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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.

Aaron Hicks to go on the disabled list with an oblique injury

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Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks left Sunday’s game against the Rangers after four innings due to soreness in his right oblique. After the game, Hicks said he expects to go on the 10-day disabled list and miss the next three to four weeks, MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch reports.

Hicks was 1-for-2 with a single before departing on Sunday. He entered the game batting .288/.397/.515 with 10 home runs and 37 RBI in 198 plate appearances. It is by far the best season of his career.

Jacoby Ellsbury is on his way back from a concussion, so the Yankees will only have to bridge the gap in center field for a week or two. Mason Williams could draw some starts in center field in the meantime.

Report: Phillies making Maikel Franco available in trade discussions

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Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reports that the Phillies are making third baseman Maikel Franco “more than available” in trade discussions.

Franco, 24, is having an abysmal season after showing promise in 2015 and ’16. Through 289 plate appearances, he’s hitting .221/.280/.365 with nine home runs and 37 RBI. His hitting has tanked and his already below-average defense hasn’t shown any improvement.

It’s a bit surprising that the Phillies would be so eager to move Franco with his value about as low as it can go. Franco is also under control of the rebuilding Phillies through the 2021 season, so the team doesn’t have to rush into moving him. He will become eligible for arbitration for the first time after the season.

Furthermore, the Phillies don’t have an immediate replacement for Franco at third base. Andres Blanco would likely get everyday starts at the hot corner in the short-term, but as far as prospects go, there are no third baseman banging down the door. If the Phillies were to trade Franco, it would likely have to be in return for a young, talented third baseman who will be under team control for several more years.