Last Updated: 2017-03-29
You know I’ve been waiting for this. My beloved Cleveland Indians are among the favorites to win the American League and could very well return to the World Series. On a personal level, I’ve spent the last four months trying to process what I saw last season. That team had no business being in the World Series. That team had no business taking a 3-1 lead in the World Series. Yet, there they were, with three shots to slay the mighty dragon.
Michael Martinez made the last out of the World Series. Even in Cleveland, as I shuffled with slumped shoulders off of the Home Run Porch, laughing to keep from crying about the fact that one of the 10 worst MLB players this century made the final out of a stunning run to the Fall Classic, jubilant Cubs fans to my left, to my right, behind me, and in front of me celebrated the end of 108 years of heartache. Mine, well, it continued. It still hurts like the day it happened. I won’t get over it until I can feel the jubilation and sheer enjoyment that I saw all around me that day from fans that invaded my city. I’m in tears as I write this.
I still haven’t watched the last out from that game. I’ve only seen playoff highlights in passing, of Carlos Santana’s catch of the final out in the ALCS and Rajai Davis’s game-tying home run, which is unquestionably a top-two moment in my life. It’s not denial. It’s one of those stages of grief, but I don’t know which one. Hell, with my expectations for this season, it may not fully hit me until this year’s outcome is determined.
The 2016 season for the Indians was the highest of highs that ended in the lowest of lows. The irony, and what keeps me going every day, is how closely this parallels what happened with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2015 and the Kansas City Royals in 2014. The Cavaliers were gassed by the time they got to the NBA Finals. LeBron James had a team and a city on his shoulders and left every ounce of everything that he had on that floor. Retribution came the next season against the same team. The Royals and Indians are strikingly similar. The key difference is that the Indians have a much better starting rotation. Major League Baseball teams use the copycat approach. When something works, everybody tries to do it. The Indians saw firsthand what a focus on defense, relief pitching, and contact could do. That’s the blueprint that they have adopted over the last few seasons. Now, it has them in a position to be one of the best teams in baseball.
You’re probably reading this wondering how I’m going to remain impartial. That’s fine. You don’t have to believe me, but I am. I picked my favorite team and last year’s American League Champions to go under their season win total. That wasn’t for show. That was because I saw a flawed team that had some major question marks. I have questions about this year’s team. I have concerns. Do I have optimism? You bet your ass I do. But, I also have an obligation to my readers and to myself to give you an unbiased view. I’ll do that to the best of my ability.
The Indians finished 94-67 with one game against the Detroit Tigers that didn’t need to be made up after a late-season rainout. Per the Pythagorean Win-Loss metric, the Indians overachieved by three games. They were 28-21 in one-run games, but managed to go 11 games over .500 in the second half with just a +20 run differential. That really made up the three-game difference. By BaseRuns, an alternative, context-neutral standings metric, the Indians also posted a 91-70 mark, even though they also showed a better overall run differential.
The stage is set. The expectations are high. The division seems like a formality. Are those expectations reachable?
Season Win Total Odds
BetDSI: 93.5 (-105/-115)
BetOnline: 93.5 (-115/-115)
5Dimes: 93.5 (-105/-125)
Additions: Edwin Encarnacion, Austin Jackson, Boone Logan, Chris Colabello, Wily Mo Pena, Carlos Frias, Tim Cooney, Steve Delabar
Losses: Mike Napoli, Rajai Davis, Coco Crisp, Jeff Manship, Austin Adams, Jesus Aguilar
Edwin Encarnacion is just what the Indians needed. Let’s be honest. In this market size, the goal has always been to be in a good position to win the Central Division. The goals have changed. Barring a catastrophe, the division appears to be a lock. Now, it’s about matching up for October. The Indians signed the best free agent hitter on the market and did so at a reasonable cost.
With Encarnacion signed, sealed, and delivered as the replacement to Mike Napoli, it was business as usual. The Indians did go a little bit above their usual comfort zone to snag Boone Logan, but then it was about bargain hunting. Austin Jackson could have real value to a team with nobody that can catch in center field, but he’s coming off of knee surgery. Wily Mo Pena hasn’t played in MLB since 2011. Carlos Frias, Tim Cooney, and Steve Delabar are all about stockpiling arms.
None of the losses are very significant from a performance standpoint. Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis got progressively worse offensively as the season went on and, aside from Davis’s baserunning skills, the Indians won’t miss them.
Why bet the over?
This is a complete team. This is one of the most complete teams you’re going to find in baseball. Let’s put it this way: the weakest spot of the Indians is the starting rotation and that features a former Cy Young winner in Corey Kluber, three righties that throw in the mid-90s, and a starter with elite control.
Let’s start with that starting rotation. The Indians rode Corey Kluber hard last season, so he’s easing into the Spring Training grind, but he has pristine mechanics and has very quietly worked three straight 215+ inning seasons. Over the last three seasons, Kluber trails only David Price, Max Scherzer, and Johnny Cueto in innings pitched. Only Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard, and Jake Arrieta have a lower FIP. Kluber ranks sixth in K% and sixth in K%-BB%, which is strikeout percentage minus walk percentage. He’s simply elite. He doesn’t get mentioned with the greats in either league, but he’s right there with a lot of those guys.
