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Great Expectations - A Cleveland Indians Preview

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A look ahead at the first visitors to U.S. Cellular Field in 2016

You're still going to be cold.
You're still going to be cold.
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Indians are seemingly perpetually looked upon favorably by preseason projection models. Unfortunately, they've yet to translate favorable outlooks into deep playoff runs.

2013 was the year that the Indians as we currently know them began to really come together. Second baseman Jason Kipnis broke out for the second consecutive year, racking up 57 extra-base hits from a middle infield spot. Carlos Santana put up a .377 OBP and 20 home runs from the catcher position, though he's now ticketed for DH duties. His successor behind the dish, Yan Gomes, burst onto the scene by slugging .481 in a half-season.  Future ace Corey Kluber had his first successful season in the rotation and future closer Cody Allen began blowing hitters away in the bullpen with his mid-90s heat and wipeout curveball. The Indians won 92 games that year (fueled by a silly 17-2 record against the White Sox), but in a cruel twist of fate, the Detroit Tigers won 93, leading Cleveland to get bounced by Tampa Bay in a one-game playoff. That was the only playoff game the Tribe has played since 2007.

If you took that 92-win team and told me that outfielder Michael Brantley would turn into a bona-fide MVP candidate and Kluber would turn into one of the American League's premier pitchers, I'd probably expect that they'd have a stranglehold on the AL Central. That hasn't been the case, and it's been because the Indians have had trouble getting their second-tier players to step up and help the stars (sound familiar?). The 2013 Indians had the benefit of good seasons from their role players, such as Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. The 2014 and 2015 Indians, by contrast, endured some dreadful performances from their complementary players, such as Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. Add in some unfortunate injuries, and Cleveland has stayed mired in mediocrity.

The calendar has now flipped to 2016 and the Indians are once again projected by several mainstream outlets to be the class of the AL Central, including PECOTA hilariously pegging them for 92 wins. The Indians may well be the division's best team, as few squads boast a trio like Kipnis, Gomes, and sophomore phenom Francisco Lindor at the toughest three positions on the defensive spectrum. Former third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall has moved to right field and has been getting equally impressive love from highlight reels and defensive metrics. Add in the fact that Brantley's still an easy All-Star, even if he's not the near-MVP he was in 2014, and you've got a very productive position-player core.

The true strength of the 2016 Indians, however, is their starting rotation, which rivals that of the White Sox. Behind the aforementioned Kluber is hard-throwing Carlos Carrasco, who has a good argument to be called an ace as well. Carrasco's breaking pitches and changeup are truly devastating and if hitters can't manage to coerce Carrasco into leaving a sinker or four-seamer up in the zone, they're in for a tough time. Third starter Danny Salazar had a superficial breakout in 2015; peripherals indicate that he was basically the same pitcher he was the year before. Fortunately for Salazar, his 3.45 ERA in 2015 better approximates his true talent. The 26-year-old tries to get ahead with mid-upper 90's heat to set up his wipeout pitch, the splitter. Those top three guys are a formidable rotation core; they're supplemented by the strikeout-averse Cody Anderson and human launching pad Josh Tomlin, who has made appearances as the Indians' fifth starter every year since 1968.

If the Indians have a weakness, it's that their outfield depth is thin and being tested early and often. Chisenhall's on the shelf with a wrist injury, Brantley is recovering from shoulder surgery and may miss a month or so, and center fielder Abraham Almonte is going to miss half the year for testing positive for a banned substance. That trio was Plan A. In their stead, the Indians have turned to Angels castoff Collin Cowgill, veteran journeyman Marlon Byrd, and aging speedster Rajai Davis. That trio is no one's idea of Plan [passing letter grade].

Cleveland did a little better with their free agent patchwork at the two infield corners, but each mercenary comes with question marks. There's no telling whether a 37-year-old Juan Uribe will be able to approach average production or whether 34-year-old Mike Napoli will be able to continue to stave off forced retirement at the hands of avascular necrosis. The Indians have an excellent core, but a key to their success will be whether their assorted pieces of human duct tape will be able to keep the entire apparatus from collapsing.

The Band-Aid approach may come back to bite the Indians in the end, as their enviable cost-controlled core is a great argument for an "all-in" approach. Bringing in a premium player could have helped the Indians break away from the AL Central pack. However, it appears budget constraints won out, as Cleveland once again enters April with a bottom-10 MLB payroll. That's a simple byproduct of being in the bottom-three in attendance each of the past four years, so it's hard to fault management. Given the rough financial hand they've been dealt, Chris Antonetti and the recently departed Mark Shapiro have done a great job building what should be a sustainably competitive team. All that's left for the Indians to do is, you know, compete.

Projected Record and Finish: 86-76, first place, AL Central

Probable Starting Pitchers

  • Friday, April 8: John Danks vs. Danny Salazar
  • Saturday, April 9: Chris Sale vs. Cody Anderson
  • Sunday, April 10: Jose Quintana vs. Josh Tomlin

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Rajai Davis - CF

SP1. Corey Kluber - RHP

2. Jason Kipnis - 2B

SP2. Carlos Carrasco - RHP

3. Francisco Lindor - SS

SP3. Danny Salazar - RHP

4. Mike Napoli - 1B

SP4. Cody Anderson - RHP

5. Carlos Santana - DH

SP5. Josh Tomlin - RHP

6. Yan Gomes - C

CL. Cody Allen - RHP

7. Marlon Byrd - LF

RP1. Bryan Shaw - RHP

8. Juan Uribe - 3B

RP2. Zach McAllister - RHP

9. Collin Cowgill - RF

RP3. Jeff Manship - RHP