by: Ryan Waldis
Over the next 30 days (March 1st through March 30th), I’ll be previewing each of the 30 MLB teams in reverse order of the 2017 league standings. The series will conclude on March 31st, when I’ll be releasing my predictions for the 2018 season. With that said, let’s jump into the 25th team preview of the series, featuring the Cleveland Indians.
Manager: Terry Francona (6th season)
2017 Record: 102-60, 1st in AL Central
Playoffs: Lost ALDS to Yankees (3-2)
Run Differential: 254
Top Position Player: Jose Ramirez (6.9 WAR)
Top Pitcher: Corey Kluber (8.2 WAR)
Losing in the World Series is never easy. Losing in Game Seven of the World Series definitely eats at you a little bit. To get so close only to fall in the final possible game is rough. Some questioned whether the Indians would get over that loss. Sure, they had the talent. Still, baseball is as much a mental game as it as a physical game. If your mind isn’t in the right place, you’ll be hard-pressed to find success. To Cleveland’s credit, they didn’t falter. They finished with the most wins in franchise history in 2017, a season that featured a 22-game winning streak. They hit to the second-highest OPS (.788) and pitched to the best ERA (3.30). Heading into the postseason, they were a popular pick to not only get back to the World Series but also to win their first title since 1948.
They started off the postseason about as well as you possibly could. Facing off against the team that made it out of the Wild Card round, the Tribe defeated the Yankees 4-0 in Game One of the ALDS. Jay Bruce hit a two-run shot in the fourth inning off of Sonny Gray, Trevor Bauer pitched 6.2 shutout innings, and the Indians immediately gained some momentum. Game Two was a little more difficult. The Indians found themselves down 8-3 after five and a half innings. In the bottom of the sixth, everything changed. With the bases loaded and two outs, leadoff hitter Francisco Lindor sent a pitch from Chad Green into the seats, bringing the Indians to within just one. The Tribe would eventually tie the game in the bottom of the eighth via a leadoff homerun by Bruce off of David Robertson. The game went into extra innings, and Cleveland walked it off in the 13th thanks to an RBI single by Yan Gomes. With a 2-0 lead, the Indians headed to New York with the series seemingly in hand.
And then, something strange happened. The Indians fell apart. They were the victims of the dreaded reverse sweep. The Yankees won Game Three needing just one run—a home run by Greg Bird off of elite reliever Andrew Miller—to support their starter, Masahiro Tanaka, who pitched seven shutout frames. The Indians got the bats going again in Game Four, plating three runs. However, the Yanks scored seven, including four over just 1.2 innings against Bauer. The series headed back to Cleveland for Game Five, with the momentum clearly on the New York side. The Yankees put up three runs in 3.2 innings via two Didi Gregorius home runs off of Corey Kluber, and later added two more insurance runs. The Indians could only muster two runs off of CC Sabathia, Robertson, and Aroldis Chapman, losing 5-2. Their promising season suddenly ended as they watched the Yankees advance to play the Astros in the ALCS.
In a vacuum, Yan Gomes wasn’t terrible for the Tribe in 2017. The slash-line of .232/.309/.399 might not look incredible appealing, but it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Gomes at the dish. He hit 14 home runs, which was his most since cranking 21 in 2014. He also posted an 8.1% walk rate, which was by far the highest of his career. The backstop also gave the Indians solid production behind the plate. His adjusted FRAA of 6.1 was good for 18th among catchers, while his 3.4 Framing Runs was good for 27th. Special shoutout to Roberto Perez; he only slashed .207/.291/.373, but his 17.5 adjusted FRAA and 15.2 Framing Runs were both 6th.
Longtime Indian Carlos Santana was, once again, as consistent as they come at the plate. Once you understand that he won’t provide a high batting average, you understand that Santana is a really solid and dependable player on the offensive side. His triple-slash in 2017 was .259/.363/.455, and he contributed 23 homers a year after smacking 34. His approach at the plate was, once again, fantastic. He posted a strikeout rate of just 14.1% and a walk rate of 13.2%. His offensive production was 17 percent above the league average. Santana also posted a UZR of 4.8 in the 1,225.2 innings he logged at first base, which was a career-high.
It sometimes seems as though Jason Kipnis has been around for a long time, but he played out the 2017 season at the age of 30. 2017 was also arguably the worst season of the second baseman’s career. He hit to a line of just .232/.291/.414, sending 12 balls out of the yard. While the 19.0% strikeout rate represented a two percent decrease from 2016, the 7.5% walk rate was a career-low. The 22.1% soft contact rate he posted was nine percent higher than 2016 and seven percent higher than his career average, and Kipnis saw his BABIP finish nearly 60 points lower than his norm. After two positively graded seasons at the keystone, Kipnis finished with a UZR of -3.3 in 620.2 innings.
