The Reigning AL Champs Will Be an Even Bigger Threat in 2017

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 9, 2017

A full season of Andrew Miller is just one reason to believe in the 2017 Cleveland Indians.
A full season of Andrew Miller is just one reason to believe in the 2017 Cleveland Indians.Elsa/Getty Images

It doesn't get much more painful than being one win away from your first World Series championship in 68 years and then losing three straight games to blow it. That smarts.

But the Cleveland Indians didn't miss their shot.

With Opening Day still somewhere in the distance, it's a bit soon to be anointing the Indians kings of anything for 2017. But they're a contender, all right. And the path ahead of them looks even smoother than the one that led them to 94 wins and a 10-2 record in their first dozen postseason games last year.

One thing that hasn't changed from last year is the AL Central is short on worthy contenders outside of Cleveland. And then there's the Indians themselves, who have changed for the better.

"Everyone feels excited about this team right now," Carlos Carrasco recently told Anthony Castrovince for Sports on Earth. "Now, when people face the Cleveland Indians, they're going to be intimidated."

Oh, sure. They'll be missing some key members from the 2016 club. Rajai Davis, he of the 43 stolen bases and earth-rattling Game 7 home run, is in Oakland now. Mike Napoli, he of the 34 homers, is back in Texas. Jeff Manship, he of the quiet 3.12 ERA in relief, ended up in South Korea.

But more so than what's been lost from 2016, what stands out now is what the Indians will gain in 2017.

GOODYEAR, AZ - FEBRUARY 24:  Edwin Encarnacion of the Cleveland Indians poses for a portrait during Indians Photo Day at the Goodyear Sports Complex on February 24, 2017 in Goodyear, Arizona. (Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images)
Rob Tringali/Getty Images

The merger between the Indians and Edwin Encarnacion was one of the big surprises of the offseason. It was made possible thanks to the market's general indifference toward sluggers, which pushed the former Toronto Blue Jay into Cleveland's price range at three years and $60 million.

Although he's projected to play designated hitter rather than first base, Encarnacion is ostensibly replacing Napoli. And as good as Napoli was in 2016, this is about as obvious as upgrades get:

Edwin Encarnacion vs. Mike Napoli: 2012-2016
YearNapoli OPSEncarnacion OPSNapoli HREncarnacion HR
2012.812.9412442
2013.849.9042336
2014.789.9011734
2015.734.9291839
2016.800.8863442
2012-2016.797.912116193
Baseball-Reference.com

Of course, Encarnacion is 34 and moving from a hitter-friendly park to a pitcher-friendly park. But a track record like his doesn't leave a lot of room for skepticism. He should at least replicate what Napoli did last year, and can certainly do better.

Either way, he'll be a big key in ensuring the Indians don't lose much of the offense they enjoyed last year. And they quietly enjoyed a lot of it, ranking second in the American League in runs.

Take this as a reassurance that the Indians don't actually need Michael Brantley to work out. Because he was limited to 11 games following shoulder surgery last year and is still working his way back this spring, such reassurance is very much welcome.

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 22:  Michael Brantley #23 of the Cleveland Indians in action against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on August 22, 2015 in the Bronx borough of New York City. The Yankees defeated the Indians 6-2.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

However, it's not all doom and gloom in Brantley's neck of the woods. He was able to take live batting practice this week and has his manager expressing cautious optimism.

"Now I'm starting to get excited for him because he's getting closer," Terry Francona told reporters. "But I think you have to temper it, just because, one, what he went through last year and when he got into games. And two, I just think it's fair to him."

Brantley was one of baseball's best offensive players in 2014 and 2015, batting .319 with an .876 OPS and 35 homers and 38 steals. If he can be anywhere close to that good in 2017, the Indians will rejoice at having added yet another quality hitter.

Meanwhile, don't forget about their run prevention.

