The Indians were extremely disappointed by their finish last year, just one game above .500 and their second straight without a playoff appearance. With three of the best starting pitchers in baseball now established at the top of the Indians rotation, they look to make a deep run into the Postseason this year for the first time since 2007.
Depth Chart (as of 3/29)
C: Yan Gomes
1B: Mike Napoli
2B: Jason Kipnis
SS: Francisco Lindor
3B: Juan Uribe
LF: Michael Brantley
CF: Rajai Davis
RF: Lonnie Chisenhall
DH: Carlos Santana
SP: Corey Kluber
SP: Carlos Carrasco
SP: Danny Salazar
SP: Trevor Bauer
SP: Cody Anderson
CP: Cody Allen
New Faces: Marlon Byrd, Joey Butler, Joba Chamberlain, Collin Cowgill, Rajai Davis, Ross Detwiler, Tommy Hunter, Mike Napoli, Dan Otero, Juan Uribe
Departures: Mike Aviles, Gavin Floyd, Chris Johnson, CC Lee, Ryan Raburn, Jerry Sands, Ryan Webb
While it looked like there would be a few battles early in camp, things were actually simplified pretty early on. Tyler Naquin burst out of the gates and his play demanded a spot in the starting lineup while Uribe and Byrd were added late in Spring Training to solidify other positions of weakness. In the biggest surprise, bullpen spots were won by Ross Detwiler and Joba Chamberlain.
It’s very concerning when your top hitter begins the season on the DL and Michael Brantley is planning on doing just that. Even if he does come back earlier than originally expected (late May), recurrence of the back problem that ailed him almost all of last season is a serious concern. Also starting the year on the DL will be Tommy Hunter and Craig Stammen, two relievers who were signed late in the offseason.
Finally, the Indians will be depending heavily on their starting rotation this year and while they are deep beyond the top three, they have a few pitchers considered high risks for Tommy John, particularly Josh Tomlin who will be looking to pitch his first full season since returning from the elbow surgery. The Indians saw decreased production from Brantley and Yan Gomes last year due to injury and Jason Kipnis the year before, and so are very familiar with the season long cost even minor, nagging injuries can have.
Francisco Lindor was the key to turning around the Indians defense last year as they went from one of the worst in baseball to one of the best. In addition, Lindor was the Indians’ best player in the second half and there is a solid argument that had he been brought up when he was ready in early April instead of in June when he was safely beyond Super 2 status, the Indians could have won enough games early on to grab a Wild Card spot.
This year, the Indians will have the phenom in the lineup from day one and he should be even better than last year as he learned from the few mistakes he did make in his rookie campaign.
Yan Gomes won the Silver Slugger for catcher in just his first full season in 2014, but took a huge step back last year after being injured in just the fifth game of the season. In all, his season numbers look bad from 2015, but he definitely started to turn things around at the end, batting .266/.283/.489 from August 29th on after starting out .219/.262/.368.
Part of the problem may have been that he rushed back as he returned about two weeks before expected, but he should be completely healthy going into 2016. If he is on his game, he is not only one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, but one of the best offensively as well. Much of the Indians’ offseason was spent looking for the elusive “right handed power bat,” but in Gomes, they had one all along.
Burning Question: Which Lonnie is the real Chisenhall?
Lonnie Chisenhall has been a starter now for the majority of two seasons and the results have been drastically variable. While this has averaged out to 1.2 WAR per season since 2011, he is never just a one win player. Through June 11th in 2014, he was batting .393/.438/.619, and he finished the season batting .219/.292/.323. In 2015, it was the opposite, as he hit .206/.237/.339 through July 30th, then .423/.488/.577 over the next month, and .183/.244/.268 to end the year.
In addition, his defense has went almost completely the opposite direction of his offense, as he was so bad in 2014 that his play at third nearly canceled out his 3.0 oWAR, and he was so good at both third and in right field that the majority of his value in 2015 came defensively.
In 2016, he is slated to start in right field and he could be an important offensive contributor to a weak lineup and the most consistent defender in a questionable outfield. He also could be a total mess both offensively and defensively, making the weakest part of this Indians team even weaker. In addition, he has been injured much of this March with a forearm issue and hit poorly (but played well in right field), to the point where no one knows what to expect this year. That is the quandary that is Lonnie Chisenhall.
Best Case Scenario
The Indians have a pitching staff that isn’t only the best in the AL Central, but could be the best in baseball and the best in Cleveland since the late 1960’s. There is mound lowering talent in this starting five and if they can all repeat their successes from 2015, they should be able to lead Cleveland to a division title. Once there, any team facing Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar in a playoff series is going to pine for the days when the Indians only had pitchers like C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee. Assuming the offense can score more than three runs per game, this team is has as legitimate chance as any at the 2016 World Series.
Worst Case Scenario
Even with incredible depth in the rotation, an injury or two could cause the team to overly rely on pitchers like Trevor Bauer and Cody Anderson who have yet to have sustained MLB success. Offensively, there are a ton of questions as even the veteran additions are no sure thing. If all things go wrong, this could be a season full of 2-1 losses for the Tribe as they push for another season of near contention in a very difficult Central division.
Chances are, the combination of great defense and great pitching will outweigh any issues the Indians lack of offense causes. They still have a few stars in Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and Francisco Lindor so they should be able to scrape up enough runs even if everybody doesn’t pan out. Almost everyone is returning from the 2015 team that won 81 games and most of these players are young and still improving, like Lindor and Salazar. With plenty of high quality reserves in AAA, the Indians should even be able to withstand a decent amount of strife without a significant drop in play. Expect 85-90 wins and for the Indians to aggressively compete for the Central title.