Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2016 season. Next up: The Cleveland Indians.
We normally start with lineups in these things because people like hitting better and we always tend to think about offense first. With the Indians, though, it begins — and maybe ends, but more on that in a bit — with the rotation. It’s a good one. It returns all of the key pieces which allowed them to rank fourth in starter ERA in the AL last season, first in strikeouts and third in innings pitched. And that was considered by some to be a bit of an underachievement.
Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar are the top three and it’s hard to find a better top three in the game. Kluber, the 2014 Cy Young Award winner, needs no introduction. His record last year was a mere 9-16 and overall he took a big step down from the year before, but 2014 was probably an outlier year for him in terms of the results of balls he allowed to be put in play. In 2015 he still struck out a lot, didn’t walk too many and was as durable as he had been the year before. He’s a fine number one starter.
Many, based on peripherals and some bad luck last year, think Carrasco is due for a major breakout. We’ve certainly seen him go on tears before. He’s totally capable of it. Salazar has a similar profile in a lot of ways, and he’s three years younger. Behind them: Cody Anderson and Josh Tomlin. Which was a bit of a surprise, as most assumed Trevor Bauer would be in the rotation once again. Both Anderson and Tomlin were excellent in limited starts last year.Bauer will, instead, go to the pen. If someone falters, Terry Francona has the ability to shuffle things. Whatever the case, expect a lot of innings and a lot of strikeouts for the top three and some solid production from the back end of one baseball’s best rotations.
The bullpen too, though not as heralded as the Royals or Yankees, was a strength last year. Cody Allen is one of the most solid closers around and his supporting cast, while not eye-opening, was solid as well. Such things vary from year to year, but at the moment anyway the pen doesn’t seem like a big problem.
After that is where things get dicey. Up the middle the Tribe is fantastic, with Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor, each of whom have been and likely will continue to be in postseason awards conversations for the foreseeable future. Beyond them is a lot of trouble. Michael Brantley is good, but he’ll start the year on the disabled list. Marlon Byrd will be the Opening Day left fielder. I’m sure he’s a nice man and he has had a nice career, but Marlon Byrd can’t really be a starter for a contending team. There are likewise questions about Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana, each of whom are on the decline. Everyone loves Juan Uribe, but he’s not an impact player. Tyler Naquin could be good and he’ll get a chance in the outfield now, but he’s not exactly a bluechip prospect.
The Indians have been loathe to spend much money but this is a club which should absolutely be willing to take on some salary in order to bolster an offense which looks shaky at the moment. If they do — or if the parts they have in place manage to put together seasons that are closer to the top-end of their reasonable projections than the mid-range — this could be a frisky as all get-out Indians club. A rotation this good is, after all, a great foundation upon which to build some friskiness. I think they’re a playoff contender as-is, but if things break right or if they bring on some offensive talent, they could be something special.
Prediction: Second place, AL Central.