Playing Pepper 2018: Cleveland Indians

In 2009, before my second full season of blogging the Cardinals, I reached out to other bloggers to other teams to get insights on their clubs.  This year, instead of going through the teams alphabetically, we’ll approach it a little differently, spending a week with each division.  For the tenth straight season, get ready for the upcoming MLB season by playing a little pepper.  

Cleveland Indians
102-60, first in AL Central, lost in ALDS
Website | Twitter

Last year’s Pepper

It’s still a little strange (though in a good way) to see the Cleveland franchise that was so moribund for so long when I was growing up now being that perennial contender. While they didn’t make it to the World Series last year, there was no doubt that they easily would have been a respectable option had they been there.  Now it’s not enough to get to October, the Indians need to be standing late in the month.  Will they?  We’ve got a couple of quality bloggers to tell you just that.

Writer Site Twitter
Nino Colla The Tribe Daily SnarkyNino
Steven Kubitza Believeland Ball StevenKubitza

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

Nino: That’s the question, isn’t it? I think every fan of every team has been completely baffled with how this offseason has unfolded with the lack of movement and staunchness on spending. And even us here in Northeast Ohio are a little perplexed as to why the Indians didn’t jump in and try to bargain with a few of the disappointed free agents. But here’s what it came down to. The Indians invested in Edwin Encarnacion last offseason, which was a pretty big commitment for a team that has been burned by big-money contacts in the past and, despite recent success, have to be cautious and judicious about where they put their coin. And before the offseason really even got started, they decided to pick up Michael Brantley‘s $12 million option, which if they had foresight, would probably not have done that. It’s hard to peg them for picking up the option before they could see the market cratering. They definitely could have added an outfielder for a cheaper price than $12 million and still bring back a rehabbing Michael Brantley. But that’s the decision they had to make then, add some increases to players like Trevor Bauer, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Cody Allen, well-deserved mind-you, and the Indians didn’t really have much room to do much of anything, including bringing back much-loved and under-appreciated Carlos Santana.

The most notable addition was Yonder Alonso, who they hope can match similar production of Santana both offensively and defensively, but that’s a big shadow to try and out-run. Did they improve? Look, this is a team that didn’t need much, but depth helps and I don’t think they got any deeper, but they certainly didn’t get worse. It’s kind of a weird way to look at it, but, while they could have done more, they’re still ahead of many of the teams in their division. Despite the Twins getting better, the Indians didn’t have much to address and it seems like there is still a gap there. Did a lot of us hope for them to have done more? Absolutely, but there also wasn’t a lot that they needed to do. The real work will happen between April and September.

Steven: I wouldn’t say the team got better this offseason. Rather, I think they remained a contender and got no worse than they were in 2017. Losing Carlos Santana, Jay Bruce, Joe Smith and Bryan Shaw isn’t ideal, but the team did add Yonder Alonso and will feature more experienced versions of Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Trevor Bauer. Add in the fact Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Cody Allen and Andrew Miller remain as one of the best staffs in the league and fans shouldn’t be worried.

The real key is the health of Michael Brantley. Having a full season from his is essentially adding a top free agent to the club. I wouldn’t say the team’s success will be determined by his health, because the team has done fine without him the past two seasons. But getting a full year from him would be a cause to claim improvement in 2018.

C70: Francisco Lindor seemed to take another step next year. Is there another step for him to take this season?

Nino: Yeah, and I thought he was going to take a step back last year. It’s looking like Francisco Lindor put on a little bulk, so there’s some reason for excitement in the power department as he fills into his frame already coming off a season in which he hit 30 home runs. There’s a lot of hope for another and some are even chattering about him leading the team in that department. I’m just excited about his new Sisqo-like silver bullet hairstyle. I think the one thing Lindor can do is completely solidify himself as the guy on this team. It really is his team, but leadership-wise, I think he’s establishing himself as the engine and conductor of the train. His drive is what will power this team and the past two years coming up short have really left him hungry to finish the job. Hopefully the team can feed of that and in that way, his next step is the team’s next step in bringing home the trophy.

Steven: Francisco Lindor is only going to be better in 2018. Some fans forget this will only be his third full season in Cleveland, and he is already a two-time All-Star, a Gold Glove winner and is fresh off a season with 33 home runs and a Silver Slugger award. His career slash line is .293/.349/.474, and there is no reason to expect a lower line than that in 2018.

The pressure of the postseason may have gotten to Lindor in 2017 after playing so carefree in 2016, but that learning experience should help in 2018. It is almost hard to imagine him continuing to get better than he has been, but that is going to be the case. There is not one particular mark he needs to hit in order to take that next step, although having a successful postseason and leading the team to a World Series title would make him a legend around Northeast Ohio. It may also make his price tag too high for the team to retain him long-term, but that is a problem for the future.

C70: What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Nino: I think a lot of fans internally are sour on the team because of how last year ended and how they didn’t make the moves they would have hoped they would. But, I think the biggest overlooked thing about this team is that their rotation is really stinkin’ good still. There’s very few better 1-2-3 lineups than Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer. That has been and what will continue to be what makes this team so good and the king of the division. It’s the reason that they just need to stay healthy to all but assure themselves the position they were in last year to make it to the postseason. They just have to hope the other pieces fall into place as well and they can have a little better fortune when it comes time for it.