Here’s the funny part. You know who ranks seventh in K% and K%-BB%? Carlos Carrasco. Carrasco is 10th in FIP and actually has a better SIERA (skill-interactive ERA) than Kluber in that span. Carrasco was limited to 146.1 innings of work last season because he popped a hamstring and got hit on the hand by a comebacker. Had Carrasco not been hit by that line drive, the Indians may be raising a different kind of flag on April 11. It’s tough to evaluate his 2016 because he missed two big chunks of time, but he posted a 3.32 ERA with a 3.32 xFIP. His home run rate spiked a bit, though that was likely due to the fact that he had to miss a month after building up his arm strength. Carrasco made it through four starts before his hamstring gave way against Detroit. Then, it was like going through Spring Training all over again to get back. If Carrasco can stay healthy, and he hasn’t really had any arm issues since his Tommy John surgery in 2011, this may be the year that he takes the next step. That’s scary for the rest of the AL.
Lying in the weeds is Danny Salazar. A bum elbow rendered Salazar mostly useless in the postseason, so the Indians were down two of their top three starters and still took the Cubs to the 10th inning of Game 7. While pitching through some pain, Salazar’s walk rate did spike, but he actually lowered his home run rate and increased his ground ball rate, which are two inspiring things heading into the season. Salazar posted a 3.87 ERA with a 3.74 FIP and xFIP. Considering a big component of FIP is walks, that wasn’t a bad performance. He has 541 strikeouts in 484.1 career MLB innings. At 27, Salazar is in the prime of his career and it seemed like he had a better plan for attacking hitters last season. Even though he didn’t always execute, there’s a learning curve that pitchers need. A lot of people don’t realize this, but Salazar has a truly elite change-up. Referred to by some as more of a split-change, it has been worth 26.1 runs above average per PITCHf/x and 31.6 per Baseball Info Solutions over the last two seasons. The list of pitchers with a more valuable change-up (per PITCHf/x): Kyle Hendricks, Zack Greinke, and David Price. Baseball Info Solutions actually has Salazar with the most valuable change-up over the last two years.
The tools remain in place for Trevor Bauer to live up to his enormous hype coming out of UCLA. He’s carved out a decent MLB career, but last season was his best as a professional, even with a stint in the bullpen. Bauer posted the best walk rate of his career and best ground ball rate of his career. Given the defensive makeup of the Indians, that’s a major plus. This is where I remind readers of what I’ve been talking about with a lot of teams. Having league average fourth and fifth starters is really good. Bauer was above league average and he’s very durable given his training regimen, so this is a good asset for the Indians to have.
Starting pitching depth is essential. The Indians have a lot of it. Josh Tomlin is an adequate fifth starter. Hard-throwing righties Cody Anderson and Mike Clevinger could step in at a moment’s notice. ALCS Game 5 hero Ryan Merritt is a pitchability lefty with great control. The Indians also picked up Tim Cooney from St. Louis and also snagged Carlos Frias from the Dodgers. Add in Shawn Morimando, who made a cameo appearance last season, and UCLA product Adam Plutko and the Indians have a lot of Major League-ready depth. Baseball Prospectus actually had Plutko as the #10 prospect in the Indians system, which did lose some punch with the Clint Frazier/Justus Sheffield trade.
We’ll stick with the pitching theme because the Indians have the best bullpen in baseball. Fight me if you want, but you aren’t going to win. Andrew Miller is the single most valuable weapon in the league as far as relievers go. He can get righties out. He’s hell on lefties. He’s extremely durable and more than capable of going two innings. The Indians rode him hard in the lead-up to the playoffs and in the postseason, but he seems to be the type that thrives on a high workload. The Indians have the bullpen depth to keep Miller fresh throughout the season. He worked 74.1 innings during the season and 18.2 more during the playoffs. But, the Indians have him all season now and that’s a huge plus.
Cody Allen is really good. Allen ranks 16th in FIP among relievers from 2014-16 and seventh in K%. With Allen and Miller at the back end of the pen, the Indians are in great shape. It’s the depth that really stands out. Bryan Shaw has a rubber arm and has been very effective for the Indians. Boone Logan is an excellent addition as a second lefty to limit exposure for Miller during the season. Over the last three seasons, Andrew Miller has the best slider in baseball among RP. Boone Logan is fifth. Dan Otero got back to what worked for him and he posted a 1.6 fWAR for the Indians by not walking anybody and keeping the ball in the park. Zach McAllister takes a lot of flack, but he still misses bats. Terry Francona has a lot of matchup possibilities here and should be able to manage this group responsibly over the long haul.
As it turns out, the offense is pretty damn good, too. The world got to see just how good Francisco Lindor is during last year’s playoffs and his infectious personality is something that MLB really needs to market. He’s always had exceptional makeup according to scouts and the game has never really sped up on him, so I don’t see a sophomore slump in his second full season. Lindor slashed .301/.358/.435 with an elite rate of contact and he also hit 15 home runs. Lindor stole 19 bases. He’s also absolutely elite defensively. His 6.3 fWAR is a sign of things to come. He won’t turn 24 until after the season, so there’s probably still a ceiling there as he gets more experience against the pitchers and keeps getting stronger. His power production rates were actually down a bit last season with a .134 ISO, 25 points below the previous year, and a 3.1 percent drop in HR/FB%. It sort of reminds me of the power spikes of Michael Brantley and Asdrubal Cabrera. Cabrera realized he could take a hack every now and then and went from three HR in 425 PA in 2010 to 25 HR in 667 PA in 2011. Brantley went from 10 to 20 from 2013 to 2014. Hitters just get a better feel for when to take a shot and can pick out pitch sequencing better. Don’t be surprised if Lindor gets close to 20 this year.
