Some of the better parts of baseball (besides watching someone hit a ball really hard with a wooden stick) are the storylines that happen between games and throughout the season. Not necessarily the fights and other random drama, but just how things on the team are developing. Things that have been built up over the course of the entire offseason, or maybe dating back to past years.
In 2015 we saw the beginning of an elite rotation, the emergence of Francisco Lindor, and we wondered how the team would move on from Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. Whatever the outcome of this upcoming season may be, what will be the best storylines to follow? We can't know for sure, a lot can change in the next couple months, but for now this is what you will want to be keeping an eye on in 2016.
How does the center field situation develop?
The Cleveland Indians situation in center field is... not great. It was an issue heading into the offseason and they arguably did the minimum to fix it. Some combination of Tyler Naquin, Rajai Davis, Marlon Byrd, Will Venable, Collin Cowgill, and maybe some mystery acquisition are going to hold down the fort until Abraham Almonte comes back from his 80-game suspension. Almonte is far from an everyday center fielder, though, so even after his return the situation is still going to be messy.
Messy can work of course, if Terry Francona can find a platoon combination that works offensively and defensively, but center field is one position where it would be nice to know going into the season that you have an everyday guy ready to go. The Indians have not had that since the Grady Sizemore years, unless you consider Michael Bourn starting every day for the last three years a good thing.
A lot of what the Tribe does at the trade deadline and moves made throughout the year will be determined by how this group of center fielders works out (or doesn't work out).
Back of the rotation shifting -- does Trevor Bauer stick?
The top three of the Indians rotation -- Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar -- are probably not going anywhere. After that, everything is a bit of a mystery. Trevor Bauer should be safe for most of the year, but the Indians are competing early and their biggest weakness is a No. 4 starter than can't get anyone out one has to wonder how long of a leash Tito will have for Bauer.
Bauer made his first appearance out of the bullpen of his career last season, and if he struggles early and often in 2016, he may be there again at some point. The odds are still on his side, being that he is only 25 and features several pitches with great stuff, but his command just has not been there in recent years. Seeing whether or not Bauer can keep his walk rate somewhere respectable (read: Not >10%), then it will be nice to watch him ascend to another great pitcher on this staff. If he doesn't, we will be watching his downfall.
Aside from Bauer, the fifth starter position is about as murky as center field. It looks like, at this point, Josh Tomlin and Cody Anderson are going to spend some amount of time anchoring the rotation, with the former getting some time in the bullpen as well.
Anderson has recently drawn comparisons to Matt Harvey of all pitchers, so it will be fun to see if he can build off the solid debut season he had last year (3.05 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 15 GS) and become the Indians' own Dark Knight.
Is Lonnie Chisenhall the second coming of Alex Gordon?
Early in 2015, Lonnie Chisenhall looked like a lost cause. He could not hit and he was beginning to show some weakness with his glove at third base as well. One quick trip to the minors later, and suddenly he emerged as a great defensive right fielder to end the season. But how legitimate was it?
The sample was very small (he played 51 games at right field), but he passed the eye test and the defensive metrics painted him as a plus defender. Hopefully Chisenhall follows Alex Gordon and becomes a 6-win player, and hopefully the rest of the Indians follow the Kansas City Royals and become World Series Champions.
Is Francisco Lindor really THAT good?
Even the most optimistic Indians fans were probably caught a little off guard by just how good rookie shortstop Francisco Lindor was last season. Despite his bunting, Lindor was one of the best hitters in the second half of the season, and he played defense reminiscent of Omar Vizquel or literally any other great defensive player you want to name. The kid has it.
This will be Lindor's second season in the majors, so calls of a "sophomore slump" will be brought out every time he fails to hit a grand slam in a game even if it isn't necessarily the case. There is a really good chance Lindor hit above his own skill last season and he regresses in 2016. Even then, he will still be one of the best shortstops in the league and a treat to watch night in and night out.
Or maybe something clicked when Lindor reached the majors and he really is a shortstop who can also be one of the best hitters in the league. Either way, I will have several eyes on Lindor this season.
Will the Indians regret not spending more money up front?
One of the biggest arguments against the Indians spending more money on free agents was that it would give them flexibility at the trade deadline. The thinking makes sense: If you don't overspend now, maybe you can get something better later at a discounted price. However, wins and losses are wins and losses no matter when they occur, so the Indians may regret not spending more to get wins in the first half of the year, as opposed to playing it safe and hoping for a big deadline deal. If they are already out of contention by July, no trade will help them.
What kind of move will the Indians make at the trade deadline?
Speaking of which, what will the Indians do when the trade deadline rolls around? Last year the Indians did little more than clear up salary by sending Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher off to the Atlanta Braves for Chris Johnson. That was fine, because at that point they did not look like a particularly competitive team, but what if they are fighting for a division lead in the days leading up to August 1*?
*Remember, this year's deadline has been moved from the usual July 31 date because it falls on a Sunday.
Presumably, the Indians will still need a fix in the outfield unless Lonnie Chisenhall learns to hit against left-handed pitchers and Tyler Naquin is the next Grady Sizemore. Plenty of teams could be willing to part with a veteran outfield for one of the Tribe's many pitchers, which they were very reluctant to trade in the offseason.
It's not too crazy to think that Chris Antonetti and company were specifically waiting until the deadline to deal someone, whether it's Carrasco, Salazar, one of the "lower tier" pitchers, or even one of the farm system's top prospects. There is no sense in mortgaging the entire future of the franchise on a half-season of a player, but a World Series run is a World Series run.
Can Jason Kipnis be great in back-to-back seasons?
swooped in and blatantly stole my story idea wrote his post before I started this one, detailing how Jason Kipnis needs to have back-to-back seasons for the Indians to succeed this season. This will be one of the more compelling things to watch this year. Whether or not you believe in the "even number curse" or whatever other excuse there could for Kipnis's massive value swing over the last three seasons, watching him try to match his stellar 2015 campaign will be fun.
How healthy is Michael Brantley, really?
The Indians have a history of rushing players back before they were probably ready. Most recently, catcher Yan Gomes returned way ahead of schedule from a brutal knee injury suffered on April 10 when now-teammate Rajai Davis took a hard slide into home plate. Yanimal returned to the field a little over a month later on May 24 and he was a non-factor for two months, slashing .238/.267/.371 with four home runs through July 24 before he finally caught a few hot streaks towards the end of the season.
Similarly, Michael Brantley was thought to be out at least until, but he has been consistently ahead of schedule and may even return for Opening Day now. If he does, how effective will he really be? All eyes will be on Cleveland's left field every time Brantley breaks for a fly ball, and at the plate every time he swings. A lot rides of Brantley's health this season as one of the team's best players in a position that is relatively weak on the depth charts.