Steven: I think some fans may be overlooking the fact that this team didn’t need to make any major moves this offseason. It is easy to get caught up in the free agent frenzy and declare a team like the Yankees to be World Series contenders just because they added someone like Giancarlo Stanton. But fans following this Indians team know that the team is already stacked. It is now just a matter of everyone staying healthy and playing up to their potential. That is easier said than done, but all the moves made over the past decade led up to this team being where it is right now. 

C70: Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Indians to do well?

Nino: I would think Jose Ramirez needs to continue to play the part he did last year. He was such a huge part of the offense and when he was producing, the offense was at its best. His production all-but replaced and surpassed what Michael Brantley had been giving the team and with the uncertainty of Brantley and the more-than-likeliness of him not being the Michael Brantley everyone has come to hope for, he’ll have to do it again. Ramirez is not prone to cold streaks because of the way he carries his swing, so that’s a plus, but it seems like when he’s going better than average, the team as a whole is playing better. I’ll go one further and say, if the Indians are going to be stout defensively and also not have to completely worry about their outfield situation, Bradley Zimmer is vitally important. His defense is game-changing considering the options beyond him and with so much uncertainty and the need to platoon and use secondary pieces, Zimmer would be the one constant in center. There’s not telling what you get, if anything from Brantley; Chisenhall is still only playing against right-handers and his platoon-mate Brandon Guyer has some uncertainties. There’s no telling if Melvin Upton Jr. can be this year’s Austin Jackson and anyone hoping Rajai Davis can do what he did in 2016 for the club is hoping for a lot. Zimmer is a constant and that will be needed with all the uncertainty.

Steven: Given the nature of baseball, that is a tough one. I’ll go with Corey Kluber. He needs to continue to be the ace to give the team that reassuring presence that no matter what, the team will have a chance to win every time he takes the mound. He is capable of stopping losing streaks before they get out of hand and his dominance surely inspires the rest of the staff. It is hard to put too much stock into a starting pitcher’s importance because of the fact they only pitch once every five games, but there is something special about an individual who is never off. Someone who can go out and give his team a chance to win every time he takes the mound. I think the better point is to consider what would happen if you took away his 30 starts and replaced him with a lesser pitcher. That could derail the whole season. 

C70: What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

Nino: I think the team wins the division without an issue, provided health is not a concern. And then, like always the playoff is a crap-shoot. You have a team that was in a better position health-wise and production-wise in 2017 than they were in 2016 and they got bounced in the first round. It’s all about how you’re playing, variance, and what the other team is doing. Just getting there is the easy part, especially for this team where their biggest competition is the Twins, who are good, but not quite there yet in terms of having the pieces for sustained year-long success like the Indians do. The hard part is the playoff and the harder part is having to go through this entire season just to get there and hope things fall your way. They’ve got the pieces to be dangerous in the postseason. I’d like to see a more solidified arm in the pen to add to Miller & Allen and of course another solid outfielder would make things feel a little better. Jason Kipnis has been on an absolute rip this spring, so there’s some hope for a bounce-back that would really ignite this team. If that all comes into play, this team could definitely contend with Houston and New York, but I still think Houston is the team to beat when it comes down to it.

Steven: I think this team coasts to another AL Central division crown, although the Twins will at least provide some competition. And to keep it short, I see the Indians winning the World Series over the Cubs. I don’t think it is biased to take the Indians after the success the team has had the past two years. The core of the team is only more experienced, and 2018 will be the year it all comes together.

C70: What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Nino: What’s the deal with Danny Salazar? Kidding. In all seriousness though, as sure as is the Indians front end of the rotation, the back-end is really interesting. You have Danny Salazar, Mike Clevinger, who took a huge step, and Josh Tomlin all as possibilities. Salazar is once again hurt though and that’s opening up the door for Clevinger to once again step in and I think it may be for the better long-term. Salazar is proving to be not so durable and there’s even some questions if there’s something between the ears that isn’t quite right. I love Salazar and his arsenal is devastating. He perhaps has the best stuff of any of the starters. But he can’t put it together and it’s starting to look like he may be a better pen option.

And if that’s the case, and if he can stay healthy, and he could take to the role, that may be the short and long-term back-end bullpen piece that the Indians need. Those are three really big ifs though and I’m not sure if they all work out that way. I find the idea of him playing a part in that role fascinating though and although I’ve been staunchly in the Salazar as starter camp for years, I think it might be the time to make the full-time move to the bullpen in an effort to perhaps keep him more healthy and better utilize his arsenal. That being said, the Indians are stronger with more depth in their rotation and taking Salazar out of that role damages that depth.

Steven: One question could be whether or not Michael Brantley’s health is crucial to the team’s success. And the answer to that is no, but having him around is a bonus. The team has enough talent to do fine without him, but having him back is a free upgrade. Well, a $12 million upgrade I suppose. 

My thanks to Nino and Steven for their insights on the team.  There have been a lot of droughts broken lately, both in baseball and in Cleveland.  The Indians believe it is their turn and there’s no reason not to believe them!

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