Last year’s quiet breakout star was Jose Ramirez. Ramirez, who actually debuted back in 2013 at the age of 21, slashed .312/.363/.462 and became the everyday third baseman. He stole 22 bases and made a ton of contact. Ramirez only struck out 10 percent of the time and actually made the highest-percentage of contact on pitches outside the zone in all of baseball. His plate coverage is exceptional and he’s capable of carrying a high BABIP because he has really good barrel skills. I don’t know if the .462 SLG is repeatable, but he’s got gap power from both sides of the plate and is a very athletic player. Add in basically league average defense at third base and we’re talking about a player with a very high floor, even if he doesn’t replicate last season.
Over the last five seasons, Edwin Encarnacion has hit 193 home runs. The Indians had two guys with 30 dingers last season for the first time in 14 years. Mike Napoli is gone, but Encarnacion is a much more complete hitter. For one thing, he hasn’t struck out more than 20 percent of the time in a season since his rookie year. For another thing, he’s less likely to fall apart in the second half. Encarnacion turned 34 in January, so the aging curve is coming, but he’s had very consistent ISOs over the last five years and consistent HR/FB%. His power production will probably drop a bit in Cleveland because the 19-foot wall in left field hurts right-handed batters, but he’s going to have tons of opportunities to drive in runs with the guys in front of him and he’s going to hit his homers.
Jason Kipnis avoided the second-half letdown last season and once again added the long ball to his arsenal. After hitting 14 and 17 homers in his first two full seasons, Kipnis only hit 15 over 2014-15. Last season, he hit 23. He sacrificed contact for power, but it worked out in his favor, as his slash line was fairly similar. At the top of this order, he’s a really special weapon. The same can be said about Carlos Santana, who is in a contract year. Santana will turn 31 during the first week of the season, but he possesses an elite skill with one of the best BB% in baseball over the last seven years. He hit 34 homers last season and cut his strikeout rate to 14.4 percent. Observers have scoffed at his batting average, which was a respectable .259 last season, and he had one of his best offensive years ever. Batting leadoff simplified his approach and that’s where he should be this season for the majority of the year. Santana and Encarnacion are going to split time at first and DH and that should keep both guys fresh for the long haul.
The catching position could be surprisingly good for the Indians. Yan Gomes says he’s healthy, so we’ll see what that means. His 2016 was a disaster offensively as he suffered two major injuries that limited him to 74 games. He’s now two years removed from the .278/.313/.472 season he had in 2014 when he was worth 4.4 fWAR. Roberto Perez showcased his skills as an elite pitch framer in the playoffs and his plate appearances are works of art. Perez has a 12.1 career BB% in 505 PA. There’s value in that, even if he doesn’t have much BABIP luck. There’s a bit of power there, as shown in the postseason. The biggest thing is that this group has a high floor because of its defensive prowess. If Gomes’s knee is fully healed from his 2015 injury, he can return to being a good pitch framer. That injury affected his balance. On a team loaded with offensive weapons, if this is only a defensive tandem, that’s fine.
The outfield is kind of a hodgepodge of “what if” types of players. Brandon Guyer stands out because he’ll hit lefties and do it very well. Beyond that, there are some unknowns. A best-case scenario is that Tyler Naquin can outhit his defense. The optimal-case scenario is Michael Brantley looks like 80 percent of his former self.
Why bet the under?
The outfield is a mess. Austin Jackson is in camp on a minor league deal and a non-roster invite, but I promise you that the Indians want him to be the starting center fielder. Tyler Naquin looks like a duck in the desert in center field. Jackson is coming off of a knee injury that cost him a large chunk of 2016. Brandon Guyer is getting reps in center field, which is pretty scary. Lonnie Chisenhall is fine in either corner, but we’ve never seen him in center. Carlos Santana may get some left field reps. Michael Brantley should be counted on for absolutely nothing and it’s a fair question as to whether or not he’ll ever play again after some major shoulder surgeries.
The outfield has the potential to really hurt the Indians this season. Regardless of what collection of players is out there on a given day, it’s a below average defensive group. It could be a well below average offensive group as well. Brandon Guyer will do his thing against lefties, so we don’t have to worry much about him, but Michael Brantley is unlikely to be anything close to his former self. Tyler Naquin posted a .234/.331/.331 slash over his final 145 plate appearances and couldn’t hit sand if he fell off a camel in the playoffs. Teams adjusted to his inability to hit anything 92 or harder above the belt and he couldn’t adjust. He also struck out nearly 31 percent of the time.
Lonnie Chisenhall posted a 103 wRC+, so he was a tick above league average, but he didn’t hit for much power and doesn’t walk. Austin Jackson is a bad offensive player. Abraham Almonte hasn’t proven a whole lot at the big league level. The Indians have options in the outfield, but none of them are particularly good options outside of Guyer against left-handed pitching. This was my major concern about the Indians heading into last season and the reason why I liked them to go under the total. Suffice it to say, they haven’t done a whole lot to ease my fears about this group. They got extremely lucky that Rajai Davis and Tyler Naquin shined in small sample sizes to keep this group from being really bad over the long haul. Davis and Naquin were good enough for two-month stretches to bail out this collective outfield.
