who once called fictional A League of Their Own manager Jimmy Dugan a talking pile of pig…excrement, famously quipped: “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

For Northeast Ohio, well, it was a typically longer-than-normal winter – though that has more to do with the Indians coming oh-so-close to standing atop the baseball world than the actual weather.

So the 68-year question that remains is…Can the Indians win it all in 2017?

Let’s take a look…

History, itself, doesn’t quite know what to make of the Tribe’s odds this year. Consider the following two little tidbits:

  1. Between 2000 and 2015, any Major League team that reached the World Series lost an average of five additional games the following year. It’s essentially a playoff-like hangover. Teams play longer, pitchers accrue more pitches – it’s as simple as that.
  2. However, on the other hand, four teams – the Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies, and New York Yankees – were all able to make back-to-back World Series appearances during that time. So there’s a recent precedent on what the Indians are trying to do.

So let’s take it another step – or several steps – further. Per the usual, here’s a position by position breakdown for the 2017 Cleveland Indians.

 

Catcher: What should be a strength for the team quickly turned into the blackest of black holes. Yan Gomes, Roberto Perez, Chris Gimenez, and Adam Moore hit a bile-infused .185/.244/.320 to go along with a -0.7 fWAR. Their combined offensive ineptitude – and, yes, it was offensive – was a mindboggling 54% below the league average mark.

So what does 2017 hold?

Hell, just through simple regression the Indians’ backstops are bound to improve.

Yan Gomes may never be the player he once was – the guy who once slugged .284/.325/.476 with 43 doubles, five triples, and 32 homeruns between 2013 and 2014 – but I find it difficult to believe that he’s a .167/.201/.327 hitter, even after posting a .659 OPS two years ago. But things shouldn’t be all doom-and-gloom for the Brazilian-born backstop in 2017.

His walk and strikeout rates and Isolated Power all remained consistent from year-to-year and he’s still on the right side of 30. Last season Gomes battled a litany of injuries including a dislocated shoulder and a broken thumb. He may never be the four-win player he once was, but I think he’s capable of posting a 1.5-win season in 100 or so games.

Roberto Perez is one of my favorite players on the Indians. But he, too, fell on hard offensive times last season. Coming off of a .228/.348/.402 campaign in 2015 with stellar defense (which would have him starting on more MLB teams than you think), Perez batted a Gomes-esque .183/.285/.294. And just like his catching counterpart, Perez missed significant time due to injury in 2016. The cause: a broken right thumb that eventually required surgery.

Perez isn’t a thumper behind the plate. But, again, he isn’t nearly as bad as he showed last year. Throw in some of the better backstop defense in the game, and he has the makings of a 1.0-win player in part time action for the Tribe – if not more.

First Base: In a lot of ways, Mike Napoli was the epitome of the Indians in 2016. He overachieved for a team desperate for veteran overachievers. He slugged a career-high 34 homeruns en route to topping 100 RBIs for the first time. But he wasn’t that productive – at least in terms of overall value.

According to FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement, the Party Boy was worth just one single, solitary win – nearly half of the value Dan Otero provided, by the way.

Enter: Edwin Encarnacion.

And I’m just going to leave this here:

Player PA AVG OBP SLG 2B HR wRC+ fWAR
Mike Napoli 645 0.239 0.335 0.465 22 34 113 1.0
Edwin Encarnacion 702 0.263 0.357 0.529 34 42 134 3.9

Now Encarnacion’s contract may be a bit of a millstone in a few years. But his production will be miles above Napoli’s.

Last year I developed – or started to develop – a multi-year projection system. And, just by chance Encarnacion was one of the guys I had been using as a sample subject. My system projected that the slugging first baseman would put together a .273/.370/.574 triple-slash line in 2016 – which was reasonably accurate. It also said he was going to have a career year in 2017 by slugging .288/.383/.621. I find it hard to believe that’ll happen at the age of 34. But he should be no worse than a two-win upgrade from last year’s projection.

Second Base: Here’s a little fun fact to chew on: since 2015 only two other second basemen, Jose Altuve and Ian Kinsler, have topped Jason Kipnis’ 9.8-win total. The former second round pick is off to a not-so-great start to the season as he recently hit the DL with shoulder issues, something that can’t be easily dismissed (just ask Dr. Smooth). But a lot of his numbers seem quite repeatable, even if he does see a modest downtick in the power department. Ignoring his disastrous 2014, his 3.4-win season in 2012 seems like a safe floor given his wonky shoulder.

