For the past couple seasons, various projection systems around baseball have been enamored -- perhaps irrationally so -- with the Cleveland Indians. It's easy to see why, so long as you understand some of the basic principles of these systems. Pitchers who strike out a lot of hitters are a valuable commodity, and the Indians have those in spades. Youth is also rewarded, and most of the Tribe's core is still in their prime seasons.
However, real life has not worked out so romantically in Cleveland. The pitching staff's actual results have not matched their gaudy peripherals, while some of their young position players have not taken that next step to become franchise pillars.
Take 2015, for instance. The Indians were projected to win the division running away, with some outlets -- looking at you, Sports Illustrated -- picking them to win the World Series. However, a lackluster offense (that ranked 11th in the AL in runs scored) and poor defense were their downfall, resulting in an 81-80 record that never really saw them contend for a Wild Card spot.
We're hearing more of the same this year. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system pegs the Tribe at 92-70, eight games clear of the rest of the AL Central. FanGraphs is a bit more conservative at 86-76, but still thinks the Indians will win the division by five games. They certainly have the pitching staff to do so, but can the offense -- one that will be without team MVP Michael Brantley for a short time -- carry their weight?
Team in a box
Key additions: 1B Mike Napoli, OF Marlon Byrd, OF Rajai Davis, 3B Juan Uribe, RP Joba Chamberlain
Key departures: IF Mike Aviles, RP Ryan Webb, OF Michael Bourn*, OF David Murphy*, IF/OF Nick Swisher*
*Bourn, Murphy, and Swisher were all off the Indians roster by the middle of 2015 but you probably didn't notice.
What to know about the offense
Throughout the winter, rumors persisted that outfielder Michael Brantley would miss a large chunk of the season after having surgery on his right (non-throwing) shoulder in November. However, those reports were largely overblown, as Brantley has already appeared in a couple of games this spring. He will begin the season on the disabled list after a minor setback, but should once again be a crucial piece to the Indians' lineup. Over the past two seasons, he has hit .319/.382/.494, including a league-leading 45 doubles in 2015.
Starting the year in Brantley's place will be 38-year-old outfielder Marlon Byrd, who was signed to a minor league deal on March 18. Byrd's late-30s power surge continued in 2015, when he hit 23 home runs for the Reds and Giants in 544 combined plate appearances. He has posted an ISO of .180 or better in each of the past three years. Center fielder Tyler Naquin was also a surprise addition to the roster, and one Tribe fans hope will stick around for a while. Naquin, who is entering his age-25 season, posted a .353 on-base percentage in 50 games at Triple-A Columbus last year. He has never appeared in an MLB game. Former third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall was a defensive revelation in right field last season, but there are still concerns about his bat. For what it's worth, he hit .288/.353/.404 after moving to the outfield last year.
While there is no guarantee that the Indians will stay competitive for the next six years, one thing is for sure: shortstop Francisco Lindor is going to be a handful. The 21-year-old phenom hit .313/.353/.482 in 438 plate appearances last season, and was worth 4.6 WAR in just 99 games. The scary part? His bat was supposed to be his weakest tool. Lindor and second baseman Jason Kipnis will form one of the best middle infield tandems in baseball, so long as Kipnis can repeat last season's 126 wRC+ performance. Kipnis has had trouble in even years, for whatever reason, but was worth 5.2 WAR last year.
After Giovanny Urshela provided replacement level production at third base in 2015, the Tribe signed journeyman Juan Uribe to a one-year deal in hopes of giving Urshela some more time to develop. Uribe split time between the Dodgers, Braves, and Mets last season, hitting .253/.320/.417. At first base, the Indians will rely on another veteran signee in Mike Napoli. The former catcher has fallen off since winning the 2013 World Series with the Boston Red Sox, hitting just .236/.348/.415 in the past two seasons. He finished 2015 on a high note, posting a .908 OPS in 35 games with the Texas Rangers.
