Playing Pepper 2016: Cleveland Indians

It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning.  For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper!  We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat.  This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal.  It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.

Cleveland Indians
81-80, third in the AL Central
Last year’s Pepper

The Indians have spent a couple of years treading around the .500 mark, not falling completely out of the race, but not able to make a serious push at the division either.  Still, three years of winning baseball isn’t anything to sneeze at and, though the Royals would seem to make it improbable for the division crown to move to the Great Lakes, the postseason isn’t out of the question either.

To find out more about the Tribe, we’ve got a trio of great bloggers for you today.  Matt Lyons is a newcomer to the series, writing over at Let’s Go Tribe where he’s the managing editor.  You’ll find Matt on Twitter @mattrly.  Next is Mike Brandyberry from Did The Tribe Win Last Night?  Mike’s done this five years running now, so you probably know you can find him on Twitter @didtribewin.  Finally, we have Nino Colla, now at Everybody Hates Cleveland.  Nino’s a long time Pepper player with 2016 marking his seventh straight year, though this is the first year he’s not been listed at The Tribe Daily.  Nino Tweets now @SnarkyNino.

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

LGT: They did the bare minimum required, but the team’s core is good enough where I do not think they had to do much else. I would have liked to see another third baseman signed (and we still might), but Mike Napoli was a great addition at first base and at least one or two of the outfielders signed is bound to stick.

DTW: My thoughts on the Indians offseason are somewhere between meh and blah. They signed Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis and a mountain of dollar discount relief pitchers. I think the tough part of this question is, “did they do what they needed to do.” I would counter that question with another question, “what were they trying to do?” Among Indians bloggers, I’m in the minority, but I don’t really believe in this organization and the roster it has constructed to be a winner. They have very good starting pitching, which keeps them competitive and their defense is improved due to Francisco Lindor and getting Michael Bourn out of center field, but other than their starting pitching, I don’t think any aspect of their team is above average or playoff quality. I didn’t think it was last year and I still don’t think it is now. So, in that regard, no, I don’t think they did what they needed to do to be a legit playoff team. The Napoli and Davis signings fill gigantic, Cadillac size holes that they had in terms of a middle of the order power bat and an outfielder capable of playing center field, but I also don’t think they make them any better than last year. Each are late in their careers and there is a much better chance that they have major decline than an improvement from their mediocre seasons a year ago.

EHC: If you ask a majority of Indians fans, they were pretty displeased with the offseason the Tribe put together. Many felt that the Indians needed to make a few significant moves, but I think many were also unsure what those significant moves were or what they would address. It’s no secret that the Indians surplus of pitching is an advantageous position for them to have and there was an expectation that they’d use that to bring in something on offense, whether it was an outfielder (preferably in center) or a third baseman.​​ The Indians, as they always do, evaluated some possibilities and there were even rumors that they were floating names out there, but at the end of the day, they did what I think was the best move. They stood pat and didn’t trade any of their pitching. You can never have too many starting pitchers. As annoying that may be, it is absolutely true and when you look at the fact that the Indians have so many young and controllable arms, you can’t help but feel they’ve set themselves up for years and years of not having to worry about pitching with as much depth as they have through the minor leagues.

​They added secondary pieces to fill those gaps, like Mike Napoli, who is an upgrade defensively at first over Carlos Santana, who will slide over and be a more regular designated hitter. Rajai Davis will also serve as an option in the outfield until Michael Brantley is fully healthy and when he is, will likely partner with the likes of Abraham Almonte, Lonnie Chisenhall, and whoever else fits into the outfield picture depending on who is playing well. And as recently as a few weeks ago, veteran Juan Uribe was inked to address third base and perhaps be an offensive option to Giovanny Urshela‘s defensive prowess. By far though, the biggest moves the Indians made were probably the smallest. To match their starting pitching depth, Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff stocked the bullpen with what many of us like to call “lottery tickets”. They added plenty of arms, both left and right, on minor league deals to fit into a bullpen battle. Names like Joba Chamberlain, Craig Stammen, Tom Gorzelanny, Joe Thatcher, Ross Detwiler, Dan Otero, and even Tommy Hunter on a major league deal.