Cleveland is returning mostly the same defense that ranked sixth in the league in efficiency last year. That was mainly thanks to an infield that had capable defenders around the horn: Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis up the middle, and Jose Ramirez and Carlos Santana on the corners.

Their defense is a solid safety blanket, in particular, for the club's starting rotation. It ranked in the top half of the league in ground-ball percentage last year, and the usual suspects are all back for 2017.

The difference this year, however, is that two key guys could stick around for longer than they did in 2016.

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 7: Starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco #59 of the Cleveland Indians pitches during the first inning against the Houston Astros at Progressive Field on September 7, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

I would say "in retrospect," but a remarkable thing about last year's World Series run even at the time was the Indians did it without two of their best pitchers. Carrasco was out with a hand injury. Danny Salazar pitched in only two games because of a balky elbow.

Having declared himself 100 percent healthy back in December, Carrasco is good to go for 2017. After getting only 25 starts out of him last season, what the Indians stand to gain from a full season of his pitching shouldn't be underestimated. 

The injury was the only bad part of Carrasco's 2016 season. He otherwise put up a 3.32 ERA and struck out 116 more batters than he walked in 146.1 innings. In 65 starts dating back to 2014, he owns a 3.11 ERA and a 5.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He's no Corey Kluber, but Carrasco is elite in his own way.

Salazar is more of a wild card going into 2017. He was limited to 25 starts of his own last year by elbow trouble, which isn't the best look for a guy who's already had one Tommy John surgery.

But while Salazar's health is worth worrying about, there seems to be some amnesia going on regarding how talented he is.

He had a 3.45 ERA and 195 strikeouts in 185 innings in 2015. Before his arm started acting up last year, he had a 2.22 ERA and a rate of 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings through his first 15 starts. He was getting Cy Young attention at the Washington Post and elsewhere.

Getting potentially 60-plus starts out of Carrasco and Salazar isn't the only way Cleveland should be better on the mound in 2017. The team is also going to get a full season out of Andrew Miller.

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 29:  Andrew Miller #24 of the Cleveland Indians pitches in the seventh inning against the Chicago Cubs in Game Four of the 2016 World Series at Wrigley Field on October 29, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

If you dig Baseball Prospectus' "Deserved Run Average" metric, which weighs everything in determining what a pitcher's ERA should be, this means the Indians are about to get a full season of baseball's best pitcher from 2016:

  1. Andrew Miller: 1.58
  2. Zach Britton: 1.63
  3. Dellin Betances: 1.71
  4. Kenley Jansen: 1.83

Miller, who came over from the New York Yankees in July, often looked the part. The left-hander had a 1.45 ERA in 70 regular-season appearances, striking out 114 more batters than he walked in 74.1 innings.

The only concern with him is whether he'll be worn out from pitching 19.1 innings in only 10 appearances in the postseason. But for what it's worth—and it's worth plenty—the Indians know not to push their luck.

"He won't be used like he was used last October," Cleveland president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti told Dave Sheinin of the Chicago Tribune last month.

Provided Miller can stay healthy and effective alongside Cody Allen, Bryan Shawn and Dan Otero, the Indians are going to have the same late-inning relief core that dominated in the closing months of 2016. 

This year, there won't be a missing link. After forgoing a lefty specialist last season, the Indians signed Boone Logan in February. He held lefties to a .139 average and a .477 OPS in 2016.

"Cleveland now owns considerable late-inning, left-handed, bat-missing power," Travis Sawchik at FanGraphs wrote. "That could come handy in the late innings in October."

Indeed. And the way things are shaping up, probably the only thing that can stop the Indians from getting back to October is the dreaded World Series hangover. It's always out there. Lurking. 

The shining example the Indians can point to right now are the Kansas City Royals. They were a great yet imperfect team when they lost the World Series in seven games in 2014. They used a variety of means to get better in 2015 and ended up going back and winning the darn thing.

That was a case of a team following a good World Series shot with a better World Series shot. The Indians can do the same.

Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

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