The Cleveland Indians finished over .500 last season at 81-80. The strength of this team is and will continue to be its starting pitching. 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber (9 wins, 16 losses, 3.49 earned run average, 245 strikeouts in 222 innings) leads a very deep starting staff that has to be in the top five of all of baseball with the Mets, Cubs, Giants and Rays. Key off season acquisitions include first baseman Mike Napoli (.224 batting average, 18 home runs, 50 runs batted in, .734 on base plus slugging), outfielder Rajai Davis (.258, 8, 30, .746, 11 triples) and third baseman Juan Uribe (.253, 14, 43, .737). The Indians will be without projected starting center fielder Abraham Almonte (.264, 5, 20, .776) due to his 80 game suspension for his use of performance enhancing drugs. Star outfielder Michael Brantley (.310, 15, 84, .859) will likely miss the first two months of the season as he recovers from a shoulder injury.
In addition to Kluber, the Indians potentially could go six deep in their rotation if they wanted to. Of course, it is great to have depth in case there is an injury but the team may need to make a decision on how to use their extra starting pitcher. Danny Salazar (14-10, 3.45, 195 Ks, 185 IP) and Carlos Carrasco (14-12, 3.63, 216 Ks, less than 184 IP) combine with Kluber to strike out well over a batter an inning. Trevor Bauer (11-12, 4.55, 170 Ks, 176 IP) looks like the best pitcher on the entire staff when he is at his best (completely meant to be a compliment), but looks like a fish out of water when he is at his worst. This best describes his 2015 season, one in which he was just 24 years old. If Bauer, who led the American League with 79 walks in 2015, has a breakout season in 2016, the Indians will have the best one through four starting pitchers in all of baseball - all of whom collectively strike out over a batter an inning. Right hand pitcher Josh Tomlin (7-2, 3.02, 2 complete games in 10 starts) seems to have really found himself after struggling for years with injuries and inconsistency. Though a small sample size, Tomlin pitched to a 0.838 walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) in just under 66 innings of work last season. Tomlin's emergence leaves right hander Cody Anderson (7-3, 3.05 in 15 starts) as the odd man out.
Anderson does not possess strong strike out ability, but could still be an important part of the bullpen. Right hander Zach McAllister made a similar transition to the pen last year and it worked out for him though he had not proven to be a strikeout pitcher. In just over 363 major league innings coming into 2015, McAllister had 299 career strikeouts. In his 69 innings last season, he struck out 84 batters. However, Anderson has to go back to 2013 when he was in Double- A where he last struck out over eight batters per nine innings pitched. Cody Allen (2-5, 2.99, 34 saves, 99 Ks, just over 69 IP) returns as the closer and is joined once again by Bryan Shaw (3-3, 2.95, 74 games). The Indians are hoping that Dan Otero can return to his 2014 form when he pitched to a 2.28 ERA in 72 games after a dismal 2015 in Oakland. They also signed Tommy Hunter (4-2, 4.18, 58 games for Baltimore and Chicago) with the hopes that he can pitch as well as he did in 2013 and 2014. One pitcher to watch is left hander Kyle Crockett (0-0, 4.08 in 31 games) as he may be the most important reliever in the mix. Non roster right handers Joba Chamberlain and Craig Stammen could gain a role if there is an injury.
The Indians have a very top heavy offense, especially with Brantley out. Shortstop Francisco Lindor (.315, 12, 31, .855) took the league by storm when he debuted last season. Second baseman Jason Kipnis (.303, 9, 52, .823) had a very solid bounce back year in 2015. First baseman turned designated hitter Carlos Santana (.231, 19, 85, .752) drew 108 walks last season which partially makes up for his weak average. Unfortunately, he seems more like a .230-.240 hitter the rest of the way. Catcher Yan Gomes (.231, 12, 45, .659) is more of an offensive minded catcher, so if he is to be the regular, he needs to have a better offensive season. He did battle some injuries in 2015. Roberto Perez (.228, 7, 21, .751) is the more defensive minded backup. Outfielder and converted third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall (.246, 7, 44, .667) could become a key if he finally becomes the offensive player the Indians had hoped for. Veteran Collin Cowgill has a good chance of making the team and could fill in for Brantley until he is ready.
The Indians opening day lineup should look something like this: Davis LF, Kipnis 2B, Lindor SS, Santana DH, Napoli 1B, Chisenhall RF, Gomes C, Uribe 3B, Cowgill CF. Of course, the lineup looks much different with Brantley in the mix (Davis LF, Lindor SS, Brantley, CF, Kipnis 2B, Santana DH, Napoli 1B, Chisenhall RF, Gomes C, Uribe 3B. The Indians are going to count heavily on Napoli, hoping that his small sample in Texas was a sign that he has much left in the tank. If not, this team could struggle to score runs. Outfielder Joey Butler comes over from Tampa Bay to provide a little depth and shortstop Jose Ramirez will see some time in the middle infield and at third base. Also look at non roster invitees Michael Choice and Will Venable getting the opportunity to earn some playing time.
Outfielders Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier may not be that far away from making it to the major leagues. With the Indians needs in the outfield, both could provide some insurance in case there is another injury or some inconsistent play this season. However, there is no reason to rush either to the big leagues as both could benefit from a little more seasoning. Left hand pitcher Justus Sheffield could be on the fast track to the big leagues despite not yet being 20 years old. Perhaps he can help out in the bullpen late this season such as Tampa Bay's David Price in 2008 or Kansas City's Brandon Finnegan in 2014. Catcher Francisco Mejia may be another year away as well, but is becoming a complete player both offensively and defensively.
There is a lot of reasons to be high on the Indians in 2016. For the past couple seasons, they have been on the brink of breaking through. Looking at the talent in the American League Central division right now, all five teams seem to be headed in the right direction. My concern is the Indians ability to score runs and how they match up offensively with the rest of the division. The Indians have, by far, the weakest hitting team and I feel it will impact the effectiveness of their stud starting pitchers. If I have to pick a AL Central team to not be behind, it would be the Indians. I do not think Las Vegas was unreasonable with their over/ under of 84. I just see them finishing seven games below that at 77-85, bringing up the rear in the American League Central.