Terry Francona

2016 Preview: Cleveland Indians

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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.

Seattle Mariners to make a “full-court press” for Shohei Ohtani

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Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said in a team-sponsored podcast the other day that the M’s will make a “full-court press” for Shohei Ohtani. To that end, Dipoto said that the M’s would be willing to let the two-way star to pitch and to hit, which is something Ohtani is interested in doing in the United States. Not all clubs are likely to let him do this, with most likely seeing him as a starting pitcher only.

Ohtani, who is expected to be posted by his Japanese team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, possibly as early as today, can sign with anyone he wants. He is, however, subject to the international bonus pool caps, so the bids on him will be somewhat limited. The Texas Rangers and New York Yankees have the most money available: $3.535 million for the Rangers and $3.5 million for the Yankees. The Twins ($3.245 million), Pirates ($2.266 million), Marlins ($1.74 million) and Mariners ($1.57 million) are the only other teams with more than $1 million left. Twelve teams — including the Dodgers, Cubs, Cardinals and Astros — are limited to a maximum of $300,000, having met or exceeded their caps for this signing period already.

Ohtani, however, is said to be less motivated by money than he is by finding the right situation. While a lot of guys say that, the fact that Ohtani is coming over to the U.S. now, when his financial prospects are limited, as opposed to waiting for two years when he is not subject to the bonus caps and could sign for nine figures, suggests that he is telling the truth. As such, a team like the Mariners that is willing to allow him to hit and pitch could make up for the couple of million less they have in bonus money to spend.

As for how that might work logistically, Dipoto said that the team would be willing to play DH Nelson Cruz a few days in the outfield to accommodate Ohtani, allowing him to DH on the days he’s not pitching. That might be . . . interesting to see, but given how badly the Mariners could use a good starting pitcher, they have an incentive to be creative.

Ohtani, 23, suffered some injuries in 2017, limiting him to just five starts and 65 games as a hitter. In 2016, however, he hit .289/.356/.547 with 22 homers in 342 at-bats and went 11-3 with a 3.24 ERA, and a K/BB ratio of 146/51 in 133.1 innings as a starter.

Five clubs have more money to spend on Ohtani than the Mariners do. None of those teams are on the west coast, which some Asian players have said in the past they preferred due to faster travel back home. The Mariners, owned for a long time by a Japanese company which still retains a minority interest in the club, and long the home for high-profile Japanese players such as Ichiro and Hisashi Iwakuma, likely have a better media and marketing reach in Japan than most other teams as well, which might be a factor in his decision making process. Is all that enough to sway Ohtani?

We’ll find out over the next couple of weeks.