C70: Francisco Lindor had a wonderful rookie season. What do you think he’ll do for an encore? Continue to improve or be hit with the sophomore jinx?

LGT: I wouldn’t quite call it a “sophomore jinx,” but Lindor probably will probably not hit as well as he did in his 2015 season. He has never been a bat-first player and he played out of his mind last year. Even if his offense struggles, or at least is above average, his defense will do more than enough to make him an extremely valuable shortstop for the Tribe, though.

DTW: I’m not a big believer in the Cleveland Indians, but I am a super duper believer in Francisco Lindor. I had the pleasure to watch him play somewhat regularly from his time at Lake County, when he was 18, through his entire minor league career. I’ve interviewed him several times, players that have been his teammates and coaches and managers who provided instruction to him. No one has ever said a single negative word about Lindor, except now-Team President Chris Antonetti when he said early last May that Lindor had a “litany” of things to work on. Less than six weeks later, when his Super Two status likely had passed, Lindor magically solved that litany of things to work on and became their best player for the second half of the season. Having spent some time with him and watching him play since 2012, I can tell you he is the most grounded and hard working player I have ever seen. No one out-works Francisco Lindor. Even with Andrelton Simmons in the American League now, I think Lindor will challenge for the Gold Glove–both now and into the future. If the Indians were smart, they’d extend him in some kind of long term contract to buy out the rest of his 20s, taking care of his arbitration years in trade for a couple more years of free agency time. The Rays did this for Evan Longoria years ago right after they brought him to the big leagues. I think Lindor is the best player on the team and someone they should invest in and use as the cornerstone of their franchise for the next decade.

EHC: He’ll continue to grow into being the lifeblood of this team. He’s a spark, an energizer, a polarizing figure that plays in the middle of the diamond with enthusiasm and exuberance. ​He’s fun to watch and looks like even more fun to play alongside because he’s out there doing just that, having fun. His defense alongside Urshela’s provided the turnaround to this team last year, but it was his bat that impressed and surprised a lot of people.

​Sophomore jinx? No. But be cautious about expectations offensively. There’s a belief he played above what to expect from him on the offensive side. I can’t say for sure because he’s young and how are we to know what he’s capable of offensively? I think the league is now aware of him and will have adjusted, so I would curb expectations offensively and not expect him to be the same offensive player until he’s challenged and adjusts to that. But again, he’s the lifeblood of this team for his energy and defensively, he will be even better and will make the team better from day one.​

C70: What’s the general thought on James Ramsey? Will he make it to the bigs this year?

LGT: James Ramsey is looking like a Quad-A type player, unfortunately. Last season should have been his year to debut (and there were plenty of opportunities) but he just could not get it done in Triple-A. With Bradley Zimmer, Clint Frazier, and even Tyler Naquin waiting in the wings, if Ramsey does not make it this year he may never make it in an Indians uniform.

DTW: The general thought on James Ramsey is that there isn’t much thought on James Ramsey. He kind of plateaued at Triple-A in the last year and a half since being acquired for Justin Masterson. The best thing going for Ramsey is that he finds himself in an organization that’s best projected Opening Day outfielder is Rajai Davis. One would think breaking into the big leagues shouldn’t be that difficult. For a guy with potential to play some center field, he has some more flexibility over other options. I think he’ll get a chance at the big league level this year just for the simple fact that the Opening Day lineup projects Davis, Abraham Almonte and Lonnie Chisenhall in the outfield. No one is going to confuse any of those players with Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton and Manny Ramirez. The bad thing going for Ramsey is that I think Terry Francona is very reluctant to give minor league players opportunity at the big league level. It seems he doesn’t give a minor leaguer a chance until he’s given every Ryan Raburn and David Murphy 1,000 chances. As crazy as it sounds, Ramsey will have to beat out the likes of Collin Cowgill and Shane Robinson. Those 4-A guys are Francona guys. But again, it’s not like Ramsey is stuck behind a super star.

