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Biggest questions facing the Cleveland Indians in 2017

At least we can stop asking about a right-handed power bat.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Cleveland Indians Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images

The Cleveland Indians have a lot to look forward to in 2017, but like any baseball club, they also have some big questions to answer. The front office went for it like they never have before in giving Edwin Encarnacion a three-year, $60 million deal, and they are coming off a season just shy of a World Series title.

For a team that came so close to winning it all, they have quite a few questions facing them this offseason. Here are some of the biggest.

Was Edwin worth the money?

In signing Edwin Encarnacion to the largest deal in franchise history, the Indians made it clear that they want to win now. Not in two years when a couple more prospects pan out, but now, while the majority of their core is still intact and young. Edwin Encarnacion is certainly going to help that goal, but his huge contract may end up limiting what the Indians can do in the future.

Namely, it may prevent them from re-signing Carlos Santana after this season, if they had any plans to in the first place. Having $32 million split between your first base and designated hitter probably isn’t ideal, and Santana may be demanding more than the $12 million AAV he’s getting this season when he hits the free agent market after 2017 concludes.

But if the Indians win a World Series? Who cares. I love you Carlos, and whoever else ends up as a casualty of this deal, but I would sell a thousand souls for a World Series right now.

Steamer projects a pedestrian season for Edwin, but by his standards only. The .254/.349/.485 slash projected by Steamer is good for a wRC+ of “only” 123, which would be Edwin’s worst offensive season since 2011. At 33 years old, projection systems are just slamming the regression button on Encarnacion, as they have been the last couple years. But he has showed very little signs of slowing down — the only worry being a strikeout rate that jumped a full four percentage points last season. But, oh yeah, he also matched his career-high for home runs, too.

Like most of these big deals, it’s going to be hard to look at the last season (or two) and say the player is worth the money he is getting in that season alone, but if the Indians can squeeze one or two great years out of Edwin, it’ll be more than worth the $20 albatross in year three. Keep in mind the fourth year of the deal only requires a $5 million buyout, too. And I cannot imagine how monstrous Encarnacion would have to be in 2019 for the Indians to take that up.

Can Michael Brantley stay healthy?

Depending on who you ask, this question should actually be phrased “can Michael Brantley get healthy?” The All-Star outfielder suffered a torn labrum over a calendar year ago when he dove for a ball in September 2015. Since having surgery to correct the injury, Brantley has played in just 11 games and he has looked awful in all of them.

Peter Gammons claimed Brantley’s injury was worse than originally thought last Winter Meetings and turned out to be right (even if it was just a coincidence). Then, just last month, Jonah Keri dropped a bomb calling the injury “horrific,” which the Indians immediately disputed. It’s hard to know exactly how healthy Brantley is and what kind of shape he’ll be in when he gets back. If you listen to the Indians, he’s fine and swinging a bat. If you listen to other people, his arm is basically on fire.

The Indians obviously proved last year they can win without him, but a healthy Brantley would suddenly make the outfield downright passable, and the offense that much formidable.

Can the pitching staff be that good again?

Keeping a pitching staff as talented and as deep as the Indians’ is hard. Just ask the New York Mets last season. Injuries are frequent and devastating and slumps can hit pitchers extremely hard. The Indians had all of that last season and still featured the best staff in the American League. Can they possibly do it again?

Carlos Carrasco looked sharp right up until he took a baseball off the hand, so I’m not too worried about him returning healthy. As Merritt Rohlfing pointed out, given the opportunity, Carrasco could be way better than any of us even expect this season.

A pitcher of Carrasco’s ilk is only held back by happenstance. One would hope all hist happenstance is out of the way after the last couple seasons. He’s reshaped himself into a perfect compliment to Kluber. Fangraphs projections suggest a 193 inning season out of him, worth 4.4 WAR. I think he could go more. Avoiding freak injuries and silly steps on bases takes luck more than anything, and it’s probably about time Carrasco had that Good Luck season and topped 200 innings with 5 or 6 WAR.

No, it’s Danny Salazar that I am worried about. Lingering elbow/forearm injuries are scary for pitchers, and it plagued him all season long. If he doesn’t have it worked out by the time April rolls around, it’ll be up to one of Josh Tomlin, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, or Cody Anderson(?) to step up into the No. 3 slot and really take hold of it. Otherwise, the Indians are suddenly left with an amazing one-two combination and a mess of average pitchers behind them.

Is Jose Ramirez for real?

In my heart, the Angry Hamster we saw in 2016 is the one we will see forever. The tenacity, the fearlessness, the clutch hitting — everything about him was great last year and made better by his flaming orange hair rounding the bases without a helmet to contain it.

The hair is gone for this upcoming season, but will the hitting go with it? Everyone loves Jose, for good reason, but it’s hard to ignore the flukiness of his amazing 2016 season. He went from being a below-average hitter to Michael Brantley reincarnated in a season. One more season of playing at such a high level and I am 100% sold. Right now I’m on the edge at like 97% sold.

Will people actually go to games?

The Indians were third-to-last in attendance last season, beating out only the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays. A mere 19,650 fans packed Progressive Field each game, on average, which is pathetic for a team as good as the Indians with a stadium as good as Progressive.

With an AL Pennant, the most exciting World Series ever, and Edwin Encarnacion now under their belts, will Cleveland fans finally support their baseball team by going out to games? I sure hope so.

Where does Yandy Diaz fit on the team?

It’s nice having a team so packed with great players that prospects have a difficult time breaking in — that’s exactly what’s going on with Yandy Diaz. He should have been on the team last year instead of Michael Martinez, but it was at least understandable to keep him in Triple-A for the Columbus Clippers’ playoff run for a touch more seasoning.

There’s no excuse this season. Yandy is 25, he can play multiple positions, and he has finally found a power stroke. He has tore up the Venezuelan League all winter and his last hill to climb will be winning a spot out of spring training. Whether that’s as a backup utility infielder or starting left fielder if Brantley isn’t healthy, I am sure he’ll be on the major-league squad sometime sooner than later.