I’ll just say it point blank right now.

The Indians have a legitimate shot to win the AL Central.

Think I’m crazy? Stupid? Shouldn’t be talking baseball?

Well, let us examine the facts now shall we?

Let’s examine the way the rest of the division performed and their future overall:

5th Place: Minnesota Twins

Record: 70-92 (.432)

Manager: None (Fired Ron Gardenhire)

Key Players (Still on Team): Joe Mauer, Phil Hughes, Kurt Suzuki, Glen Perkins, Brian Dozier

Free Agent Players: Matt Guerrier

Overview:

The Twins have a unique future with players like Dozier, Suzuki, Hughes, Mauer and even young talents like Kenny Vargas and Danny Santana. Alas, a poor pitching staff, bullpen, and even core lineup will keep the team from true contention for at least 2-3 years. A solid managerial signing can help speed the process, but not to the point of contention. They should be more competitive the upcoming season, but far from being a legitimate postseason contender.

Predicted 2015 Record: 74-88 (Finish 5th in AL Central)

4th Place: Chicago White Sox

Record: 73-89 (.451)

Manager: Robin Ventura

Key Players (Still on Team): Jose Abreu, Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, Alexie Ramirez, Jose Quintana

Free Agent Players: Paul Konerko (Retiring), Matt Lindstrom, Ronald Belisario

Overview:

The White Sox are arguably one more big bat and good starting pitcher from being very, very good. Alas, while Victor Martinez is a dream for them just as much is it is for the Indians, they likely will not find that big bat quite yet. Abreu is a phenomenal player to build around, one that absolutely tore up the MLB his rookie season and is all but a lock to win AL Rookie of the Year, and Chris Sale is one of MLB’s best pitchers. Without a solid bullpen, solid back-end of their rotation, and a solid big bat the White Sox are likely out of contention for a postseason spot. They should prove much tougher especially with the pieces of their core beginning to form.

Predicted 2015 Record: 78-84 (4th Place in AL Central)

3rd Place: Cleveland Indians

Record: 85-77 (.525)

Manager: Terry Francona

Key Players (Still on Team): Michael Brantley, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall, Yan Gomes, Carlos Santana

Free Agent Players: Jason Giambi, Mark Lowe

Overview:

This is the Indians’ year to strike. If the Indians find a way to even make their defense average (Which they did in the 2nd half) and the rotation pitches well, and Brantley, Gomes, and Santana continue as they have played, the Indians have a legitimate shot to win the division.
They lose no one significant (I predict Giambi retires, joins team as bench coach) to FA, unlike the 2nd and 1st place Royals and Tigers, and have dominant players in Gomes, Brantley, and Kluber. A healthy Kipnis and Bourn, as well as even Nick Swisher, will allow for a different and better lineup. The rotation appears set ( TJ House, who pitched brilliantly down the stretch, is an option) and the core is there. The Indians are in arguably the best position headed into the offseason, despite popular fan belief.

Predicted 2015 Record: 91-71 (1st place in AL Central)

2nd Place: Kansas City Royals

Record: 89-73 (.549)

Manager: Ned Yost

Key Players (Still on Team): Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Yordano Ventura, Omar Infante, Salvador Perez, Billy Butler, Danny Duffy, Wade Davis, Greg Holand, Kelvin Herrera

Free Agent Players: Josh Willingham (Retired), James Shields, Raul Ibanez, Luke Hochevar, Scott Downs, Jason Frasor, Noel Arguelles, Jason Nix

Overview:

The Royals finally seemed to put it together this season, and had a legitimate shot to win the division this season before Detroit won their final game ending their AL Central title dream. They had a legitimate shot to win the World Series this season based on their unique mix of small ball, defense, and speed. Their pitching is solid and bullpen is dominant. The offense, like the Indians’, held them back a lot, and I do not see them signing or trading for anyone to significantly change this. James Shields most likely will sign elsewhere, and this will end up being a big blow to their hopes for a return to the postseason. Shields was the legitimate ace of their staff, despite statistically not living up to his “Big Game James” nickname, and while they have Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura, and Jeremy Guthrie ready to take over, expect them to take a slight step back yet still remain competitive. The Royals are still a good team, and will be for a while, but I don’t see them having a better overall season than they did this season. The World Series run and postseason play is deceiving, they are not a very good team. They are a good team that got hot at the right moment, exactly what winning in the postseason entails. Rather than their World Series appearance furthering the distance between the Indians and Royals, it provides Cleveland hope and solace in the fact that once you make it into the postseason, anything can happen.

