By David Ford
For the third consecutive season the Cleveland Indians are the Central Division champions.
Barring any wild circumstances, the Indians will face the defending World Series champs, the Houston Astros.
Here’s how the Indians look going forward.
On Sept. 22, Cleveland became the only team in MLB history to have four starting pitchers to record 200 strikeouts in a season. Without question the Indians rotation ranks are among the best in baseball. Most of the rotation isn’t composed of players they drafted either.
Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco all arrived through trades in some way. Fifth starter and rookie Shane Bieber started with the Indians organization.
The only factor that could inhibit Cleveland’s rotation success is Bauer’s health. In the 2016 ALCS, Bauer attempted to pitch after cutting his pinkie finger on a drone. He didn’t last an inning. This August, Bauer suffered an ankle injury that lasted over a month. His availability for the postseason remains to be seen. Bieber will likely take his spot if Bauer can’t go or pitches out of the bullpen.
In the 2017 ALDS, Bauer didn’t allow an earned run over 8 1/3 innings. If Bauer can pitch full capacity, the Indians rotation can dominate.
During their 2016 American League Championship run, the Indians entire staff only surrendered 15 runs against the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays combined. Their pitching eventually fizzled in the final three games against the Chicago Cubs in the World Series.
While Kluber was dominant in 2016 with a 4-1 record, and a 1.83 ERA. His 2017 left a lot to be desired. In the two starts against the Yankees in last year’s ALDS, Kluber only pitched 6 and one-third innings, allowing nine runs and a .345 batting average against. If the rotation can match Houston’s, the Indians will be in a good spot. It all depends on Kluber’s performance and Bauer’s injury.
During the 2018 season, the Houston produced the best team ERA in baseball, starting and bullpen combined. Both rank first separately. Their bullpen sits at a 3.11 ERA and only surrenders a .215 batting average to opponents. If Houston leads, they put teams away.
Before trading for all-star reliever Brad Hand, the Indians struggled to look competent. They experienced with several veterans and minor leaguers; lefty Oliver Perez is the only one who produced well. The others were given their outright release.
During the first three months of the season, Cleveland produced atrocious results. Closer Cody Allen didn’t look like himself, and the Indians struggled to find replacements that could match Bryan Shaw’s workload (154 appearances in 2016-2017). At one point, their bullpen ranked last in baseball.
The Indians became instrumental in changing how bullpens operate during their 2016 postseason. They traded for Yankees reliever Andrew Miller. During the 2016 ALDS and ALCS, opposing batters struggled to even make contact. In 11 2/3 innings, Miller produced 21 strikeouts to only five hits and two walks. Miller didn’t allow a run until the World Series. He won the ALCS MVP ― as a relief pitcher. He was the go-to guy.
With injuries, however, Miller has been a shell of his former self.
The Indians bullpen ERA is 24th in the league, at a 4.55 ERA, far worse than Houston’s 3.11. In addition, the Indians produced the lowest total of wins out of their bullpen (14).
If Miller and Allen can replicate their 2016 postseason run, the Indians have a real shot to beat Houston. Hand, Bieber/Bauer, Perez, Adam Cimber and Dan Otero are the additional arms to complete the bullpen, leaving Adam Plutko, Neil Ramirez, Josh Tomlin and Tyler Olson without roster spots.
Throughout the 2018 campaign, the Indians lineup has consistently produced some of the league’s best numbers. Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez put up MVP-caliber seasons and solidified themselves as one of the baseball’s top duos.
In a waiver deadline move, the Indians picked up 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson. While Donaldson has been limited due to injuries (.236 average and 19 RBIs in 2018), he’s an elite player when healthy. If he can return to form this postseason, the Indians have a real shot to win the title. He’ll start at third base.
The rest of the Tribe starting lineup should go as follows: Yan Gomes (catcher), Yonder Alonso (first baseman) and Edwin Encarnacion (designated hitter). The only guaranteed outfielder to start is Michael Brantley, playing left field.
Jason Kipnis will likely start in center field, but his inability to effectively field that position might limit him late in games. Bradley Zimmer provided an elite fielding prowess in center field for Cleveland early in the season, but his season-ending injury put the Tribe in a tough spot. Greg Allen will likely serve as Kipnis’s backup, whose defense exceeds Kipnis.
As for right field, veteran switch-hitter Melky Cabrera will likely start. Journeyman Brandon Guyer will see an at-bat or two. He will also serve time as a late-game defensive replacement, much like Allen will in center field.
Depending on how many pitchers Cleveland decides to go with, Rajai Davis could be the odd man out. The team could even decide to leave Guyer or a combination of infield utility men Erik Gonzalez or Yandy Diaz off the roster if manager Terry Francona decides to carry an extra pitcher than expected.
The rest of the Indians roster will round out with Roberto Perez serving as backup catcher.
With all that being said, I’ll keep it brief ― Indians in five. I’m being optimistic and biased, of course. Go Tribe!