The job that Jose Ramirez did last season for the Indians cannot be ignored. With Michael Brantley out, Ramirez patrolled left field and then became the everyday third baseman when it was clear that Juan Uribe couldn’t measure up in the field or at the plate. JRam posted a 4.8 fWAR season, which was borderline unbelievable. He slashed .312/.363/.462. Projection systems are looking for a pretty sizable drop and it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. He had a .333 BABIP with a very low strikeout rate, which seems unsustainable. He also slugged .462, which is something he hadn’t done since he was in Single-A. He had 21 homers across multiple levels of the Indians system from 2011-15 and then hit 11 last season at the big league level. He’s still a high-floor player because of his speed and contact skill set and good fielding ability, but almost a five-win player? That’s a stretch. Regression from him, depending on the severity, could be problematic for the Indians offense.
The second-half swoon for Jason Kipnis had been evident pretty much every season leading into 2016. Kipnis posted a .651 OPS in the second half of 2012. It was .714 in 2013, .594 in 2014, and .717 in 2015. Last season, he managed to stave off that ugly regression to post a .813 OPS in the second half. We’ll see if that stands as the anomaly or if he’s turned a corner. The massive power spike is something I’d be skeptical of for this year. If the K% increase stays, but the power does not, we’re looking at a player that could be 10 percent worse offensively. That’s a big drop. Kipnis is also dealing with a strained rotator cuff that has slowed down his Spring Training. I’m very worried about that.
A Francisco Lindor injury would be crippling, but most teams have that scenario in play. The catching situation is interesting for the Indians because there are two guys there that could be a total negative offensively. A lot of people look at the Indians and see a balanced attack 1 through 9 in the lineup, but there are some scenarios in which this could be a middle of the road offense. Some regression here and there coupled with the limited offensive upside of certain players leaves question marks that cannot be ignored.
On the pitching side of things, Corey Kluber admitted to being physically and mentally exhausted after the season. Even though Kluber’s regular season workload was limited a little bit with a minor injury heading into the postseason, he worked several times on short rest in the playoffs and wound up working 249.1 innings overall. Had Kluber and the Indians been able to seal the deal, we’d be talking about his postseason as one of the best we’ve ever seen from a pitcher. Now, the Indians are left to contend with the risk-reward of it. They really had no choice, ultimately, but we’re going to monitor him closely.
Out of his control or not, Carlos Carrasco still hasn’t worked a 200-inning season. Neither has Danny Salazar, whose balky right elbow is one of my biggest concerns for the upcoming season. Both guys have Tommy John surgery in their pasts and one surgery increases the likelihood of another per the studies that are out there. While the Indians have some adequate starting pitcher depth, we’re talking about a win total in the 90s. There’s very little margin for error when it comes to something like that. Josh Tomlin has also had Tommy John. That means that 60 percent of the Indians projected starting rotation has gone under the knife. Mike Clevinger also had it. The Indians have not shied away from taking on guys with injury histories, as evidenced by how they drafted Brady Aiken in the 2016 MLB Draft, so they ain’t scurred, but, I guarantee Salazar worries them behind the scenes.
Let’s talk bullpen, shall we? Nothing in baseball is more volatile than a bullpen. The Indians have done everything in their power to account for such things. Over the last four seasons, your league leaders in appearances are Bryan Shaw, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Cody Allen, and Tyler Clippard. Two of those guys reside in the Cleveland bullpen. If you sort by innings pitched, the Indians have three of the top 25 in innings pitched from 2013-16 with Shaw, Allen, and Dan Otero. If you change the search parameters to 2014-16, Andrew Miller pops up 21st in appearances and 16th in innings pitched. These are the four most important guys in the Tribe bullpen and all of them have logged a significant workload recently. That’s only regular season innings as well, so they all added some work last postseason and Miller, of course, had some previous work with the Orioles and Yankees.
With the Indians likely to win this division by a large margin, as Fangraphs predictions the Indians to win by 11 games and PECOTA by even more, what’s Cleveland’s incentive to push for home field or push for the win total? The big picture is going to matter throughout the year, but especially in September. Will we see Corey Kluber and/or Carlos Carrasco skipped? Could the Indians adopt a six-man rotation for a bit? Will Cody Allen and Andrew Miller see reduced workloads? None of these things would surprise me, especially with Miller working in the WBC. Cleveland needs to be smart about this. Like I said about the Encarnacion signing, it’s no longer about the division like it has been in past years. It’s solely about the playoffs. That’s a mindset that will carry through the entire season.
Margin for error is very, very small when taking a team expected to post a winning percentage of .570 or above. It’s a long season and that implies a very high level of consistency.
Season Win Total Pick: Over 93.5 (+115; BetDSI)
This is a team on a mission. There was very little sulking about the final out of Game 7. Many Indians told reporters after the game that they would go to Spring Training right now if they could. To get that close, to get that taste, to captivate a city that has been a bad baseball town for 15 years, that meant something. We often see a hangover from teams that made a deep run, especially if they aren’t used to it. I don’t see that from the Indians.
Ownership made a commitment and they made it loud and clear by signing Edwin Encarnacion and Boone Logan. The players feed off of that because some of them have been through the dog days of Cleveland baseball when money was hard to come by. I’m not a big fan of Terry Francona the decision maker, but I’m a huge fan of Terry Francona the leader of men. The players love him. Free agents want to play for him. I know it’s not quantifiable and this is where I deviate a bit from the metrics, but this is a great clubhouse. That means something in the dog days of the season, even if winning is the ultimate clubhouse elixir. The Indians are no longer a team of good guys looking to overachieve. They’re a legitimate contender to win the World Series.