Predicted 2015 Record: 87-75 (3rd place in AL Central)

1st Place: Detroit Tigers

Record: 90-72 (.556)

Manager: Brad Ausmus

Key Players: Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Ian Kinsler, Alex Avila, JD Martinez, David Price, Rick Porcello, Anibal Sanchez

Free Agent Players: Max Scherzer, Victor Martinez, Joel Hanrahan, Torii Hunter, Joba Chamberlain, Jim Johnson, Phil Coke

Overview:

The Tigers likely won’t massively fall off. Yet, they will most likely lose Max Scherzer and could very well lose Victor Martinez as well. Torii Hunter is legitimately considering retirement and Joba Chamberlain, one of the better pitchers the Tigers have in their awful bullpen, will likely be gone as well. Yet, they still have Miguel Cabrera, who, as many Indians fans and pitchers alike know, is still the best hitter in the game. He had a down year largely due to injuries, yet still dominated (.313 AVG, 25 HR, 109 RBI, 101 R, 191 H, 52 2B). Sadly for Tribe fans (and amazingly), that is a down year for Cabrera. Verlander was awful in a vast majority of his starts, but did come into his own a bit in the very end of the season. I am not expecting a complete turn-around by Verlander, but a better year is definitely in the cards for the 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young winner. Losing Max Scherzer will absolutely hurt, and I predict he signs elsewhere for much more money. Regarding Victor Martinez, expect him to re-sign with the Tigers. It is probably Dave Dombroski’s main goal this off season to retain Martinez, and I expect him to do as much. So where will the Tigers take a step back? Losing Scherzer will be a significant blow to the Tigers, but expect them to find a solid option to replace him, at a much cheaper price. The offense should be as dynamic as ever, but should be in some disarray surrounding their dynamic Cabrera-Martinez-Martinez trio.

Tigers will take a step back, and that is already coming from a team that already won 3 less games than they did in 2013.

Predicted 2015 Record: 89-73

Now why are the Indians a legitimate team capable of winning the AL Central?

The Indians had a 38-30 record in the 2nd half (coming off a first half where somehow, someway, they finished 47-47.). At first glance this may appear bad, and really just around .500 baseball. But it is so much more than that.

The defense, while far from great, was much improved from the first half. The main reason for that was the emergence of Jose Ramirez following the trade of Asdrubal Cabrera to the Nationals for Zach Walters. Ramirez was superb defensively at shortstop, regardless that his natural position is second. The defense improved, and we shot above .500.

Despite struggles at times, the Indians appeared to be a much more complete team in the 2nd half, and while the offense struggled to score at times, the team looked capable of competing night in and night out.

There are several key reasons outside of just other teams regressing that the Indians will finally dethrone the Tigers.

To start, the core is there and it’s there to stay. 

Injuries, for once, won’t be in question. Kipnis’ nagging oblique injury should finally have healed. His mentality should be quite different entering the season (and offseason), and in all sincerity he should look much better overall and I do expect him to be driving the ball much better and farther. If he returns to the 2013 All Star form, it would be huge for the Indians. His bat is crucial to the Tribe, and much like Brantley and Kluber, he’s the face of this franchise. I will cut one rumor short. He is not moving to the OF, at the very least not yet. So for now, stash that idea.

The rotation looks set, and while signing a starter like Francisco Liriano or Brandon McCarthy would help, the rotation appears solid.

