The Cleveland Indians have won the American League Central Division each of the last three seasons. The mood should be one of excitement and optimism for the 2019 season.
That’s not the case as the tribe had a very underwhelming off season following the sweep in the divisional playoffs by the Houston Astros.
President Chris Antonetti, manager Terry Francona and the Indians front office staff traded away or did not re-sign several key players from the championship run of the last three years. Starting pitching is still the strength, but can it guide the tribe to another division title without some help?
Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco will anchor the starting rotation. Kluber has been the opening day starter for the last few years. That may not be the case in 2019. Any of the three aces can be the one who takes the mound at Target Field in Minnesota on March 28 to face the Twins.
Kluber, Bauer and Carrasco all have the opportunity to win 20 games and record over 200 strike outs this season. It might be what it is going to take to win the AL Central for a fourth consecutive year.
The bullpen was an absolute mess in 2018. The injuries to Andrew Miller and the inconsistent play of Cody Allen put the bullpen in a state of flux all season long. Both Miller and Allen left via free agency to the surprise of no one.
The rest of the bullpen is a question mark. Veteran Oliver Perez revived his career in 2018. Can he have a repeat performance this year? Only time will tell. The Indians also need guys like Nick Goody, Dan Otero and Neil Ramirez to return to form.
Veteran right hander Tyler Clippard is in camp on a minor league contract. He has battle an injury in camp but is close to returning. A plus would be a healthy Danny Salazar. After coming up through the organization as a starter, can Salazar be a set up guy out of the bullpen? With a fastball that can top out at 100, it’s the best way to revive his career in Cleveland.
The Indians offense was also inconsistent in 2018. There are concerns at nearly every position as the regular season approaches.
The biggest concern is with All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor. He suffered a calm injury while working out in Florida in January. Lindor has been all but held out of spring training to date. The good news is Lindor is starting to participate in some baseball activities. Frankie’s status for opening day remains in doubt. However, Lindor will certainly do all he can to be in the lineup to open the season. If Lindor starts the season on the disable list, veteran Ryan Flaherty will be the starting shortstop.
Lindor’s fellow M.V.P. candidate Jose Ramirez had a career year in 2018. The only concern is the struggles late in the season. Will that carry over into 2019 or will Ramirez step up and lead the tribe if Lindor can’t go to start the year?
As for the right side of the Indians infield, Jason Kipnis is back at second base. Kipnis needs to get off to good start at the plate. He seems to play well during spring training, but it doesn’t follow him when they head north.
First base will be manned Carlos Santana and Jake Bauers. Santana is back with the tribe after spending 2018 with the Philadelphia Phillies. Santana is back in familiar territory after being traded twice in a span of a couple weeks this off season.
Bauers is also one of the many new faces with the tribe in 2019. Jake is also expected to play some outfield. Bauers saw time playing both first base and the outfield with the Tampa Bay Rays. He possesses tremendous power from the left side of the plate.
Bauers and Santana could also serve as the tribe’s designated hitter on occasion. The plan is for veteran Hanley Ramirez to be the everyday designate hitter. It’s a gamble considering Ramirez did not play any baseball following his release by the Boston Red Sox last May. Ramirez is on a minor league contract, but expect him to be on the major league roster. The Indians need as many right handed power hitters as possible.
Now to the big concern both offensively and defensively in 2019, the outfield. Michael Brantley is in Houston. Lonnie Chisenhall is with the Pittsburgh Pirates. In addition to Bauers, the outfield will consist of Leonys Martin, Jordon Luplow, Tyler Naquin and possible Greg Allen. The Indians hope to get Bradley Zimmer back sometime this summer.
It those names don’t concern you, they should. Martin is the veteran of the group. However, he is returning from a life threatening virus that ended his season just days after joining the tribe from the Detroit Tigers. Martin looks good so far and is thrilled to be back on the baseball field. The issue for him is, can he be the guy he was before the life threatening virus.
Naquin and Allen continue to gain valuable major league experience. Can either one of them handle being an everyday player? Naquin made a name for himself during the 2016 run to the World Series. His inside the park home run in August of that year made him an instant fan favorite. Actually it was the reaction afterward that became the picture of the 2016 season. That was three seasons ago so the honeymoon is over. Naquin has been very inconsistent since. His time could be up if he has another disappointing season in 2019.
Luplow joined the Indians in the off season via a trade from Pittsburgh. He brings much needed offense from the right side of the plate. Can he handle the pressure of being a full time major league player? 2019 will be the first full major league season for the 25-year old.
Perez has really struggle at the plate as the backup catcher the last three seasons. Perhaps being the number one guy is just what Perez needs. When he played everyday down the stretch in 2016, his offense improved dramatically. A two home run performance in game one of the 2016 World Series is a prime example.
Perez will do a terrific job managing the pitchers and throwing out opposing base runners. It’s all about the offense for Perez. Kevin Plawecki is the likely candidate to back up Perez. Eric Haase is also in the mix.
Despite the turnover, the Indians should still win the division for the fourth straight season. Now can they get back to the World Series in 2019, that’s the challenge facing the new look tribe.
Record Prediction: 88-74
Team MVP: Francisco Lindor