I doubt that anyone reading this article would wish for it to happen, but the 2016 Indians season may not be as delightful as some fans expect. I worry that the hopes may run a little bit too high. Cleveland is known to be a title-starved town, and at this point I think fans would at least consider giving up their child as a burnt offering if it guaranteed a championship. Perhaps this is why some people — myself included — project bounce back years and superstar careers from a few weeks in March.
If things do fall apart for the Tribe, what are some of the problems that might cause it?
Injuries can be the sudden death of any team's chances. An errant fastball, a dangerous slide, a stealthy outfield wall; these may strike at any time and sideline a player for the entire season. The Indians unfortunately are already dealing with an injury. Michael Brantley is making excellent progress rehabbing from shoulder surgery, although a full return in time for opening day is unlikely. Originally the Indians believed that Brantley might not make a full recovery until May, but I wonder how devastating it would be to the team if Brantley never fully recovers from his torn labrum.
Brantley is not a pitcher, and it's not quite as grisly as some Dwarf Fortress injuries, but torn labra* are still notorious for sapping players of their potential. After the 2012 season Matt Kemp went under the knife to repair a labrum he injured after crashing into the wall. At age 28, he'd been relatively injury-free during his career, and was considered to be one of the best outfielders in baseball. He's struggled with injuries ever since — including inflammation in the same shoulder — and hasn't come close to his 2011 peak. Could there be other causes for the drop off? Yes, but it still makes me hope that the Indians bring Brantley back very, very carefully. After all, at age 28, he's been relatively injury-free during his career, and is considered to be one of the best outfielders in baseball....
* It feels wrong, but this is the plural form of labrum. Can we just change it to labrums?
What if another key contributor is stricken down unexpectedly? Even thinking the phrase "Corey Kluber to Undergo Tommy John Surgey" detonates a anxiety bomb in my chest. Or, as local fan and aficionado of bath salts Nate Rocheck predicts, "Tyler Naquin will hit 5 home runs in April, 7 in May, and get hit by a meteorite in June." These are things we can't predict, and so we simply must hope everyone remains relatively healthy and space rock-free
Let's say that Brantley makes a full recovery, and no other injuries or apocalyptic events deplete the roster. The Tribe is still juggling an odd situation in the outfield. Tyler Naquin has indeed looked excellent this spring. Lonnie Chisenhall and the
Goblet of Fire Right Field Experiment appears to be going well. Rajai Davis makes for an excellent fourth outfielder at this point in his career, but that is exactly the issue; he isn't someone the Indians want to play every day. Suppose that Naquin does not continue to play like Mike Trout (who is younger, by the way...), and instead performs like a guy trying to make the leap from AA to the Majors too quickly. He's only played two months of AAA baseball, after all. Either Brantley or Davis must slide in to center, and the other likely takes left. I worry about Brantley's glove in center, and I worry about Davis constantly. Is he going to be home at some point tonight? What if he's been in an accident? He could at least call.
* Fun fact: Davis has hit more triples than home runs in a season six times in his career.
This completely ignores the Chisenquestion. The Indians may run into a scenario where an old man slowly dies in left field, a great hitter struggles with confidence trying to play center field while overcoming an injury, and the converted third basemen — despite flashes of brilliance in right field — realizes that he's made a huge mistake. If so, the Indians could be at or below replacement level in two outfield positions. This makes for an interesting scenario if the Indians are close t contending at the trade deadline. Is it worth moving a pitcher to patch up the outfield? I don't see any other solutions short of Collin Cowgill drinking super soldier serum.
We now turn to the infield. The Indians can expect a competent third baseman in Juan Uribe. Jason Kipnis, now fully healthy, ought to be poised for a solid season. Mike Napoli raked this spring, and should be worth 3.2038 bWAR. This leaves Francisco Lindor and Yan Gomes.
No matter what happens this season, I am convinced that Lindor is a star in the making. Injecting him into the lineup last season helped to rejuvenate the offense, and they relied heavily on his production during their unsuccessful chase for the Wild Card. However, Lindor is facing the dreaded "sophomore slump." I'm not sure how much truth there actually is to this phenomenon; I've heard that certain hitters struggle to adjust when pitchers learn more about a hitters tendencies, but I prefer to imagine a twisted twisted old woman sneaking into the locker room before games and whispering spells into gloves and bats.
Meanwhile, Gomes is coming off of a disappointing season. I believed that Gomes had developed into a perennial all-star. He slugged 21 home runs in 2014 on the way to 4.2 bWAR, making him a top-tier catcher. Things unraveled early in 2015 when Rajai Davis slid into him during a play at the plate. He missed nearly 40 games, but the injury seemed to limit him for most of the year. I hope this is the case; Gomes hit only .231/.267/.391 (OPS+ 74) on the year, which is miserable for anyone. Roberto Perez played well enough to consider using him every day, hanging .228/.348/.402 (OPS+ 102) at the plate while showcasing above-average defensive skills. Tito mostly stuck with Gomes, though the two formed a sort of platoon during the second half.
So far in the Spring, Gomes appears to be his old self. The batting average and on-base skills are back, and with three home runs and two doubles to his name there seem to be no lingering effects on his power. Batted ball statistics from 2015 also seem to indicate that the problems were injury related, and likely to be overcome. However, Gomes also enjoyed above-average BABIP numbers in both 2013 (.342) and 2014 (.326). When I wonder whether or not two consecutive years of luck propped up an all-star facade, I start chewing at my fingernails and cursing under my breath, which makes it really uncomfortable to finish this sentence.
I believe Lindor will regress a little bit at the plate, and Gomes and Perez at the backstop will perform as one of the best catching teams in the game. The alternate outcomes aren't pretty. If Sophomore Lindor slumps and Gomes fails to bounce back, much of the offense will rely on Brantley hitting doubles with Kipnis on-base, Napoli belting solo home runs, and Santana drawing bases-loaded walks. Joy of joys.
Finally, we can consider the pitching. It is the strongest aspect of the team, and going through nightmare scenarios only proves this. Even if something unspeakable happens to Kluber (no please never this not even unpleasant things), the rotation still looks like one of the best in the American League. For the starters to become a serious problem, injuries, multiple cases of Steve Blass disease, and Trevor Bauer going full-blown John Nash all need to converge. Even then, Cody Anderson, TJ House, and Josh Tomlin are all waiting in the wings. I'm similarly at ease regarding the bullpen. Allen, Shaw, McAllister, and Manship form a nice core, and many nights they may not be needed at all.
Yes, it is a wonderful time to be optimistic about the Tribe. This is a good team. It may be an excellent team, and I'm fully on board. I expect to see some competitive October baseball, but things fall apart. I want none of the awful things that I've described to happen, but if they do, this shameless repurposing of Yeats pretty much sums up how I will feel:
Hurling and hurling in the widening deficit
The pitcher cannot see the pitch caller;
Games fall apart; the lead cannot hold;
Position players are loosed upon the mound,
The Wahoo caps are loosed, and everywhere
The past time of a nation is drowned
In $4.00 beer and Bertman’s Ball Park Mustard
The bats lack all conviction, while the balls
Are passed with passionate velocity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the World Series is at hand.
The World Series! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of the Cuyahoga
Troubles my sight: a wasted burning river;
A shape with Tiger body and the swing of a god,
A stance compact and powerful as a gun,
Is waggling its cruel bat, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant bleacher bums.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That six decades of somber sports
Were vexed to sideshow by a torn tendon,
And what discarded bat, his power come round at last,
Slouches towards Cooperstown to be born?