Helping to count down the days until opening day, here is the fourth in our series of UK fan previews. Ash Day writes about the Indians at England Tribe, and here he lets us in on his thoughts on how they’ll fare in 2018. Check out his blog, comment below, and be sure to give Ash a follow on Twitter (@ashday29).
For a team that won 102 games and set a new American League record with 22 consecutive wins, the 2017 Indians’ season ended in disappointment. Many clubs would consider last year to have been a very successful season and in some ways they are right. However, off the back of a 2016 campaign that took them to Game 7 of the World Series, anything except winning it all was going to fall short of expectations.
In summary, it was a very peculiar year. Led by perhaps the most dominant pitching staff in baseball, the Tribe didn’t face much competition for their AL Central crown. Although the Twins kept themselves in the rearview mirror most of the summer, the Indians dispatched all challengers thanks to the likes of Corey Kluber, who won his second AL Cy Young award, and Jose Ramirez, who garnered serious MVP consideration.
As 2017 progressed, I began to feel like the regular season became some sort of purgatory, as Cleveland counted down the days until redemption could be gained in October. Despite winning the first two games of the ALDS and looking set to progress, the Yankees came back to eliminate the Indians, breaking hearts in the Game 5 decider in Cleveland.
The Indians retained the majority of their core this offseason but there’s a definite sense of unease that the club aren’t making the most of this window to win.
Losing a player like Carlos Santana, who was underappreciated with the Indians, and replacing him with Yonder Alonso is a classic Indians move. Alonso is the type of low risk, high reward signing Cleveland specialise in. Time will tell if the Indians will see the Alonso who hit 22 homers in Oakland last year or the guy who hit just 6 in Seattle after a midseason trade. Previous to 2017, Alonso had never hit more than 9 home runs in a year, so he certainly comes to Cleveland with a degree of risk.
The rotation return intact, led by Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, with Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin rounding out the group. Salazar is likely to start the season on the DL, with the impressive Mike Clevinger deservedly set to take his place. Ryan Merritt will be battling Tomlin for the fifth spot this Spring, but the veteran Texan will likely hold onto his place to start 2018. The depth of starting pitchers in Cleveland is the envy of the league. Concerns about Kluber and Carrasco being over 30 years-old are there, but the team feel they still have enough quality to remain a dominant force on the mound.
The bullpen is a slight cause for concern. Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith will be hard to replace, but with Cody Allen and Andrew Miller still in town, accompanied by the reliable paid of Dan Otero and Nick Goody, the strongest part of the pen is still intact. The Indians have a variety of relievers they hope will stick around to make up the numbers.
My real worry is in the outfield. Michael Brantley, my favourite Indians player of the past decade, is still a concern health-wise, and his position in left field is hardly assured. In center field is Bradley Zimmer, also returning from a late-2017 injury. In right field, skipper Terry Francona loves to platoon Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer, which has proven to be largely effective. However, for a team challenging for a World Series, the outfield as a group feel remarkably lacklustre in comparison to our competitors. Greg Allen is a prospect I’m very excited to see this year though, and if injuries strike again, I’d prefer to see him given time over the bargain-bucket veterans like Melvin Upton Jr. and Rajai Davis.
Ultimately, the success of this Indians team depends on the key hitters like Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Edwin Encarnacion delivering as we would expect, and the rotation continuing their run of consistency. With pitching coach Mickey Callaway now in New York managing the Mets, I pray our rotation and bullpen don’t suddenly see a dip in production.
98-64 – A third consecutive AL Central title is in sight, but it’s World Series or bust for this current crop.
Offensively and defensively, Francisco Lindor will be our most important player in 2018. The star shortstop is only 24 years-old and the Indians need to seal his long-term future as soon as possible, as there are already fears he could leave as soon as he hits free agency in 2022. Last year saw his batting average dip below .300 for the first time but the majority of his other numbers climbed substantially, most notably his home runs. Lindor smashed 33 homers, the first time a shortstop has ever accomplished such a feat in Indians history.
One to watch
Francisco Mejia, the number one catching prospect in baseball. The young Dominican backstop cannot stop hitting and expect him to make an appearance at some point this season.