On January 5th, 2016, the Cleveland Indians signed Mike Napoli to a one-year, $7 million deal. Napoli rewarded their gamble by hitting 34 home runs and staying remarkably healthy. The metrics pegged him at about 1 WAR, so by measures of that kind he wasn’t worth much more than he was paid. However, Napoli was a strong clubhouse presence that helped solidify the middle of the order for a pennant-winning team. To put it simply, the signing worked out.
For a team like Cleveland, that’s actually a pretty big deal. Over the years, the Indians have had plenty of success gambling on pre-arb and arb-eligible free agents that were released by other organizations (Ronnie Belliard, Casey Blake, etc), but if you look just at free agents that had already racked up six years of service time, you have to go all the way back to Ellis Burks’ three year deal from 2001-2003 to find one that worked out as well as Napoli and his single 1-WAR season. Put simply, due to scouting failures and financial limitations, the Indians have not been major players whatsoever in free agency for a long time.
One lesson that can be taken from the Indians’ run to an almost-championship is that yes, it is possible to build a World Series team without much reliance on free agency. From the Indians’ 2016 team, only Napoli and Rajai Davis (0.4 WAR) were brought in as free agents and played important roles. The rest of the key players were acquired from the amateur draft or shrewd trades, with a couple amateur free agents (Jose Ramirez, Danny Salazar) sprinkled in. That’s a pretty ideal way to build a team, but I think it also illustrates just how rare Cleveland’s success really is. Can you imagine having a pipeline of young talent so strong and deep that it can fill nearly every significant slot on a contending roster? Even the Cubs, a team lauded for their success in building from the ground-up, employed free agent signings Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Jon Lester, Jason Hammel, Dexter Fowler, and John Lackey for about $90 million in combined 2016 salary. A strong case could be made that the Indians’ process has been more impressive than that of their World Series opponent.
After Cleveland went to the World Series, they found themselves with the cash and the proper situation to dip their toes back into the upper tier of free agents. With an elite roster and nothing but mediocrity chasing them in the AL Central, the Indians decided to respect the dangers of baseball’s randomness and pushed to slam the door shut on the division by inking Edwin Encarnacion for three years and $60 million. Encarnacion turned 34 this year, but he’s been one of baseball’s very best hitters over the past five seasons and should continue his slugging ways in the near-term.
Encarnacion joins a deep lineup that already includes the division’s best player in Francisco Lindor. Lindor was the #3 hitter on a World Series team in his sophomore season, but he might still wind up as one of the most underrated players ever when all is said and done. Lindor has a well-rounded offensive game with power, speed and contact and combines that with an elite glove. He’s not going to be the masher that clubs you 30+ homers or the burner that steals you 50 bases, but he’s a minimum of “good” at basically every baseball task. Lindor is usually joined at the top of the order by the similarly well-rounded Jason Kipnis, but Kipnis has been recovering from a shoulder injury. In the meantime, Terry Francona has been batting Lindor second behind unconventional leadoff slugger Carlos Santana.
Supplementing the headliners are a couple of 2016 breakout stars in third baseman Jose Ramirez and center fielder Tyler Naquin. Naquin surprised everyone by slugging .514 in about a half season of play last year and while he was part of a platoon, his role figures to expand now that righty complement Rajai Davis has left town. Ramirez’ already-excellent strike zone command started to translate into harder contact last year and the switch-hitter managed to get his average over .300 with a little pop. Not bad for a guy who was once considered nothing more than Lindor’s seatwarmer.
The Indians’ pitching depth is just as impressive as that of their position players, if not more so. The rotation is led by ace Corey Kluber, who cemented his place among this era’s greatest pitchers after an outstanding postseason as Cleveland’s go-to guy while injuries decimated the remainder of the rotation. Kluber’s nasty slider and pinpoint command made him a feared weapon against three of baseball’s best offenses in October, even if November was another story.
The Indians were mostly without the services of their two next-best starters throughout their playoff run. Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar both have difficulties staying healthy, but the former is every bit an ace when he’s able to take the mound and the latter’s maddeningly inconsistent brand of effective wildness averages out to a pretty good pitcher over a full season. Drone enthusiast and card-carrying knucklehead Trevor Bauer has also emerged as an above-average rotation piece, despite a weird move to the bullpen to begin last season. Rounding out the rotation is Josh Tomlin’s strange competence that involves getting shellacked for dingers but seriously limiting free passes. Tomlin allowed sixteen more home runs (36) than unintentional walks (20) last year. That’s absurd.
To support this rotation, the Indians have a stellar bullpen that should allow them to close out teams easily once the game gets to the late innings. Andrew Miller could be the best relief pitcher in the game, with a devastating slider and a strikeout rate of nearly 45 percent. Cody Allen is one of the game’s top closers, and Bryan Shaw and Dan Otero have shown they can handle big situations as well.
Put simply, the Indians are a team with almost no significant weaknesses in a division with teams full of them. They’re essentially returning their entire pennant-winning roster, swapping out Napoli for one of the top 20-ish hitters in baseball in Encarnacion, and swapping out Davis for Michael Brantley, who finished third in the 2014 MVP voting but is now something of a wild card returning from his shoulder injury. With stars, depth, and a soft division, Cleveland is in the best near-term situation of any American League team. It would shock no one if they rattled off three straight AL Central titles.
Probable Starting Pitchers
Tuesday, April 11: Carlos Carrasco vs. James Shields
Wednesday, April 12: Danny Salazar vs. Derek Holland
Thursday, April 13: Josh Tomlin vs. Miguel Gonzalez
|1. Carlos Santana - DH||SP1. Corey Kluber - RHP|
|2. Francisco Lindor - SS||SP2. Carlos Carrasco - RHP|
|3. Michael Brantley - LF||SP3. Danny Salazar - RHP|
|4. Edwin Encarnacion - 1B||SP4. Trevor Bauer - RHP|
|5. Jose Ramirez - 2B||SP5. Josh Tomlin - RHP|
|6. Lonnie Chisenhall - RF||CL. Cody Allen - RHP|
|7. Yandy Diaz - 3B||RP1. Andrew Miller - LHP|
|8. Tyler Naquin - CF||RP2. Bryan Shaw - RHP|
|9. Yan Gomes - C||RP3. Dan Otero - RHP|