“Know Your Division” is a series of evaluations for the 2016 season. We will preview each team in the NL and AL Central as the Cubs and Sox prepare to match up against these foes, breaking down each part of the game and what to look for going into the year.
No team in the MLB was as confusing as the Cleveland Indians in 2015. Highly regarded before the season started as a World Series contender, they hovered below .500 for most of the year until towards the end of the season where they (technically) finished one game above at 81-80. What’s even more interested is that in the Baseball Prospectus adjusted standings, it seems that the Indians actually got jobbed last year. According to that analysis, which takes three different routes to get to an adjusted win total based mostly on run differential, the Indians actually should’ve won 93 games and the AL Central. This obviously suggests that they actually played better than their record. Meanwhile, the analysis had the Sox deserving around 71 wins suggesting that they were actually worse than their record. Which is just great.
You would think a team that opened up $25 million after shedding their awful Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn contracts would make a bit more of a splash in the offseason. Instead they spent on marginal guys in Mike Napoli, Rajai Davis, and a few bullpen arms headlined by Joba Chamberlain. Abraham Almonte being busted for PEDs makes the Davis signing more important, but Tyler Naquin is their opening day center fielder. Down the stretch Bradley Zimmer will probably take over, assuming he’s ready. In Napoli, the Tribe basically have an older and worse version of Carlos Santana. By the way, did you know Indians fans have a hatred for Santana? Pretty odd to hate a 3 or 4 win player, especially in a town that watches the Browns on Sundays for a quarter of the year.
The only team that scored less runs in the AL Central last year than the Indians was the White Sox. Cleveland was bolstered by Francisco Lindor’s breakout campaign when he joined the team in the middle of the season last year. He’s not likely to provide the same amount of pop as 2015 brought considering he never did so in the minors, but he’s still an extremely talented offensive player. Michael Brantley is also a very professional hitter and his offense is somewhat underrated because he doesn’t hit 30 home runs every year. Still, the Indians are going to be lacking offense at third base in Juan Uribe and right field in Lonnie Chisenhall. The Sox know all too well how glaring the lack of power coming from third base can be and addressed it in the offseason, which is why I think the Sox will score more runs in 2016. Thought the outfield the Sox are going to trot out every day is simply not going to provide a lot of power, they should have enough between Abreu and Frazier to outhit the Indians.
If you want to see highlights, watch the shortstop position when the Sox play the Indians. Lindor is the real deal defensively, and is even more impressive with his glove than his bat. Rounding out the infield, Kipnis and Uribe are going to be average and whoever plays first base (Santana or Napoli) is going to be below average. Brantley will be fine in left field and Lonnie Chisenhall impressed in a short stint in right field last season (though he’s reportedly starting the year on the DL). Naquin is supposed to be very capable in center field, but I call this a wash considering the Sox have improved defensively.
Whoever gets the better pitching this year is going to win the season series. Duh. But it’s more important between these two teams because they rely so heavily on their starting staff. For Cleveland, the might have the best three-punch option in the majors with Kluber, Carrasco, and Salazar. Their fourth and fifth options are a little more uncertain as they’ll probably turn to Cody Anderson and Trevor Bauer, but that’s still better than John Danks and Mat Latos. However, I’ll take Sale over Kluber and Quintana over Carrasco. Rodon should make the jump to Danny Salazar’s level if he is what he’s supposed to be. The separation occurs at the bullpen level where the Sox have a leg up. I give them the edge ever so slightly in pitching, but both of these teams have arms that are capable of having career years.
The Meat and Potatoes
The Indians have “Wild Card winner that goes deep in the playoffs” written all over them. I don’t think they have the offense to bring home an AL Central crown, but I do think they have the starting pitching to match up well with anyone in the postseason. They mirror the Sox in that way, where it might just be a case of getting into the dance (see the Mets of last year) and then riding superior starting pitching for a deep playoff run. I think it’s dumb to predict records, but the Indians are a great example of a team that has a high floor and low ceiling in terms of their season win total.