Adding Napoli provided more than just an offensive boost, though. Catcher-turned-first baseman Carlos Santana is now turned full-time designated hitter, a positive development given his -5 defensive runs saved in 2015. Santana is still working on finding consistency at the plate as well, with a .231 batting average (but a .361 OBP!) in the past couple years. Catcher Yan Gomes struggled offensively in 2015, but that may have been largely due to the knee injury he suffered in early April. He posted a respectable .725 OPS in the second half, though just a .289 on-base percentage. Both he and backup Roberto Perez would start for most teams, so it's no surprised that they project as the best catching duo in the division.
What to know about the pitching staff
If the Indians are to reach the postseason in 2016, it will be on the back of their monster rotation. Led by 2014 Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, Tribe starters led the majors with a 24.2 percent strikeout rate last season. Three pitchers -- Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar -- all finished above 25 percent, ranking them among the top five starters in the AL. The bullpen wasn't quite as strikeout-happy, but finished second to the Royals with a 3.12 ERA, while their 3.38 FIP led the league.
Kluber finished the 2015 season with a lackluster 9-16 record, but was otherwise the same pitcher that steamrolled the AL for most of 2014. His 2.97 FIP ranked sixth in the league -- his strikeout-to-walk ratio actually went up in 2015 -- while only Dallas Keuchel threw more innings than Kluber's 222 frames. Carlos Carrasco didn't throw as many innings as Kluber, but was every bit as electric, holding opponents to a 2.84 FIP in 183 2/3 innings. Long story short: that ridiculous 10-start stretch to close out 2014 was legit. Flamethrower Danny Salazar also had a breakout season, posting a 3.45 ERA and 25.8 percent strikeout rate in 185 innings. He has struggled against Detroit in his career, however, with a 4.55 ERA and .767 OPS against in 10 starts.
On the other end of the spectrum, 25-year-old Trevor Bauer will begin the season in the bullpen after struggling for most of 2015. Bauer had a strong spring, posted a 4.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20 innings, but was beaten out by righthanders Josh Tomlin and Cody Anderson. Tomlin was another surprise in 2015, holding opponents to a 3.02 ERA and 0.84 WHIP in 10 starts. His strikeout rate has almost doubled over the past couple seasons, but his home run rate has stayed quite high. Anderson was the polar opposite last year, holding opponents to 0.89 home runs per nine innings but striking out just 12.1 percent of the batters he faced. His .237 BABIP is likely to regress, but he apparently added some velocity to his fastball this offseason.
The bullpen should be solid too. Closer Cody Allen was a breakout star in 2015, compiling 34 saves and 2.6 WAR. He has quietly been an elite reliever for the past few seasons, though, with a career 151 ERA+ and 30.8 percent strikeout rate. Bryan Shaw has been a solid setup man for the Tribe over the past couple years, but his ERA was more than a full run lower than his FIP last year. Things get a bit more dicey after those two, as the Indians are relying on retreads like Jeff Manship, Dan Otero, Ross Detwiler, and Tigers fan favorite Joba Chamberlain to round out their pen while righties Tommy Hunter and Craig Stammen recover from injuries.
Do they have prospects?
It speaks to the depth of the Indians' farm system that they were able to graduate a consensus top-five overall prospect in Francisco Lindor and still move up various organizational rankings this spring. Hitting on their top picks in the last few drafts -- Clint Frazier, Bradley Zimmer, and Brady Aiken, consecutively -- certainly helps, as does fleecing the St. Louis Cardinals for starting pitcher Rob Kaminsky. There are a few other intriguing arms as well, including lefty Justus Sheffield and righty Triston McKenzie.
Unfortunately for the Tribe, nearly all of their top prospects are a couple of years away from the majors, and probably three or four years away from providing a substantial impact at the big league level. Outfielder Tyler Naquin cracked the Opening Day roster after a productive year in Double- and Triple-A, while other young talents like Lindor, Giovanny Urshela, and Jose Ramirez hold key roles.
The Indians certainly have the pitching staff to reach the postseason -- and thrive once they get there -- but they will need big seasons out of their offensive studs if they are to fulfill their fans' high hopes. Brantley is a sure bet to perform when healthy, but inconsistent years from Kipnis, Santana, and others could once again keep the Indians on the outside looking in. They will need to be a fair margin better against the division as well; that 32-43 record against the AL Central from 2015 won't cut it. Adding young talents like Lindor and Naquin will help, but this team will only go as far as their stars take them.