Shortstop Francisco Lindor has posted three above-average offensive campaigns to begin his career. 2017 might have been the best of the three; Lindor slashed .273/.337/.505 with 33 home runs, 15 stolen bases, a 12.9% strikeout rate and an 8.3% walk rate. If it wasn’t for a .275 BABIP, the batting average would most certainly have looked better. He ran the bases well (4.7 BsR, 5.1 Spd) and Lindor seemed every bit the core piece that the Indians expected him to be when they took him eighth overall in 2011. The 23-year-old definitely fell off a bit in the defense department, but still managed to finish with a 5.9 UZR in 1,377 innings.
Jose Ramirez was the surprise position player WAR leader for the Tribe in 2017. The infielder accumulated 645 plate appearances and finished with a slash-line of .318/.374/.583. His 10.7% strikeout rate was essentially the same as it was in 2016, and his 8.1% walk rate represented a one percent increase. Ramirez clubbed 29 dingers and stole 17 bases, ultimately finishing with a wRC+ of 148. He split his time between second and third base, posting a 0.3 UZR at the keystone and a 3.8 UZR at the hot corner. While the power might not carry over to the future, every other part of his offensive game definitely well.
The Indians showcased five outfielders over the course of the 2017 campaign. Michael Brantley only saw time in 90 games due to injury but he was still very effective, finishing with a wRC+ of 111. The former Brewers prospect hit .299/.357/.444 with nine homers and 11 stolen bases. He posted a strikeout rate of 13.3% and a walk rate of 6.3%, both of which were improvements over the percentages he had in 2016. He hit the ball harder than ever before (33.9% hard contact rate) and despite missing time exhibited his .300/15/15 upside. Austin Jackson was also surprisingly good in limited time, hitting .318/.387/.482 in 318 plate appearances. The most surprising aspect of Jackson’s game was his 10.4% walk rate; the last time he finished a season with a percentage that high was 2012. Coincidentally, his 131 wRC+ was also his highest since that 2012 season.
Rookie Bradley Zimmer definitely struggled in some aspects last season but overall he wasn’t too bad. He hit to a line of .241/.307/.385, contributing eight home runs and 18 stolen bases. His strikeout rate of 29.8% wasn’t entirely ideal, but his 7.8% walk rate was solid and Zimmer proved that, at worst, he has 15/20 upside with a serviceable batting average. The 4.9 UZR was a nice addition, and if the young outfielder can make contact just a little more consistently, he’ll be a valuable option for the Tribe. Lonnie Chisenhall, meanwhile, had the best season of his career in 2017. The lifetime Indian slashed .288/.360/.521 with 12 home runs and a wRC+ of 129. As with Jackson, the most surprising aspect of Chisenhall’s season was his 9.3% walk rate, which was the highest of his career. While the -2.6 UZR wasn’t great, his contributions on offense more than made up for it.
Jay Bruce was an August waiver-trade acquisition by the Indians, and in 169 plate appearances provided the type of offensive output that would be expected. The former Red and Met put up a triple-slash of .248/.331/.477 and hit seven home runs, bringing his full season total to 36. He struck out 21.9% of the time with the Tribe while walking 10.7%. Bruce didn’t blow anyone away in the field (-0.2 UZR), but he was brought in to provide a steady offensive presence during the stretch run, and it’s fair to say that he did.
In his first season with Cleveland, designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion made a pretty good first impression. While his 19.9% strikeout rate was a career-high, the 15.5% walk rate proved to be one as well. Overall, the former Red and Blue Jay slashed .258/.377/.504, cranking 38 home runs and posting a wRC+ of 132. At the age of 34, he showed no signs of slowing down, and definitely produced as well as the Indians were expecting him to.
Corey Kluber had the best season of his career in 2017 and earned a Cy Young Award because of it. The former Padres prospect finished with an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 2.25/2.50/2.52, striking out 34.1% of the batters he faced while walking just a miniscule 4.6%. The Indians ace allowed just 21 home runs in 203.2 innings and stranded 82.6% of the runners he allowed to reach base. It’s funny; in six starts spanning April 3rd to May 2nd, Kluber allowed seven homers and pitched to a 5.06 ERA, striking out 41 while walking 13. In 23 starts spanning from June 1st to September 30th, Kluber had an ERA of 1.62, striking out 224 while walking just 23 and allowing just 14 balls to leave the yard. That’s a heck of a run.
Tossing 200 innings for the first time in his career, Carlos Carrasco had one of the better seasons of his career. A former Phillies top prospect who was sent over in the Cliff Lee deal, Carrasco finished the 2017 season with a 3.29 ERA and even better 3.10 FIP. The 28.3% strikeout rate was four percent above his career average while the accompanied 5.8% walk rate was right in line with the percentages he’s posted since 2014. He also allowed just 21 four-baggers, and the 73 ERA- was the second-lowest mark of his career. On a different team, Carrasco might be an ace. On the Indians, he proved that he can be a reliable top-of-the-rotation arm.
