Baseball is almost impossible to predict. Anything can happen in 162 games. The Houston Astros made the playoffs last year while the Detroit Tigers did not. Either one of those statements would have met by blank stares if they were uttered this time last year.
The Major League Baseball season is six months of absolute mayhem. Prospects overachieve and underachieve. Team leaders find their way on disabled list for months at a time.
Sometimes, your star left fielder comes back from an injury two months early.
Baseball is 162 games of controlled chaos.
No one can definitively say that the Tribe can take the division, let alone a World Series Championship. What we can figure out is what needs to happen for them to have more than a puncher’s chance at the ultimate prize.
Here are the five things the Indians must do to put themselves in prime position to win the American League Central.
1. Start quickly
In their first three seasons under manager Terry Francona the Tribe has been an average of eight games under .500 on May 1st. If the Indians want to have a change for a playoff series, they have to start off at least average, if not hot. The Francona Era has marked by three seasons of playing catch up in the standings when August and September come around, with only the first one ending with a playoff berth. If the Indians want to avoid a dramatic finish, finishing April above .500 is extremely important.
2. The “Big Three” must be as good as advertised
No, not that big three. On the corner of Carnegie and Ontario that refers to starting pitchers Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar. The trio are on many expert’s radar as possibly the best group of three starters in baseball.
Kluber is just two seasons removed from earning the AL Cy Young award, and looks to bounce back from a hard fought 2015 season (9-16 3.49 ERA) that saw very little run support for the ace of the Tribe. As the ace of the staff, Kluber has to be the stopper of the tribe, making sure losing streaks stay at two or three games, instead of a whole week. In Kluber’s case, that means staying the course. By and large, he pitched well last season.. The biggest problem he had last year is a lack of run support.
Carrasco made significant strides last year, finishing out the season strong enough for writers to wonder if he should be the ace of the staff heading into the 2016 campaign. Success didn't come quickly for the 7th year starter. After a slump to start last season, Terry Francona thought it would be best for Carrasco to work on his mechanics in the minor leagues. Only after a midseason call up, did Carrasco find his form. If the Tribe wants to see October baseball, Carrasco has to be effective all season, not just the last two and a half months.
Salazar, entering his fourth season in the majors, seems to be the biggest wild card out of the three. Salazar’s ceiling is through the roof, as anyone who saw him throw down the stretch of the 2013 regular season can attest to. After pitching his first full big league season last year, the Tribe has reason to believe Salazar can make the same type of leap this year that Carrasco made last year. Having three front line starters is vital for the Tribe, as the team will be leaning on the starting staff to set the tone for the season.
3. The Core must take a step forward
The Indians have done a great job of controlling the contracts of all of their young prospects. Over the last couple years Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana and Yan Gomes have matured from prospects to productive major league players. Brantley has already taken steps towards stardom, finishing third in MVP voting just two seasons ago.
They don’t have to turn into Thome, Ramirez, Vizquel, and Lofton, but the core of this team must grow as players. The offensive struggles of the Indians were well documented last season, and the tribe will look to it’s home grown talent to change that in 2016.
Front and center is first baseman/designated hitter Carlos Santana. Brought here in 2008 in the Casey Blake trade, big things were expected from Santana. Though his 108 walks were still among the league leaders, the Indians are still waiting for him to become the middle of the order bat they were hoping for. At almost 30, there is chance that he has already plateaued as a player, but the Indians are hoping that isn't the case. They are going to need to find offense anywhere they can this year. This is a prime chance for Santana to take a step forward.
4. The new guys have to show up
Gone are the huge contracts of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourne and the black holes in the lineup that went with them. This season, the Indians focused on getting a few value free agents to help the team out, especially the offense.
Veteran infielder Juan Uribe will add stability to the infield and provide a clubhouse presence that has been missed since the departure of Jason Giambi and the end of the 2014 season. Though it’s unrealistic to think Uribe will put off significant offensive numbers this season, he will be a dependable security blanket at third until second year infielder Giovanny Urshela grows into a big league starter.
Another newly signed member of the tribe, Mike Napoli will look to provide that same stability on the other side of the infield, and add a little pop in the middle of the lineup. The veteran first baseman has averaged 20 home runs in his decade in the big leagues, For a team that has has missing a big bat, especially from the right side, Napoli could be a very big part of a possible postseason run for the Tribe.
5. Lindor has to keep mashing
Shortstop Francisco Lindor has phenomenal rookie campaign (.313 AVG, 12 HR, 51 RBI) in 2015. There is no reason Lindor can’t improve on those numbers this year after only playing in 99 games last year. Lindor has the ability to change a game from the top of the lineup, which could finally give the Tribe their first legitimate leadoff hitter while Francona has been manager.
As good as his offensive number were in his first season in the bigs, his stellar defensive ability was the main reason for his second place finish in Rookie of the Year voting a year ago. If the Tribe’s infield defense wants to improve, it will be behind the leadership of the 22 year old shortstop.
It is a lot to task for a second year player, but Lindor has to establish himself has the spark plug for the Tribe, who have been in need for the kind of player that can change the game with one play. If they are playing in October, Lindor will be one of the reasons why.
The Indians have many reasons to believe this could be the season that they bring the first World Series Championship to the North Shore since 1948. With the changes they made in the off season, growth of their core players, and a smooth spring training they could be right. Only time will tell.