EHC: ​I like James Ramsey and wish he got more of an opportunity last year, along with Zach Walters, ​but I wouldn’t expect much. He’s still on the Indians 40-man, so there’s that belief the Indians still like him, but they added a lot of “fodder” if you will to the outfield depth with Brantley’s status for the beginning of the year being unavailable. Collin Cowgill, Joey Butler, Robbie Grossman, Michael Choice, and Shane Robinson were all added in some capacity and effectively given pause to what Ramsey’s future is. Not to mention Tyler Naquin figures to play a part starting the year in Columbus, and it appears the Indians are going to try Zach Walters primarily as an outfielder. Again, while I like Ramsey, I like Walters a little more and the Indians willingness to try him out there excites me because Walters has a nice bit of pop that you wouldn’t expect. So, I’d say, Ramsey is on the outside looking in yet again.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

LGT: If I wanted to optimistic I would say Trevor Bauer finally coming into his potential could happen. However, realistically, I think Giovanny Urshela will come back with a healthy shoulder and impress everyone at third base; assuming the Indians do not sign a free agent to take his place before the season starts.

DTW: I’m not sure there are any “breakout” players on this team. They aren’t as young as people believe and I think they are more average than fans want to believe. It’s actually my hope that Bradley Zimmer has a very strong first half of the season at Double-A Akron. He and Clint Frazier are the team’s future outfielders. I don’t see anything in their way of progression until Antonetti finds another litany of things to slow down their service time clocks. My hope is that Zimmer, being a college player, will progress quickly and force the Indians hand to give him playing time this season. The sooner Zimmer and Frazier progress and take outfield spots ahead of the mighty Almonte and Chisenhall, the faster the Indians will have an offense that can muster more than 4.1 runs a game (good for 11th in the AL).

EHC: Pick a pitcher. Seriously, some love Carlos Carrasco to contend for the Cy Young or challenge Kluber as this team’s best starter and I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens. Danny Salazar could also take a leap and shuffle himself into discussions as one of the best if he continues to grow. And I haven’t even mentioned Trevor Bauer, who I have a love affair with and feel like he could take a better step than he did in the first half of last year and put it all together for a full season. I also think a full-season of a healthy Yan Gomes will open some eyes. However, if you want me to pick one player who will make the greatest stride from where he was last year to this, it would have to be Jose Ramirez. You’re going to see a lot of him with Mike Aviles gone and that’s a good thing. Ramirez is a spark plug with a high motor and sneaky good bat on ball abilities. ​You will see him all over the diamond defensively, but he brings speed on the base paths, swagger in the dugout, and like I mentioned, he can hit. My good friend on Everybody Hates Cleveland, Mike Hattery, did a little asset evaluation on Ramirez leading up to the deadline and found that his better than league average contact rate was simply not resulting in hits due to balls in play. With a renewed focus in the second half, Ramirez was better and stuff started falling. For as much contact as the kid makes, and him now finding a role and simply not being known as “Not-Lindor” he’s going to be a huge piece to this team in 2016.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

LGT: I like where FanGraphs has them at 84-78. I don’t think that will win the division, as they projected, but I could see them finishing somewhere around there and competing for a Wild Card spot.