Trevor Bauer and TJ House appear to be the two legitimate options for the rotation. Bauer statistically did not have an impressive year. He showed massive growth and progress, but his biggest issue, the first inning, continued to cause him problems. Normally, once he gets out of the first inning he will cruise and is locked in, but the first inning causes him massive trouble. His first inning ERA is around 6, which, even to the common baseball fans eye, is not good at all. Expect Bauer to be a starter and set in the rotation regardless of his issues. His stuff is superb, and once he gets locked in, you can tell. I do expect him to take another jump forward.

TJ House was a rookie who basically was sent to the dogs in his first season. His season had his ups and downs, but overall down the stretch he was straight up dominant. In his last five starts he pitched a total of 31 IP, and gave up only 5 total ER. (He went 3-0 in that stretch). He finished the season 5-3 with a 3.35 ERA in a total of 18 starts. Small sample, yes. For a rookie, he pitched exceptionally, especially when we needed him most in the middle of our playoff hunt. He will likely have to earn the job in spring training, but overall I do anticipate him becoming a big part of the back-end of our rotation.

Danny Salazar is a special case. He has the stuff to be an ace and a dominant pitcher. He has a 97+ MPH Fastball and his changeup is electric. His issue? Command. He has the capability to dominate an opposing lineup, and they have the ability to rock him with the long ball. He must figure that out, and I have a feeling he will.

Carlos Carrasco’s case is beyond unique. He started off the season in the rotation as the 5th starter. His campaign started off rocky to say the least. In his first 4 starts he finished 0-3 with a 6.95 ERA, and was once again moved into the bullpen as the long reliever. He once again found brilliance coming out of the bullpen, and after 26 games out of the bullpen he was again given a shot to start. How did he pitch past that second chance? In 10 starts he went 5-4 (Two losses by which were both 2-0 losses to which the offense gave him no run support), lowering his ERA to 2.55, and allowing only 10 total ER. He did this all while striking out 78 batters in 66.9 IP. He was dominant, much like Corey Kluber was all season and in my honest opinion has secured a spot in the rotation for next season overall. I expect us to explore some minor league deals for a quality starter but not to truly make much of a splash in the starting pitcher market this upcoming Free Agency.

The Indians truly are in one of the best positions team wise heading into free agency in a long time.

At first look, this may seem like a casual Antonetti, Shapiro, or even Dolan “excuse for not spending money”. Far from it.

The Indians have a pretty much set rotation and bullpen, and when healthy their lineup is very, very good. I do believe the Indians will explore numerous trade options for either a starting pitcher or big bat, but not to honestly examine the Free Agent Market for one too heavily.

They have very few needs heading into Free Agency and lose practically no one to FA as well.

If I had to rank our needs for this team it would likely go like this:

1. Dominant Reliever

2. Big Bat

3. Solid Starter

I do believe Zach McAllister will continue to show his all around surprising dominance out of the pen. (Went 1-0, gave up only 4 ER in 12.3 IP and 0 ER in the last 5 BP appearances. Struck out 14 Batters). He presented optimism that he can pitch quite well out of the bullpen. Expect Nick Hagadone (Gave up only 4 ER in 9 appearances out of the Bullpen, pitched quite well overall) and the youngster Kyle Crockett to have larger roles. Despite the need for another dominant bullpen pitcher next to Atchison, Rzepczynski, Shaw, and Allen we likely will and can capably go internally for another dominant bullpen arm. Our bullpen was one of our strengths, and despite overuse in the first half, was a serious strong point and will remain as one in the seasons to come.

I cannot argue how much of an impact a big bat would provide this lineup.
In the same sense I would not go as far to say the Tribe will sign one. I highly doubt it, for a lot of reasons. It is not too far-fetched to say that the Tribe will explore trade options for a bat that could provide significant pop in the lineup.

 

The Indians are and will continue to be on the rise for years to come. Terry Francona is one of the best managers in the game overall, and as long as we have him I do believe we will contend for a postseason spot every season.

And as the Royals taught us, once you make the postseason, anything can happen.

Roll Tribe.

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