With the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians set to kick off a three-game series at Comerica Park, we spoke with Matt Lyons of Let's Go Tribe, SB Nation's excellent Indians community, about their team, who many projected to win the AL Central running away in 2016.
For the past few seasons, the Indians have been the darling AL Central team of various statistical projection systems (PECOTA, Steamer, etc.). While we know why this is the case -- they love high strikeout pitchers, something the Tribe have in spades -- the Indians have not been able to follow through. What has gone wrong for them, particularly in 2015 when they were so highly regarded heading into the year?
Just about everything that could have gone bad for the 2015 Indians went bad. Yan Gomes was injured early (by now-teammate Rajai Davis) and never fully recovered, Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana had lingering back injuries and Michael Brantley was frequently injured late in the season. On top of injuries, just about every offensive player seemed to slump at the same time, save for Lindor when he was one of the best hitters in the league after his debut.
The Indians have started very slow in recent seasons, which they are actually mostly avoiding so far in 2016. Even with Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall injured through most of the first two weeks, they are just one win shy of being .500, which is great news as far as Indians fans are concerned.
2. For some reason, Michael Brantley’s shoulder surgery and subsequent rehab turned into one of the great mysteries of the offseason, but it sounds like he’s close to returning (and may even debut this weekend). What have the Tribe missed without Brantley in the lineup, and how does the roster change when he comes back?
Most of all, they have missed his bat. Even a mildly injured Brantley would be better than the combination of Rajai Davis, Marlon Byrd, and Collin Cowgill they have been trotting out in place of him. Brantley coming back will also allow Byrd and Davis to play more sparingly, which is what their roles should be -- they are not every day players.
3. I can’t figure out Josh Tomlin. After missing nearly all of 2013 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, Tomlin came back in 2014 and substantially improved his strikeout rate. He then coupled that into a 3.02 ERA in 10 starts in 2015. What changed with Tomlin? Should we expect that kind of production in 2016?
You, me, and everyone else has trouble figuring out Josh Tomlin. He’s not a great pitcher, but he always manages to be just effective enough. He is not a guy that nibbles, which is a strength and a weakness. He will strike out a lot of batters, but he is also very susceptible to getting pounded with home runs.
The weirdest thing about it is, nothing really changed. If anything, he gives up more home runs now than he did when he was a mid-4.00 ERA guy.
Every Tomlin outing is a harrowing experience because you never know if he’ll strike out seven or allow several home runs and get knocked out early. I think batters will begin to figure out this new-look Tomlin when he gets more innings this season, and eventually he will be shifted to the bullpen replaced by Trevor Bauer or a prospect Mike Clevinger.
4. Corey Kluber has gotten off to a slow start over the past couple years, while Carlos Carrasco has continued to build on his 2014 breakout. The Tigers will see both starters this weekend, but which one are Indians fans expecting more out of in 2016? Who is the real ace of this staff?
There seems to be a growing sentiment among Indians fans that Carrasco is the "real" Indians ace, which I do not quite buy. Especially right now, as Kluber slogs through another slow April, I think it’s premature to dethrone Kluber as the Indians best pitcher. I would expect both to put ace-like numbers in 2016, which bodes well for the Indians future.
Carrasco has more electric stuff, which makes him more appealing and even more fun to watch at times, but Kluber is still what I would consider the ace.
6. With the Royals looking strong again and the rest of the division staying competitive, what do the Indians need to do in order to make the playoffs this season? Where will they finish in the division at the end of the year?
The Indians place in the AL Central this season relies heavily on Michael Brantley. Maybe more than any of us want to admit. If he can come in, avoid a slow start post-recovery, and give the Tribe offense a boost, I have no problem thinking the Indians could be battling for the division title at the end of the year. My stance all offseason, and heading into the regular season, has been that the Indians will at least be competitive for a Wild Card spot until the last day of the season. I would be shocked to see them out of contention early in 2016.
Once again, a huge thank you goes out to Matt and the Let's Go Tribe staff for taking the time to answer our questions. Be sure to check out Let's Go Tribe for the very best Indians news coverage and analysis all season long!