DTW: I know Fangraphs projects them for 85 wins, but I feel like someone missed a keystroke of the calculator on those projections. I can’t see Cleveland passing Kansas City and as I look at Chicago and Detroit, they’ve definitely made concerted efforts to win. The Tigers again seem to be all-in with their aging lineup. Minnesota has a young core that surprised a lot of people last year. I think the Twins could continue to grow, or could have a short term set back. To me, the Twins are the only thing that could keep the Indians out of the cellar. This Indians roster of a solid core, then 10 more hopes and dreams that could play in Columbus as easily as Cleveland, seems like about a 75 win team to me instead of 85. Michael Brantley is already going to start the year injured and I expect them to get him back as quickly as possible when their offense is scoring about as often as a glee club member on prom night. I won’t be surprised if Brantley has his worst statistical season since 2013. If something happened to Jason Kipnis, Yan Gomes, Carlos Santana or Lindor, I think it could get ugly in a hurry.

EHC: ​​I always hate guessing on a record, but I feel fairly confident that this team is one of the two best teams in the division. I’m not buying the Detroit Tigers. There’s just a lot of aging there and I don’t think their pitching is on par with that of Cleveland and Kansas City and as we saw, that can neutralize that offense, which isn’t even as good as it was in the past few years. As much as I love Victor Martinez, he isn’t what he used to be, and if he was, then it would be a different story with him, Miguel Cabrera, and JD Martinez in the middle causing all sorts of issues for pitchers in the Central. The Twins will continue to get better as they get older, but I think last year was a bit of fortune that we shouldn’t expect again. The White Sox added more, but I think they are a step behind the defending champs and Cleveland. Not counting the Royals out, but I don’t think they got better in the rotation and while their bullpen is absolute nails, it seems shaky to me to rely on that formula when the starting pitching, in my estimation, got worse.​ Objectively, if the Indians get a stable offense and the pitching is what we think it can be, the Indians can win the division. That stable offense has been the thing though that has kept the Indians from taking that step though, so until that happens, they’ll be a step behind the Royals.

C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?

LGT: Oh, the Tigers for sure. My wife’s family is from Detroit so it always makes family get-togethers more fun when the Indians win against. Unfortunately, the Indians rarely win against Detroit and I don’t see that changing this season.

DTW: The Indians have had poor performances the last couple seasons beating anyone in the AL Central, so every win in the division is somewhere between a minor miracle and climbing Mount Everest. It seems like every time the Indians get within a couple games of a playoff spot or the top of the division, the Royals or Tigers come to town and issue three 8-1 beatdowns to put the Tribe back in their place. I think Miguel Cabrera lifetime is somewhere between a 5.000 to 9.000 career hitter versus the Tribe. He seems to sneeze doubles on his bad days and hit homers on his good days. Cleveland was actually 81-80 last year, and now brag about a winning season, due to a rain out against the Tigers. If memory serves me correctly, the Indians did have some mild success against the Tigers last year in the second half when Detroit had folded up shop and were just playing out the string with guys like Rajai Davis.

EHC: I enjoy beating the Tigers, which there hasn’t been as much as we could have hoped for in the past few years. Last year was much better than years past though, so it was good to turn that tide a bit. I think they’ll turn that even more in their favor this year as, again, I feel as if Detroit is not as good as some make them out to be. Some think that the Tigers have this “psychological edge” over the Tribe, but I think that’s a bit overblown.

This year though? I think there’s a little bit of animosity between the Indians and the Twins stemming from Jose Ramiez’s bat flip and manager Paul Molitor‘s reaction. I think I will now enjoy beating up on the Twins when it comes time for that for that alone. It’s unfortunate that Torii Hunter wont be there anymore as he is another guy you liked to beat, just because he just seemed like a clown at times.

And of course, I think the brash Royals, especially now as defending champions, make themselves an easy target. Trevor Bauer donned some boxing gloves in the dugout last year that was pretty fun to see, so you know there’s a little bit of “yeah we know your game” on the side of the Indians when it comes to facing them. I’m not really particularly fond of any Central team though, so beating them all is fun. One thing is for sure, if the Indians are to win the division, they need to fare better than they did last year within it. That, as always, is a huge key to winning the Central.

My thanks to Matt, Mike, and Nino for their time and input.  Cleveland’s always one of those interesting teams and it should be fun to see how they do this season in the AL Central!

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