By Matt Lofgren
Anticipation for the 2017 Cleveland Indians is at an all-time high that you can’t watch one segment on the Tribe and not be reminded of the 90’s teams that had so much talent, leadership and poise that it’s still baffling to this day how Cleveland did not collect a World Series crown back then.
Big name talent like Ramirez, Thome, Belle, Lofton, you know this list, came in and did day in and day out exactly what we knew to expect of them. The bashers came out and belted long ball after long ball while defensively the Indians were poetic up the middle in a way that could never be duplicated.
Fast-forward to 2017, this new edition of the Indians that features a mix of acquired talent and a whole lot of home grown cooking has just as much buzz as back then. Putting behind us the disappointment of the October Classic, the Indians will need to turn to a few new and familiar faces to duplicate the success of last year and get over the long drought.
Michael Brantley- What can’t be said about Dr. Smooth? An All-Star in every right when healthy, Brantley holds perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle on offense and defense for the Indians, but also the biggest question mark. Dealing with a nagging shoulder injury that kept him on the bench for nearly all of 2016, many were surprised to see so many players come together and make up for the missing production of Brantley, who in 2014 posted an all-star by batting .327 with 20 home runs and 97 RBIs and was the heart and soul of the of the Indians clubhouse.
Appearing in just 11 games last season, manager Terry Francona has taken every precaution to make sure Brantley is healthy and ready to be a part of the 2017 run.
If Brantley can duplicate numbers similar to 2015 (.310/15HR/84RBIs) then the Indians are in serious business along with Brantley’s ability to roam comfortably in left field. While Brantley’s defensive stats aren’t eye-popping, the 29 year old can play multiple positions in the outfield and be the Indians biggest asset.
Look for the Indians to be a little gentle with Brantley to start, but if the spring is any indication, Dr. Smooth could be back to himself and that would be the biggest news for Cleveland.
Jason Kipnis- Not much is known about the shoulder injury sustained to Indians’ second baseman. One source says he’ll be fine in a month while the next says the Indians should be in the market for his replacement. Lack of details on the injury has certainly left a lot up in the air for the season for one of the team’s most popular players.
Since coming up in mid-2011, Kipnis hasn’t missed much time due to injuries and been primarily a constant in the lineup. Playing in a career-high 156 games last season, Kipnis bring energy, defense and clutch at bats that are too valuable to just be replaced.
As expected, Jose Ramirez will step into his place and cover the second base duties with a lot riding on his shoulders. Ramirez was the unsung hero for the Indians in 2016 by producing in every aspect of the game.
Being able to be plugged in at multiple positions, Ramirez was excellent at third base and saw a majority of his time there. On top of that, Ramirez’s bat exceeded all expectations and was more than enough to get him a nice payday this offseason to keep him in Cleveland through the 2021 with club options for 2022 and 2023.
Aside from Brantley, the Indians’ next biggest concern will be second base. Ramirez is capable, but done a terrific job at third while Kipnis’ presence will be missed from first pitch tonight. Learning a bit from the Brantley injury, if Francona needs to wait until mid-late May to get a healthy Kipnis back, then so be it.
Needing both players for the run, I expect another big year out of Ramirez no matter where he plays. The 24 year old had a bit of a down year in 2015, but this trend he is on is for real.
Add to that an inevitable return of Kipnis, missing as much time as he has may effect his swing and overall production at the plate. Since batting .303 in 2015, Kipnis had a sizeable drop off in batting average while seeing a large gain in home runs (9 in 2015 vs 23 last season) and gaining an extra 30 RBIs, his production may level off a bit, but I still expect Kipnis to drop off some this season.
Covering for Ramirez at third will be the biggest, and I do mean that literally, buzz from spring training in Yandy Diaz. Making his mark in AA Akron and AAA Columbus last season, Diaz is listed at 6-foot-2, 185 lbs., but seems to dwarf every other player he is pictured next to. The 25 year old possesses arms that would make Albert Belle blush and an explosive bat to showcase it.
Perhaps the biggest “what if” in the Indians lineup, Diaz is a liability at third base. Do not, I repeat, do not expect to be impressed by his play, but do admire what he does with a bat.
Diaz earned his spot thanks to an extremely successful spring campaign in which he batted .458 (20-45) with a pair of home runs, 15 RBIs and four doubles. Still on a bit of a learning curve, Diaz is the type of guy who will make you say “wow!” at the plate followed by “wow, what was that?” a half inning later.
Long story short, it will be a lot of fun to see what Diaz can do.
In terms of pitching, what’s not to love about the Indians’ rotation? When your biggest trouble spot if Trevor Bauer, the Indians are in the best shape of anyone in the American League to have to best rotation. I still very much like Bauer’s stuff and if he could just work on attacking the zone and getting ahead in counts, his pitch count lower to a number where he doesn’t always have to rely on his bullpen.
Staying at the end of the rotation, a healthy Josh Tomlin should see a coveted bounce back year. Keying into a stronger presence on defense, Tomlin’s numbers should yield a lower ERA to really help the Tribe at the back end.
Edwin Encarnacion will hit more than 40 home runs.
Tyler Naquin will see his numbers dip, BA under .300
Carlos Santana will bat above last year’s mark of .259, bur hit fewer home runs
Yan Gomes is a big question mark, but if this man is healthy, I expect nearly every pitcher’s ERA to have a positive impact.
Francisco Lindor sit back, relax, you’re watching the next great Indian.
Corey Kluber will continue to do Corey Kluber things. No doubt the ace of the staff should compete for another Cy Young.
How can you not expect consistency from this group? Young and hungry with perhaps the best the best manager in baseball at the helm, there’s a reason so many experts are buying into what the Indians have done.
Cleveland, it’s time to end another drought. Best believe in this group.