Let’s take the narratives out of the equation and simply look at the personnel. This is the best bullpen in baseball. This is the second or third-best lineup in the American League. This might be the best rotation in the American League, though Boston has a very strong case. This is a team that excels in a lot of areas, including an elite defensive infield. Furthermore, this is a team that should dominate within the division. If the Indians simply go 50-26 against the Central, which is basically what they did last season, they only need to go 43-43 against the rest of baseball. To me, this team is better than last year’s version that went 94-67. The sky’s the limit for the Indians.
-END OF 2017 PREVIEW-
It wasn’t the season that the Cleveland Indians envisioned. It wasn’t the season that I envisioned. Full disclosure, the Indians are my favorite team and I had big-time expectations for last season’s squad. On so many levels, it was a frustrating season. The best example of just how strange the 2015 campaign was for the Tribe is that they had 19 bases loaded walks and just 24 bases loaded hits. They had a .194 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) with the bases loaded, 49 points lower than the second-lowest mark. Ironically, the Indians led the league in 2014 with a .361 BABIP with the bases loaded.
It was such a complex season on so many levels. The Indians squandered a full season of the primes of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar. Early-season defensive debacles became a thing of the past, but it was far too late for the Indians by the time Francisco Lindor made his Major League debut and Lonnie Chisenhall surprised everybody by being a Gold Glove-caliber right fielder.
It doesn’t mean anything in the standings, but the Indians were the third-best team in the American League per 3rd Order win percentage at Baseball Prospectus. Per these advanced metrics, the Indians should have won 93 games and should have won the AL Central by seven games over the Kansas City Royals. By BaseRuns (which Neil Weinberg beautifully explained last June), a standings metric at Fangraphs, the Indians were -8 wins based on their expected runs scored and runs allowed. At 89-72, the Indians would have won the Central Division by five games over the Kansas City Royals.
Sure, all of this is hypothetical and it does not reflect what happened on the field. Because of poor situational hitting and terrible first half defense, the Indians finished one game over .500. It was the third straight winning season under Terry Francona, though there has been one playoff game in that span and the Indians were shut out 4-0 at Progressive Field. I wasn’t the only one excited about the Indians last season. The notorious Sports Illustrated curse was labeled as a culprit after that publication projected the Indians to win the World Series for the first time since 1948. The Indians season win total opened 81 at Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno and was bet up to 84 in the blink of an eye. Westgate Superbook opened 84.5. The Indians were +29 in run differential, which equates to an 84-77 Pythagorean win-loss record.
The Indians were 33-26 over the final 59 games of the season. They were inexplicably 32-43 against the AL Central, going just 7-11 against the Detroit Tigers even though the Tigers were 53-70 against right-handed starters. The offseason started on the wrong foot with the announcement that Michael Brantley had to undergo non-throwing shoulder labrum surgery and would be out until some time in May. Then it was July. Then it was June. Then it was back to May and Brantley’s targeting an early April return date.
What we do know about this team is that they are stacked with starting pitching, have the potential for a league average or above lineup, and have more warm bodies vying for bullpen roles than any other team in the big leagues. Is that going to be enough to get over the hump? We’re going to find out.
Season win total odds:
BetOnline: 85.5 (-115/-115)
5Dimes: 85.5 (-110/-120)
Bovada: 84.5 (-130/100)
Key additions: Mike Napoli, Rajai Davis, Joba Chamberlain, Juan Uribe, Craig Stammen, Joey Butler, Collin Cowgill, Robbie Grossman, Ross Detwiler, Tom Gorzelanny, Joe Thatcher, Tommy Hunter
Key losses: Mike Aviles, Ryan Raburn, Nick Hagadone, Chris Johnson
Most of these names will not excite you. Normally, I only add the really marquee names, but this is my team and I’ll do what I want. But, in all seriousness, it highlights the offseason plan for the Indians. They cannot play in the sandbox with the big boys. The goal for the Tribe is to find surplus value on the cheap. That’s why they’re hoping for a Mike Napoli bounce back. That’s why Rajai Davis comes in as center field insurance and a Michael Brantley replacement. That’s why Juan Uribe comes in to start at third base on a team that could use some veteran leadership.
It’s hard to figure out how the outfield depth situation will shake out. Collin Cowgill should be a lock to make the team given his arbitration award and Chisenhall’s inability to hit lefties. That doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for Butler or Grossman, but who knows how this thing could play out?
Tommy Hunter got $2M guaranteed, so he’s a lock for the pen when he returns from abdominal surgery. Joe Thatcher should have the inside track as a second lefty over Tom Gorzelanny and Ross Detwiler. Joba the Hutt might sneak in with Hunter’s injury or another RP injury. Craig Stammen has more upside, so we’ll see how the Indians put this thing together. Terry Francona loves eight-man bullpens, so one is definitely coming here.
Why bet the over?
Corey Kluber. Carlos Carrasco. Danny Salazar. The top three in the Cleveland Indians rotation from last season combined for 656 strikeouts in 590.2 innings of work. The win-loss record is irrelevant because they have no control over that kind of stuff. That trio allowed just 141 walks and 499 hits. If we add in the 23 hit by pitches, this group of elite starters had just seven fewer strikeouts than baserunners, minus errors of course. There’s no reason to see any drop-off and, in fact, this group could be even better.
