Cleveland Indians Could Be AL's Sleeping Giant in 2016

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistMarch 10, 2016

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 30: Jason Kipnis #22 of the Cleveland Indians celebrates with Francisco Lindor #12 after both scored on Lindor's home run in the fourth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Progressive Field on September 30, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio during game two of a doubleheader. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Cleveland Indians are going to win the World Series.

If that prediction sounds familiar, maybe it's because you saw it last year on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

The Indians, of course, did not win the World Series. To the contrary, they finished 81-80, 13.5 games back of the eventual champion Kansas City Royals in the American League Central. And Cleveland fans were left shaking their heads and muttering about jinxes.

So here we go again. With Opening Day less than a month away, the Indians are again a sexy outside-the-box pick to surge in the standings and maybe even snap their 68-year championship drought.

FanGraphs, to pick one prognosticator, has the Tribe winning the division over the Royals, up-and-coming Minnesota Twins and revamped Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox.

John Smoltz, speaking on MLB Tonight, tapped the Indians as a wild-card team, which can be an equally effective path to a Commissioner's Trophy.

"I think their starting pitching is good enough, their offense is good enough. ... So yeah, I'm buying a little bit," Smoltz said.

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2014 AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber headlines a dominant Indians rotation.
2014 AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber headlines a dominant Indians rotation.Jim Mone/Associated Press

Now, the obvious question: Is this just more hollow hype?

Or, if you prefer mixed metaphors: Is Cleveland a paper tiger or a sleeping giant?

Any case for the Indians as legit contenders begins with the starting pitching. And this group is undeniably dominant.

Last season, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer became the first quartet in MLB history to notch 100-plus strikeouts apiece before the All-Star break. And while missing bats isn't the only mark of a good pitcher, that single stat underscores the level of filthy stuff Cleveland's starting corps can dish.

Kluber, who turns 30 in April, is the oldest of the bunch, meaning improvement is possible—a night-sweat-inducing thought for opposing hitters.

Top 2015 Rotations by Strikeouts
Stats courtesy of MLB.com

"There's been times, we've all seen it with some of our younger pitchers, where they've made youthful mistakes," manager Terry Francona said, per Stephen Hawkins of the Associated Press (h/t Fox Sports). "But they also look really healthy and are throwing the ball good, and they work hard. Besides Kluber winning a Cy Young [in 2014], hard to outdo that, but we all think there's room for all of them to grow."

Likewise, Cleveland boasts an enviable young offensive nucleus.

Shortstop Francisco Lindor, the 2015 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up, and All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis form one of the better keystone combos in baseball. Designated hitter Carlos Santana pairs on-base tendencies with consistent 20-homer pop.

Left fielder Michael Brantley, who is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, has been good for 10.2 WAR over the past two seasons, per Baseball-Reference.com. Catcher Yan Gomes is two years removed from a 21-dinger season.

And all are on the right side of 30.

Oh, and Cleveland can catch the ball too, thanks to a team defense that was third-best in baseball in 2015, per FanGraphs.

Shortstop Francisco Lindor is part of a strong young offensive core.
Shortstop Francisco Lindor is part of a strong young offensive core.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

OK, now the glass-half-empty take. The Indians bullpen posted the second-lowest ERA in the AL with a 3.12 mark last year. But a number of relief arms outside the core of closer Cody Allen and setup men Bryan Shaw and Zach McAllister departed over the winter, creating some uncertainty. (Paging Ricky Vaughn?)

And the offense, which finished 18th in baseball in runs scored in 2015, could use another right-handed power bat at least.

The Indians, in other words, are a talented team with holes. If things break right, it's easy to imagine them in the playoff mix. If their weaknesses are exposed, they could sink.

Then again, you could say the same about virtually every AL club. The Junior Circuit is stuffed with fringe contenders and short on prohibitive favorites. It's the parity former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig dreamed of.

Perhaps the best argument for the Indians in 2016 is the way they finished the 2015 season. After limping out of the gate and closing out the first half at a disappointing 42-46, Cleveland finished on a 32-21 run and remained mathematically in the playoff hunt until late September.

The challenge now is to build on that success and sustain it over a 162-game grind. Because if the Tribe can slip into October, their starting pitching could carry them far.

So, to answer our original question: The Indians are much more than hype. They've got the talent to back it up and the pieces to be a genuine postseason player.

The Royals remain the class of the division until further notice, and there are scores of hopefuls in the AL West and East, but Cleveland is a sleeper no one should sleep on.

Provided, that is, Sports Illustrated keeps its distance.

All statistics current as of March 9 and courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.


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