Trevor Bauer also experienced a decent amount of success in 2017. Once a rising prospect in the Diamondbacks organization, Bauer made a career-best 31 starts, throwing 176.1 frames. Overall, the 26-year-old had an ERA of 4.19 and a FIP of 3.88. The 26.2% strikeout rate was a career-best while the 8.0% walk rate represented a career-low. The 93 ERA- and 88 FIP- were very appealing, and while the right-hander allowed 25 homers, the 76.8% LOB% was the best of his career. Ditto Mike Clevinger, who after a rough rookie season in 2016 bounced back in a big way in 2017. The righty pitched to an ERA of 3.11 and a FIP of 3.85 over 27 games, 21 of which were starts. The 12.0% walk rate was very ugly, but the 27.3% strikeout rate was intriguing, and at only 26 Clevinger has plenty of time to solve his control issues.
Josh Tomlin made 26 starts for the Tribe in 2017, putting up a 4.98 ERA and 4.12 FIP. His calling card is control and once again he exhibited that to perfection. While the right-hander struck out just 18.6% of the batters he faced, Tomlin walked just 2.4% of them. Aside from control, Tomlin doesn’t have much else going for him. He allowed 23 home runs in just 141 innings, and the 68.5% strand rate certainly isn’t ideal. Finally, despite only making 19 starts (and 23 appearances) last year, Danny Salazar proved that he deserves a regular rotation spot as long as he’s healthy. Salazar finished the campaign with a 4.28 ERA and an even better 3.48 FIP and 3.21 xFIP. The 33.0% strikeout rate was fantastic, and while the 10.0% walk rate was a bit high, that seemed to be more of an outlier than anything else.
The Cleveland bullpen was the best in the league in 2017, posting a phenomenal 2.89 ERA over 489.1 innings of work. The squadron struck out 548 batters while walking 149. Here are some of the notable names from the ‘pen:
Andrew Miller (left-hander): 57 appearances, 62.2 innings, 1.44 ERA/1.99 FIP, 95 strikeouts, 21 walks
Cody Allen: 69 appearances, 67.1 innings, 2.94 ERA/3.19 FIP, 92 strikeouts, 21 walks
Bryan Shaw: 79 appearances, 76.2 innings, 3.52 ERA/2.96 FIP, 73 strikeouts, 22 walks
Dan Otero: 52 appearances, 60 innings, 2.85 ERA/3.64 FIP, 38 strikeouts, 9 walks
Nick Goody: 56 appearances, 54.2 innings, 2.80 ERA/3.45 FIP, 72 strikeouts, 20 walks
Zach McAllister: 50 appearances, 62 innings, 2.61 ERA/3.77 FIP, 66 strikeouts, 21 walks
Tyler Olson (left-hander): 30 appearances, 20 innings, 0.00 ERA/2.41 FIP, 18 strikeouts, 6 walks
Not surprisingly, the Indians opted to keep almost their entire team intact from 2017, deciding to make mostly minor moves in the offseason. The biggest acquisition was Yonder Alonso, who broke out last season while playing for the Athletics and Mariners. Alonso will slot in at first base, taking the spot of the team’s biggest departure.
Carlos Santana decided to leave the Cleveland organization and sign a three-year, $60 million contract with the Phillies. While the Indians definitely have enough offensive fire-power to at least somewhat offset the loss of Santana, it will definitely hurt losing his yearly consistency.
Best Case: Playing in a relatively weak division where their only real competition is the Twins, the Indians once again flirt with close to 100 wins and secure their third consecutive AL Central crown. The loss of Santana doesn’t hurt too much as the offense once again finishes in the top-five. Lindor, Ramirez, and Encarnacion lead the way, while Brantley flies under the radar for most of the season as he manages to stay healthy. Kipnis bounces back while Bradley Zimmer takes a positive step in his progression. The pitching staff—both the rotation and the bullpen—is one of the best in baseball once again as Kluber finishes in the top-three in Cy Young voting. The Indians are hot entering the postseason, and make a strong and convincing run to the World Series where they win their first title since 1948.
Worst Case: Numerous injuries would have to plague the Indians for this team to not even make the playoffs. They’ll benefit from playing a plethora of games against the Royals, Tigers and, to an extent, the White Sox. If Lindor, Encarnacion, and Ramirez each miss large chunks of the season, perhaps the Indians will be in trouble. It’s hard to see the pitching staff regressing too much; maybe they’re not number one again but they probably don’t fall out of the top ten. With the Astros, Yankees, and Red Sox all in the American League, it wouldn’t be totally shocking if the Indians don’t at least get to the ALCS, but it would definitely be pretty disappointing with the amount of talent they have.
PECOTA Projected Record: 96-66, 798 RS, 651 RA