This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 5: the Cleveland Indians.
2014 Record and Finish: 85–77 (.525), third place in AL Central (12th overall)
2015 Projected Record and Finish: 92–70 (.568), first place in AL Central (fifth overall)
The Case For
We’ll cede the floor to general manager Chris Antonetti. “Rewinding back to the end of last season, we felt like we finished on a really strong note,” he says. “We didn’t ultimately accomplish what we wanted to, but we were returning basically the entirety of our roster, with the exception of Jason Giambi. So we felt we had a really strong nucleus in place heading into the off-season.” Indeed, though the Indians fell three games short of the second wild-card spot, they were among the league’s best second half teams, going 38–30.
Particularly dominant and somewhat overlooked (other than Cy Young winner Corey Kluber) was Cleveland's starting rotation. After the All-Star break, Indians starters led the majors by striking out more than a batter an inning (9.33 per nine) and also had the lowest home run rate (0.56 per nine) and second-best ERA (2.95, trailing only the Nationals) in baseball. Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer are back, and none is yet 29.
As Antonetti notes, the lineup—including 2014 breakouts Michael Brantley (who finished third in the MVP voting) and Yan Gomes (who batted .274 with 21 homers and 74 RBIs)—will also return largely intact, but boasts one massive upgrade. The beloved Giambi finally retired at 43, and the Indians swapped him out for Brandon Moss, who averaged 25 homers over the last three seasons and who was on pace last year to far exceed that (he had 21 by the All-Star Game) before a torn hip labrum sapped his power in the second half. That hip is repaired now, and he joins an extremely well-constructed roster that appears ready to contend.
The Case Against
“We signed Gavin Floyd to try to add some experience to our rotation,” Antonetti said a few weeks ago. “When he’s healthy, he’s been a productive pitcher. We didn’t just want to fill innings, but get quality innings.” Floyd was the club’s other off-season addition besides Moss, but his tenure with the Indians is already likely over, as he’ll likely miss the season after refracturing a bone in his elbow.
Not that Floyd was a key to the season, but his absence underscores that inexperience in the rotation: Aside from Kluber, none of the starters (including presumptive Floyd replacement Zach McAllister) has ever reached even 155 innings in a big league season. So there’s a lot of upside here—the hard-throwing Carrasco, in particular, was phenomenal, with a 1.30 ERA over his 10 season-concluding starts. But it’s one thing to display that kind of success for a stretch of two-and-a-half months after the All-Star Game, and another to do it for an entire season.
X-Factor: Francisco Lindor
There appears to be only one questionable spot in Indians’ lineup, and it is at shortstop. Jose Ramirez is just 22, and while he’s defensively strong—certainly better in the field than Asdrubal Cabrera, whom he replaced after Cabrera was traded to the Nationals last July—he is more or less a contact hitter, producing 14 extra-base hits in 266 big league plate appearances last season. But guess who the Indians have lurking in the minors, where he’ll stay to delay his service clock by a month or two? It’s Lindor, a consensus top-10 prospect who happens to play shortstop—tremendously well, scouts say—and who had five extra-base hits in his first 26 spring plate appearances. When we said this team was well-constructed, we meant it.
Number To Know: Zero
That, almost unbelievably, is the number of September RBIs for second baseman Jason Kipnis, despite him playing in 21 games and making 79 plate appearances. Kipnis, though, had strained an oblique early in the season, and a scout who watched him said it was obviously affecting him throughout a year in which he hit just .240 with six homers. “You ever have a strained oblique?” the scout asks. “It is horrible. You’re thinking, 'Oh no, I better not do it again,' and you hold back.” After a winter of recovery and a spring in which Kipnis was used carefully, there is no reason not to expect the 27-year-old to threaten the 20-homer/20-stolen base plateau once more.
Most Overrated: Michael Bourn, OF
“I just never thought he was a very good hitter. He strikes out too much, doesn’t hit home runs, and now he’s been having leg problems the last couple years, so his speed’s compromised. I think he was overpaid two years ago. The Indians got a solid character guy who can play centerfield, but his on-base percentage is not what you want from a leadoff hitter. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him bunt for a base hit, either—he doesn’t do it nearly enough.”
Most Underrated: Michael Brantley, OF
“He had a breakout year, but he’s still underrated. He’s one of the best players in the big leagues. He’s a great, great hitter, a great defender, a solid guy. To me, he seems to slow the game down when it’s a big situation. You can count on him to have a good at-bat. He stays in his mechanics. It was no surprise to us in the scouting profession that he almost won MVP last year. He doesn’t hit 500-foot home runs, but he might hit more line drives than any hitter in baseball.”