We’ll start with Kluber, who ran into a groin injury late in the season that limited his effectiveness. He did regress a bit from 2014, which was probably to be expected because that was a Cy Young winning season. Kluber’s strikeout rate dropped a tad, but it came with an improved walk rate, so that was a fair trade-off. Kluber’s command waned late in the season, which could be explained by throwing 235.2 innings in 2014, a massive jump from the 159.2 he threw in 2013. Kluber’s fastball command remains an issue, but his cutter and curveball are two of the best pitches in baseball. With a vastly-improved infield defense with a full season of Francisco Lindor and Mike Napoli, Kluber should see positive gains across the board.
If Carlos Carrasco wins a Cy Young, you heard it here first. Carrasco, like Kluber, ran into a little bit of command trouble at various parts throughout the season as his HR/FB% increased by six percent. But, his 3.63 ERA only told part of the story that his 2.84 FIP and 2.66 xFIP told. Carrasco was domed by a comebacker in his second start of the season and it led to a relatively sluggish start to the season. From May 22 on, Carrasco posted a 165/33 K/BB ratio, a .214/.266/.347 slash against and a 3.21 ERA. Carrasco has one of the best arsenals in baseball with a mid-90s fastball, a devastating slider, and a changeup that flashes double plus.
Danny Salazar is the guy ready to take that next step. Salazar throws an elevated fastball in the mid-to-upper-90s with a split-change that makes my pants two sizes too tight. The big thing for Salazar was learning how to pitch to contact. The strikeout rate dropped a tick and the home run rate will never be elite, but he made significant strides in getting hitters to hit the ball on the ground and he still struck out over a batter per inning. Salazar was pushed out to 191 innings including his one Triple-A start, so he’s ready to cross that 200-inning plateau, which will make him a Cy Young candidate as well.
One of the things that I look for when seeking out overs to bet is depth. The team absolutely has to have depth. For the Indians rotation, they have it in spades. Trevor Bauer will be the fourth starter. Bauer is frustrating. His stuff is bordering on elite, but his control and command were seriously lacking once again last season. Nobody works harder than Bauer, whose offseason regimen includes an in-depth scientific analysis of everything from his mechanics to spin rates to building drones. He’s a fascinating individual and a guy with a lot of upside.
Josh Tomlin, Cody Anderson, Mike Clevinger, and TJ House all profile as viable Major League starters. Tomlin has the inside track to make the rotation after signing a two-year pact prior to arbitration. Tomlin had Tommy John surgery in 2013 and then dealt with a shoulder injury to start out 2015. When he returned, his curveball had a lot of bite and his control was impeccable. Anderson needs a good defense to post respectable numbers, but the Indians do have that. Clevinger rose up prospect rankings after a terrific season in Double-A Akron. House is a guy that I personally love, if he can stay healthy. He provides a different look from the left side with a ground ball skill set and an average strikeout rate. If House is healthy, the Indians run eight deep in the Major League rotation and have reinforcements in Triple-A that are useful.
Might as well stick with another strength and focus on the bullpen. Your reigning MLB leader in reliever fWAR is Cody Allen. Allen gave up just two home runs out of the 286 batters that he faced last season. His strikeout rate climbed to 34.6 percent and he made modest strides in the walk department. Allen was victimized by some bad defense early on and allowed 15 earned runs over his final 65 appearances of the season.
Depending on how long Bryan Shaw’s arm holds up, the Indians have a quality cast of setup men. Allen and Shaw are #1 and #2 in appearances over the last three seasons. Shaw worked 74 games last season and had some home run issues that elevated his FIP, but his cutter continued to miss most barrels and he should be fine this season. Tommy Hunter adds a flamethrower to the back end of the pen when he is healthy. Zach McAllister drew the ire of Indians fans, but he struck out 28 percent of the batters he faced and was victimized by a .346 BABIP against. With a better feel for this new full-time role, he could blossom this season. Veteran opt-out dates might keep Shawn Armstrong from making the team out of Spring Training, but he has a lot of upside as a hard thrower with excellent MiLB K rates. He struck out 80 in 49.2 Triple-A innings and punched out 11 in eight MLB innings.
The left side of the pen shows promise with fast-tracked youngster Kyle Crockett and a couple of non-roster invites in Joe Thatcher and Tom Gorzelanny. The Indians also have Giovanni Soto to consider. He has the highest upside of any of the four, but also the luxury of time, minor league options, and youth.
It’s the lineup that scares everybody, but there are a lot of reasons for optimism here. We’ll start with Francisco Lindor, who is an elite player. Projection systems do not expect his numbers to come close to last season’s 438-PA sample size, and, in some respects, I don’t either, but he’ll net a ton of defensive value and should still be an above average hitter. He won’t post a 13 percent HR/FB% this season, but his walk rate should increase and his barrel skills are really impressive for a 22-year-old. A .348 BABIP is not replicable, so Lindor likely falls into a .285/.335/.425 range, which is great for the shortstop position and his defense should play up in a big way. He’ll be a four-win player at a minimum with a work ethic that somehow exceeds his raw talent.
The second-half monster caught up to Jason Kipnis again last season as his barrel dragged through the zone after the All-Star Break. After posting a 59/42 K/BB total in the first half, Kipnis stopped walking in the second half and had 48 strikeouts against 15 walks. He hit 52 points lower and his slugging percentage dropped by 93 points. But, despite all of that, he’s still one of, if not the best, second basemen in the AL right now. He led the position in fWAR and could very well do so again this season.
