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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.

Mark Melancon is considering surgery

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Giants’ right-hander Mark Melancon is considering surgery for an undisclosed injury, the pitcher told reporters prior to Friday’s game against the Phillies. Melancon did not divulge the exact location of the injury, but revealed that it had been plaguing him off and on since the 2012 season and was a separate issue from the right pronator strain that kept him sidelined through much of July and August. Giants’ head athletic trainer Dave Groeschner called the injury day-to-day and has not revealed a timetable for the right-hander’s return, should surgery become necessary.

Melancon, 32, has struggled to replicate the sparkling pitching line he produced with the Pirates and Nationals in 2016. He’s toting a 3.80 ERA through 25 appearances with San Francisco, flanked by a 1.1 BB/9 and 7.6 SO/9 over 23 2/3 innings. His season has been significantly shortened after multiple trips to the disabled list for a right forearm strain, and while he looked to be in line to resume his closing duties this week, the Giants will likely play it safe with the veteran righty to keep him from compromising his health in 2018.

Although the injury doesn’t appear to be severe in nature, it’s clearly intensified over the last few months. Per MLB.com’s Chris Haft, Melancon said he’s “had discomfort every day this season,” though he hopes to continue pitching through the remainder of 2017. The Giants aren’t on the verge of contending by any stretch of the imagination, but a solid end to the 2017 season could help Melancon make some headway as he looks to reclaim his status as the team’s closer next spring.

Watch: Javier Baez snares a 106-MPH ground ball

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What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? Just ask Javier Baez, who tracked down a sizzling 106-MPH ground ball from Jose Bautista on Friday afternoon. The defensive gem helped preserve the Cubs’ three-run lead in the top of the ninth inning, paving the way for Wade Davis‘ 25th save of the season.

Baez also impressed at the plate, collecting an RBI single in the second inning before getting tagged out at home by Miguel Montero on a convoluted 9-6-3-6-2 putout. He returned in the eighth inning to pester Tim Mayza and cleared the left field hedge with a 409-foot, two-run blast for his 20th home run of the year. With the win, the Cubs improved to 64-57 and now hold a scant 1.5-game lead over the Brewers in the NL Central.