2018 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 2018 season. Next up: The Cleveland Indians.

The Indians followed up a pennant-winning 2016 season by winning 102 games and, for a time late in 2017, was considered the best and certainly the hottest team in baseball. Then they blew an 0-2 lead in the ALDS and went home disappointed. Life comes at you fast.

Because of that ignominious end and because of a quiet offseason in which the most notable moves involved them losing free agents as opposed to augmenting the roster, it almost feels as if the Indians are entering play this year underrated and under the radar. Which is kind of nuts considering how talented this team remains.

The only major addition is Yonder Alonso, who will replace the departed Carlos Santana at first base. Alonso was something of a revelation in 2017, smacking 28 homers after never hitting more then nine in his previous seven years in the league. He fell off a good bit after a trade to Seattle in the middle of last season, though, so it remains to be seen what the Indians really have in him. Might they fall off themselves at first base in 2018? Sure. Totally possible. Not certain, but possible.

Otherwise, though, there’s not much to worry about with the lineup. Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are the straws that stir the drink in the Indians’ potent attack, and they’re entering their age 24 and 25 seasons, respectively. Jason Kipnis had an injury-plagued 2017 and it’s not unreasonable to think he’s due for a bounce back year. If he doesn’t bounce back, or if he gets hurt, Ramirez can play second base and the Indians can look at Yandy Diaz or Giovanny Urshela at the hot corner. Diaz is thought of as the better long term option. Urshela got the playoff starts last year. Overall, it strikes me that the best short term option would be for Kipnis to rake and Ramirez to stay at third, even if he eventually slides over to second where he forms a nice double play combination with Lindor. There are options, though.

Catching duties are covered with the long-tenured combination of Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez. They’re just keeping it warm, though, for the Indians’ top prospect, Francisco Mejia. He got a cup of coffee last year, but his plus bat and a plus-plus arm are likely to find themselves in Cleveland permanently some time this season, which would give the Tribe a big offensive upgrade.

The outfield is less set-in-stone. Bradley Zimmer will likely play center full time. Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer will platoon in right. Left field is being held for Michael Brantley, who will start the season on the disabled list but who played in some late spring training games after being brought along slowly after ankle surgery. Getting anything from Brantley in 2018 would be a bonus given how little he’s given due to injury the past couple of years. Tyler Naquin will start off in left and hope to give Terry Francona a hard choice about what to do with him once Brantley is ready. And don’t forget: Kipnis played some center last year. There are no sure-fire studs on the Indians outfield corps, but again, there is some potential flexibility and platoon options.

All of that seems to add up to the Indians, who sported the third best offense in the AL last year, having a strong offensive attack once again, with some room to grow. The real strength of this club, though, is the pitching.

Corey Kluber is the reigning Cy Young winner and needs no introduction. Carlos Carrasco, who won 18 games, tossed 200 innings and posted a 3.29 ERA, would be an ace on a lot of teams. Trevor Bauer has improved each season he’s been in the bigs and has the stuff that could support a true breakout year some time soon (he just turned 27). Beyond him it’s a bit more iffy, as Danny Salazar is again hurt and could be ticketed for the bullpen. Mike Clevinger and Josh Tomlin will handle back end duties. Clevinger took a major step forward last year. Tomlin gives up a lot of taters, but even with him tossing 141 innings in 2017, the Tribe’s rotation led all of baseball in ERA, FIP, fWAR and, as a group, struck out more than ten batters per nine innings of work, which is a pretty rare trick.

The bullpen will be anchored by Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, who may be the best 1-2 punch in baseball. The Tribe lost Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith, but Nick Goody, Dan Otero, Zach McAllister and Tyler Olson, who tossed 20 scoreless innings in 2017 — like, that was his whole season, 20 scoreless innings — are a great 3-6. Rounding things out will likely be newcomer Matt Belisle and, at some point, Salazar and Ryan Merritt should be healthy and contributing. Carlos Torres remains an option too. All-in-all a fantastic group of relievers.

So, whadda we got?

  • A team coming off 102 wins;
  • A very good offense that has room to improve due to some guys getting older, some guys getting healthy and a called up prospect or two;
  • Maybe the best pitching staff in baseball looking, more or less, like it did last year; and
  • Probably the best manager in the game in Terry Francona

Put that together with the fact that the Royals and Tigers are entering year-one of big time rebuilds and the White Sox have not yet turned the corner on their rebuild, and the Indians should breeze through three-fourths of their divisional schedule. The Twins certainly improved and should present some good competition this year, but my gut tells me they’re a Wild Card team, not yet a serious contender to knock the Indians off their perch.

Prediction: First Place, AL Central