Yan Gomes is one of my favorite bounce back candidates. I wrote about Gomes for the Cleveland sports blog Everybody Hates Cleveland and what the MCL injury he suffered in April did to hurt his overall season. His framing skills dropped off from a lack of balance and his bat never came around. It’s hard to get hurt early in the season and virtually go through Spring Training all over again. Gomes also admitted to rushing back. His slugging percentage dropped 81 points and his contact quality dropped off. Healthy and extremely motivated, Gomes should be better in all facets of the game. It’s also worth pointing out that Lindor and Chisenhall helped defensively, but having Gomes back behind the plate had to help the pitching staff out. He’s an elite game-caller.
Michael Brantley will be back. He’s not swinging a bat yet, but he can catch and throw, so he should be able to assume his regular left field duties. Brantley is a tremendous offensive player. Brantley’s power output took an expected tumble, but his contact quality is still excellent and he walked nine more times than he struck out last season. He’ll manage to amass a few wins above replacement player in a shortened season.
The upside value for the Indians lies in how their random collection of other pieces will perform. Mike Napoli is hoping for a career resurrection after being one of the worst hitters in baseball against righties last season. Rajai Davis will add veteran leadership and platoon skills to the roster. Abraham Almonte is counted on for a huge role and his performance is very hard to project after small sample size success last season. Jose Ramirez is a big wild card for this team with a skill set that screams upside. Lonnie Chisenhall’s wild BABIP swings could be masked by above average right field defense. Carlos Santana’s walk skills and plate discipline are underrated by most because he’s been miscast as a middle of the order hitter. His value needs to be maximized for him to be an impact player and that means hitting at the top of the order where his patience can be a weapon. Juan Uribe is going to be 37.
Platoons are not sexy, as I wrote in my Tampa Bay write-up. They require two players to succeed to be effective, especially the guy tasked with hitting right-handed pitching. The Indians have a diverse skill set and interesting roster flexibility. Another variable is Terry Francona. Francona is thought of as one of the best managers in the game (I disagree, as you’ll see), but the one thing I can give him a lot of credit for is that he excels at connecting with the players. Guys like playing for him and the Indians have tremendous clubhouse camaraderie. That can be a blessing and a curse, but one would assume that enjoying going to work is better than not enjoying it.
The Indians were one of the unluckiest teams in baseball last season. With the bases empty, they were third in wOBA at .321 and had a .305 BABIP. With men in scoring position, the Indians were 13th in wOBA and posted a .278 BABIP. Joe Peta addressed the idea of “Cluster Luck” in his excellent book, Trading Bases, and the Indians are a prime example of this. The idea is that teams can overachieve/underachieve based on how they do in these high-leverage hitting situations. The idea is that this will even out in future seasons. If it evens out for the Indians this season, their offense should be quite a bit better.
Why bet the under?
Because the Indians cannot compete in Major League Baseball’s free market economy, their offseason acquisitions will be viewed as underwhelming. It’s clear that Mike Napoli is trending in the wrong direction. Now 34 with a degenerative hip condition, Napoli was promised everyday action when he signed. He was a 0.7-win player last season and there aren’t a whole lot of encouraging signs to suggest that he will turn things around. His hard contact rate was the lowest of his career for a full season.
The outfield situation is a mess. A case can be made that the only player worthy of everyday action is Michael Brantley and he’ll be out for at least a month and who knows how much longer. Rajai Davis has made a living with his legs and success on the thin side of the platoon. In his mid-30s, the aging curve should be finding him soon. Steamer projects him to be worth negative fWAR. Lonnie Chisenhall’s is a very streaky hitter with a knack for posting high BABIPs by getting just enough of a pitch to bloop it over somebody’s head. Abraham Almonte failed the eye test defensively that the metrics believe he passed. He’s also a guy with very sharp platoon splits, in that he might as well be swinging a linguine noodle against lefties. Their vast collection of cheap free agent signings and minor league deal acquisitions is nothing more than a group of severely flawed players with limited upside and below average skill sets. The worst part is that even when Brantley comes back, this still isn’t a great group of players.
As if the outfield situation could not get any worse, Abraham Almonte got popped for boldenone and will miss 80 games. Tyler Naquin, an oft-injured, glove-first player, could be in line to start in center field. Or it could be 35-year-old Rajai Davis. Or it could be Robbie Grossman, who couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat in the middle of the Pacific. Or the Indians are internally talking about Joey Butler. As an Indians fan, I’m internally talking about what drink recipes I’ll use during games featuring bleach, Windex, and Quaker State.
Francisco Lindor seems like a player that would be immune to a sophomore slump, but there’s going to be some regression. Lindor hit 14 home runs in his 438 PA after hitting 14 over 920 plate appearances in Double-A and Triple-A. One thing about BABIP is that it doesn’t include home runs, so the fact that Lindor hit .348 on balls in play is probably unsustainable. We’re not talking about a player that is going to bottom out, but we are talking about a player that will struggle to put up similar offensive numbers on a team that has a myriad of offensive questions. All the pitching in the world is going to have a hard time winning if the offense cannot contribute.
