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2017 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 2017 season. Next up: The Cleveland Indians.

The Cleveland Indians almost won the World Series without their best hitter for the whole season and two of their starting pitchers for the playoffs. This year that hitter — Michael Brantley — is back and the starters — Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar — are healthy. Oh, and they added arguably the best free agent bat available in Edwin Encarnacion.

Baseball teams love to downplay their expectations, but given where the Indians are at the moment, anything less than another American League Pennant will have to feel like a disappointment, right? Fortunately for the Indians, they stand as the favorites to do just that.

They didn’t lose much in the offseason. Yes, World Series hero Rajai Davis is gone, but the Indians outfield will be fine if Brantley remains healthy. Mike Napoli‘s loss will be felt but it will be made up for with Encarnacion’s bat and probably then some. Coco Crisp left too, but he was not a key part of the equation.

The biggest losses are guys from last year who will start the year on the disabled list, most notably Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall. Kipnis is just starting to work out following time off to rest his sore shoulder. Chisenhall ran into a wall the other day and is being evaluated. There is no sense that either will miss extended time, however.

Otherwise, the lineup should score a lot of runs, with on-base machines Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor setting the table for Encarnacion, Brantley and Carlos Santana, who is entering his walk year. The Indians trailed only the Red Sox in runs scored in the American League last year and they should score a lot of runs this year as well.

The strength of the club, however, remains its pitching. Corey Kluber looked like his old Cy Young self last year, particularly in the playoffs. Danny Salazar built on his excellent 2015 season in the first half before falling prey to injury. Carlos Carrasco posted an ERA+ of 141 before breaking his hand and Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer both stood out for fourth and fifth starters.

The bullpen is excellent too, as relief ace Andrew Miller is joined by Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and newcomer Boone Logan make up one of the relief corps in baseball.

Pitcher health is probably the biggest uncertainty for any contender, but the Indians have the best pitching in the AL if everyone stays healthy. And maybe even if one or two guys don’t.

It’s hard to find much fault with the 2017 Cleveland Indians. They are the class of their division and, while the slog of the regular season turns a lot of surefire contenders into hash before it’s all said and done, there is no reason to look at the Indians right now and think of them as anything other than the best team in the American League.

Prediction: First place, American League Central.

Major League Baseball considering expansion, radical realignment

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Tracy Ringolsby of Baseball America wrote yesterday about a “growing consensus” within baseball that expansion and realignment are inevitable. The likely expansion cities: Portland and Montreal. The 32-team league would then undergo a radical realignment that would also involve reducing the season from 162 to 156 games while expanding the playoffs to 12 teams.

To be clear, Ringolsby’s actual reporting here is limited to that “growing consensus” about expansion, and the most likely cities involved, not regarding the specific realignment or game reduction plan. That I take to be speculative — he refers to it as “one proposal” — though it seems like reasonable and informed speculation. The general idea is that, if you expand, you have to realign, and if you realign you have to change the playoff structure lest too many teams in any one division become also-rans. That, combined with the near impossibility of changing the early-April-to-late-October footprint of the season and the desire of players to have less arduous travel schedules and some extra time off, leads to the shorter season.

The details of the plan:

  • The American and National Leagues would be disposed of, with MLB putting all 32 teams into four, eight-team, regionally-based divisions: East, North, Midwest, West. This is designed to (a) maintain regional and traditional rivalries while (b) cutting way back on cross-time zone travel. Both New York teams and Boston are in the “North,” both Chicago teams and St. Louis are in the “Midwest,” etc. Texas and Houston are in the “Midwest” too, but we’ll let the Texans get mad about that later.
  • The playoffs would feature a LOT of play-in games. Specifically, Ringolsby would have the four division winners go to the Division Series, where they would play the winner of four different Wild Card games, the participants in which would come from the eight non-division winners with the best records, regardless of which division they came from.
  • The schedule would go back to 156 games, giving every team an off-day every week. Between that and the more compact, almost all single-time-zone divisions, the travel schedules would be far less taxing, with shorter flights and more flights which could leave the day after a night game as opposed to directly after a night game, causing teams to arrive in the next city in the wee hours of the morning.

Thoughts:

  • Obviously this would piss off the purists.  The elimination of the traditional leagues, the shorter season, a (slightly) altered standard for records and milestones, and a doubling of one-and-done playoff series would make a lot of fans dizzy. On the one hand, I could argue that baseball has NEVER been as pure and unchanging as people like to pretend it is so maybe people shouldn’t get too bent out of shape over this, but it’s simply unavoidable that this would rattle a lot of baseball fans, and not just the ones hopelessly stuck in the past. Baseball should not be slavishly devoted to its history, but it needs to recognize that its history is a selling point and an important touchstone for many, many fans.
  • Ringolsby’s specific realignment idea is kind of fun, but will inevitably lead to some winners and losers. For example, many traditional rivalries or regional rivalries would be maintained — Chicago and St. Louis and Boston and New York would remain division rivals — but other, less-sexy but very real rivalries would be disposed of. The Mets, for example, would have no old NL rivals in their division. There will also be some teams which get screwed logistically. Here, all of Minnesota’s division rivals would be Eastern Time Zone teams, so all of its road games would be played in a different time zone. You could fix that somehow, but someone else would likely be inconvenienced. There isn’t a perfect way to do it. As such, implementation could be pretty messy, with some owners opposing it, possibly vehemently.
  • The playoff idea would make for a lot of drama with four play-in games, but I don’t think it’s a sustainable model. Yes, division winners would all be guaranteed a five-game playoff series, but having two-thirds of all of the playoff teams subjected to a random one-and-done game as opposed to the current four of ten would inevitably lead to calls for longer Wild Card series. And it would likely, over time, diminish the cachet of the Wild Card itself. Now most people think of Wild Card teams as having made the playoffs, With this plan, I suspect fewer people will think of it that way as opposed to some sort of weird, non-quite-the-playoffs limbo, thus hurting late season interest among fans of non-division winners.
  • A 156-game season wouldn’t be the end of the world. We had a 154-game season for a little over half a century total and a 162 game season for 56 seasons so far. Changing it might cause people to get grumpy about records and milestones, but other changes in the game, be it pitcher usage patterns or juiced baseballs or integration or night games or any number of other things have already changed the context in such a way that such standards were never as set-in-stone as people tend to believe. At the same time, extra off days might very well improve the caliber of play as players are more rested and therefore sharper.

In the end, it’s important to recognize that Ringolsby’s article is, in all likelihood, a trial balloon leaked by Major League Baseball, so don’t take any one aspect of it too seriously, even if we should all take the idea of some radical shift involving expansion and realignment in the not-too-distant future seriously.

Why? Money mostly. There are huge financial incentives for baseball to do this. Part of this involves the cost-savings which would result from better scheduling and less travel that Ringolsby mentions. A much greater incentive would come from the franchise fees the owners of the two new teams would pay the 30 current owners in order to be allowed into the MLB fraternity.  In the last round of expansion, the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays owners paid $150 million each for their teams. Given that franchises have gone up in value by a factor of ten twenty, it’s not inconceivable that new owners in Montreal and Portland would have to fork over well north of a billion dollars each to enter the league. That’s a check for $66 million written to each owner in exchange for simply voting “yes” at some meeting in Scottsdale on some fine December afternoon.

So, while there may be no uncertainly on the “how” of it all, the very fact of expansion and subsequent realignment seems inevitable. Now is a good time for us to start thinking about how the details of it all would work.