Shortstop: Here’s another little fun fact: No shortstop in baseball has bettered Francisco Lindor’s 10.8 fWAR since 2015 – despite the fact that he’s appeared in more than 40 games fewer than runner-up Brandon Crawford. Lindor’s a generational-type talent. He has the offensive wherewithal to post a 120 wRC+ with the defensive wizardry of Ozzie Smith. Assuming he isn’t besmirched by injury in 2017, he should have no problem repeating his 2016 production.

Third Base: Outside of the ineptitude that the Tribe’s catchers showed in 2016, third base was the least productive position for the team. And that’s despite Jose Ramirez getting more than 400 plate appearances at the hot corner. Of course, having Juan Uribe “hit” .206/.260/.335 in 68 games will do that for you.

Ramirez was the spark plug the Tribe’s offense desperately needed last year, especially at various times in the playoffs. But is he really a .312/.363/.462 hitter? I’m not entirely sold – yet. In other words: it wouldn’t be shocking to see him take a step back in 2017. Even if he bats .280/.330/.390 he’ll be one of the better third baseman, but I just don’t see him posting another WAR total near 5.0.

Back-up Yandy Diaz should be a nice contributor, as I mentioned in my latest book, coming off the bench.

Outfield:

Looking back at the Tribe’s playoff run, it’s impressive considering the fact that the club’s second best hitter, Michael Brantley, and three of their starting pitchers were injured (Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, and Trevor Bauer). And while there was some talk being floated about that suggested Brantley’s shoulder woes, which limited him to just 43 plate appearances, might be career ending, the former All-Star has looked impressive during his jaunt through Spring Training.

Despite Brantley’s lost season, the team’s left field production was above average in 2016 as the group slugged an aggregate .286/.350/.437. It remains to be seen if Mickey’s kid can hold up for the entire season, but he should be able to eclipse that production (assuming he’s fully recovered).

Center fielder Tyler Naquin exceeded all expectations and provided one of the season’s iconic moments as he raced around the bases for a dramatic inside-the-park homerun.  But make no mistake about it, he’s headed for a crash landing. The former first round pick batted just .234/.331/.331 over his final 46 contests and his punch out rate, 30.7%, is well above red flag territory. He plays a passable center field, but I’d be shocked to see him exceed two wins over the course of a full season.

Surprisingly enough, right field was the least productive outfield position for the Indians last season. Lonnie Chisenhall topped the league average offensive production mark for the third time in his career. But his stellar defense regressed some. With that being said, there’s no reason to suspect that he can’t repeat his 2016 campaign.

Backups Austin Jackson and (personal favorite) Brandon Guyer, as well as Abraham Almonte, provide excellent depth.

Rotation: The strength of the team – without question – is the club’s arms. Corey Kluber’s been remarkably consistent – and dominant – over the past three seasons. The former Cy Young winner is now approaching his 31st birthday so he might start to show slight signs of slowing down.

Carlos Carrasco was limited to just 146.1 innings thanks to some non-arm related injuries. And while he may never exceed his dominant 2015, he should have no problems exceeding his modest 2.5-win season from a year ago.

Danny Salazar is still coughing up homeruns at the same troubling rate. And there’s some risk thanks to the yips he experienced in the second half. When he’s on, he’s great. When he’s not, well, we all saw that at various points in 2016.

Trevor Bauer hopefully won’t be battling any drones in 2017. The former UCLA stud has always been a personal favorite of mine and my gut tells me he’s going to put it all together one of these years. My head, on the other hand, tells me he’s a perfectly adequate #4 caliber arm.

Texas-born right-hander Josh Tomlin remains one of the most underrated starters in baseball. And if it weren’t for a hellish month of August – he allowed 34 ER in 26.2 IP – which might have been affected by some off-the-field issues, his overall numbers were quite impressive minus the poor month: 3.11 ERA.

Bullpen: The four-headed monster of Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Andrew Miller, and Dan Otero are firmly in place. Add in southpaw Boone Logan and youngster Shawn Armstrong to go along with veteran Zach McAllister, and the Indians have arguably the best pitching staff in baseball.

 

So, what’s it all mean?: The Indians won 94 games last season and were mathematically a 91-win team (based on their runs scored vs. runs allowed). I think as long as their 2017 season isn’t decimated by injuries, the club’s a good bet to wins 96 games. But that’s all meaningless unless them can repeat that level of dominance in the playoffs.

 



About

After serving as a video scout/analyst for Baseball Info Solutions, Joe Werner began writing at his original site, ReleasePoints.com. He’s since transitioned into his current niche, prospect analysis, at ProspectDigest.com. He has been fortunate — and incredibly blessed — to have some of his work published and mentioned by several major media outlets, including: ESPN, Cleveland.com and the Baseball Research Journal. He can be reached at: JosephMWerner@yahoo.com.


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