That’s why Michael Brantley’s health is so important. Right now, the expectation is to get Brantley back around May, but setbacks are always possible. If the Indians end up going into June without their best offensive player, a below average offense gets even worse. Similarly, Mike Napoli’s health is important because the Indians are banking on him to provide some power punch. That’s hardly a guarantee. His batted ball distance took a tumble last season and his last two seasons have represented the lowest ISO and SLG of his career. It’s a gamble that a small-market team has to take, but it’s one that may not pay off at all.
Jason Kipnis has had trouble over the long haul and injuries continue to derail his seasons. In 2014, it was an oblique. Last season, it was a shoulder. He’s definitely a valuable player at second base, but the running theme here is that the margin for error on offense for the Indians is rather thin. They’re already trying to cobble together production in Brantley’s absence, in the two other outfield positions, at third base, and at first base. That’s a lot of holes and uncertainties. Second base cannot be one.
It’s hard to find fault with the starting rotation, but pitching is volatile, as we know. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar are not suddenly going to become league average, but Kluber battled a groin injury last season. Carrasco was placed on the disabled list for a barking shoulder. Salazar and Carrasco are both recipients of Tommy John surgery in the past. The loss of one of these three for any prolonged stretch of time turns an elite rotation into a merely above average one.
This is because Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin are not sure things. The main criticism of Bauer is that he tends to overthink and overanalyze. For me, the concern I see is how he does this within the course of an at bat. His offseason work is great and I have no problem with his training methods. The issue that I see is that he’s almost too cerebral at times within the course of a game. Until he learns to harness these things, he’s a league average or worse starter. Tomlin, who shined in a couple months of pitching after shoulder problems and Tommy John, is hardly a sure bet and gives up a lot of long balls.
Cody Anderson pitches to a lot of contact and that’s never a quality that I like in a pitcher. Mike Clevinger rose up the rankings last season, but his fastball is pretty straight and he was in one of the better parks for pitching in the minors. Also, he worked over 100 innings for the first time in his pro career. On the surface, there’s depth. If the Indians have to tap into a lot of it, it becomes a different story.
Likewise, the bullpen is top-heavy. Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw have been as reliable as anybody over the last three seasons, but their workloads are off the charts. Guys like Zach McAllister, Jeff Manship, Shawn Armstrong, Kyle Crockett, and that long list of minor league additions and MLB depth all come with risks. The Indians can afford an injury to Shaw. An injury to Allen would be devastating.
That’s the overall problem with betting on this team. The Indians have depth, but there are varying opinions on that depth.
Don’t worry, I didn’t forget Terry Francona. Francona gets a lot of leeway from players and the media because of his personality and his candor. I don’t give him that same leeway. I’m not a fan of his lineup construction, which needs to be maximized in a small market. Carlos Santana had 50 more plate appearances with RISP than Michael Brantley. That should never happen. That’s a byproduct of hitting Brantley third, where players are prone to coming up to the plate with two outs and nobody on far too often. Santana should hit third (or bat leadoff, but that won’t happen) with Kipnis and Lindor in front and Brantley in the cleanup spot, where the Indians can maximize his bat-to-ball skills and approach in high-leverage plate appearances. Unfortunately, this probably won’t happen. Francona has an understanding of sabermetrics, but relies on old school managerial philosophies to refrain from upsetting the apple cart. I also hate some of the roster decisions that the Indians have made in recent years. Francona’s relationships with the players make it impossible to fire him, but I do believe he holds this team back a lot more than people realize.
Pick: Cleveland Indians Under 85.5 (-115 – BetOnline)
In the last two seasons of doing these, I have talked up the Indians like I’m trying to sell you on a car or a house. I could do it this season. I see the value in the players that they have brought in and it’s truly a joy in my life to watch this pitching staff on a regular basis. This is a team that can win 90+ games and head into October as a team that nobody wants to play. They also have an excellent minor league system that will acquire them to add impact talent throughout the season via trade.
Unfortunately, the margins are razor-thin for a small-market team. Michael Brantley’s injury, unless he races back by mid-to-late April has become crippling with the loss of Almonte. This might be the worst April starting outfield in all of baseball and that’s saying something. Truthfully, this is not a strong pick at all. With a dynamic pitching staff, the Indians might have the highest floor of any team in the American League. The ceiling isn’t as high as I would like to peg them to win 86+ games.
Consider this: Without Brantley in April, the Indians’ first 15 games are against Boston, Chicago (AL), Tampa Bay, New York Mets, and Seattle. That means they may get David Price, Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, and if you want to keep digging, guys like Eduardo Rodriguez, Steven Matz, Carlos Rodon, and Taijuan Walker. That’s a massive collection of impressive stuff. The Indians are a notoriously slow starter as well. They may be chasing the over throughout the season with some catching up to do.
This isn’t a pick for show, to let you know that I’m not biased. I try to be as impartial as I can. My heart wants to believe, as it does every season. I know how the front office operates. I can almost always see the optimistic side of a player and why he is acquired. On the other hand, I need to be a realist. I like this team. I love this rotation. Luck and variance should be on their side after last season’s sequencing debacles, like going into mid-August with more bases loaded walks than bases loaded hits.
I don’t like the idea of you, me, my friends, or the readers putting money on either side of this line. For all intents and purposes, this is a team to stay away from. But, because a pick has to make, I reluctantly offer the under. This team had season win total openers in the 80-81 range the last two seasons. People have caught on. Expectations have been elevated. The Indians haven’t met them in each of the last two seasons. Why will they in 2016?
-END OF 2016 PREVIEW-
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