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Indians poised to make another deep postseason run in 2018

A preview of the Cleveland Indians for 2018 and beyond.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Two years removed from a World Series run, one year away from a 100-win season, and featuring one of the best smiles and shortstops in all of baseball. If you aren’t at least a little hyped about your baseball team heading into 2018, you might be a fan of a different team and landed on the wrong website. Sorry, Bless You Boys is that way. They’re good people. Sorry about Justin Verlander (not really).

If you are here for the Cleveland Indians, purposefully browsing Let’s Go Tribe, then you might be interested in a season preview of sorts. A health check on the state of the Indians, if you will. A long-winded reason to gush over Jose Ramirez for 1000 words, I do declare.

Well then you’re in the right place. Despite their only major transaction being losing Carlos Santana, the Indians are in a good place heading 2018. Depending on how a prospect or two pan out, they could be an even better team than the one that took the American League Central Division by 17 games in 2017. No, really.

The roster is still loaded

It’s mostly the same Indians team you’ve known and loved for the last three seasons. The infield will feature staples Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez manning shortstop and third base, respectively. Unless, of course, Jason Kipnis gets injured or something whacky happens that sends him to center field. In that case, we will all be treated to the Jose & Frankie show in the middle of the infield, with potentially one of the best offensive — and defensive — SS/2B tandems this side of Houston. Such a transaction would also clear third base for either Yandy Diaz or Giovanny Urshela to take over and, hopefully, shine. If the latter can learn to hit the ball in the air or if the former can just learn to hit, the Indians would have a phenomenal infield.

First base will look a bit different this year, with newcomer Yonder Alonso likely starting most games there while Edwin Encarnacion saves his old man strength for the designated hitter role. Yonder went to his first All-Star game in 2017, riding a new swing and 28 home runs, well above his previous career high of nine. Like most of the league, Yonder began swinging with more of an uppercut, and it played a big part in his .501 slugging percentage. Walking a career-high 13.1 percent of the time didn’t hurt either.

Given Alonso’s dramatic drop-off in the second half of 2017, how he rebounds this season is a huge question mark, but it didn’t deter the Indians from giving him $16 million this offseason.

The infield will be rounded out by a combination of Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez. How long those two remain behind the dish depends entirely on Francisco Mejia. Gomes and Perez have been abysmal with a bat over the past couple seasons, but with their defense at the position they are not going anywhere for a cheap fill-in veteran or smaller prospect. But someone like Mejia, who has a 60 hit tool and 80 arm according to most scouts, will storm the castle and take the throne sooner or later. The Tribe’s top prospect got a taste of the majors last season, but 14 plate appearances was far from enough to consider him ready to start the season with the big-league club quite yet.

For the Indians, the real roster questions occur in the outfield. It’s a whole mess of pretty good players and pretty injured players with a Brandon Guyer sprinkled in for good luck. Bradley Zimmer looks like the incumbent in center field, but manager Terry Francona seemed to like platooning him last year. What if he keeps striking out a third of the time and breaking his hand on slides the other two thirds? That could be where we see Jason Kipnis get a shot in center again, or maybe Tyler Naquin finally emerges to the delight of everyone who has ever posted a Facebook comment. In right field, Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer seem like a pretty cemented platoon combo, assuming Guyer’s wrist can heal in time for him to play consistently.

And finally, the key to this whole thing, Michael Brantley. Doctor Smooth suffered a shoulder injury in Minnesota two years ago and he hasn’t been the same since. The injuries following that fateful dive in left field aren’t always related to the initial injury, but it’s easy to point to that and say that’s where his woes began. After missing all of 2016 due to the shoulder issue, a series of new injuries cropped up last year that limited him to just 375 plate appearances over 90 games. The good news is that he look like a lot of his old self in that limited role. His .299/.357/.444 slash is a bit lower than his peak seasons, as is his “high” 13.3 strikeout rate, but for a guy who barely played over a year and a half, it’s still encouraging.

The Indians believed in Brantley enough to pick up his $11 million option for this season, so you can bet he’s going to get as much playing time as his body will allow. And no, he’s not going to be slapped at first base. Stop it.

The starting rotation, fueled by the addition of Mike Clevinger replacing the injured Danny Salazar, seems poised to build upon a historically great 2017 campaign. Corey Kluber will go for a third Cy Young, one year after finishing with a 2.25 ERA, 2.50 FIP and 7.3 fWAR. He and a fully healthy Carlos Carrasco anchored a rotation that led all of baseball in fWAR (31.7), ERA (3.30), FIP (3.33), and the only staff to strike out more than 10 opponents per nine innings. They were incredible, and going by fWAR, they were the best starting rotation in baseball history. That’s no small feat.

They’ll have to start the season with Danny Salazar, who has swung widely between an ace and a Double-A arm over the last two seasons, but Clevinger has dominated in spring, and he’s coming off a great first season of significant playing time.

The AL Central is weak, but don’t sleep on the Twins

Outside of the Minnesota Twins, the Indians will have no opposition on their march to the playoffs. The Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers, and Chicago White Sox are all in various stages of a rebuild, ranging from absolute rock bottom (the Royals) to a year or two away from competing (the White Sox). Baseball is a grind, and the Indians may have seen the effect of that grind in the playoffs the last two years. With a bit of luck, they may be able to take the pedal off the gas at times and hit the playoffs well-rested.

But that doesn’t mean it’ll be a cakewalk.

Sure, most of the AL Central is terrible. The Royals make up 20 percent of the division, and they’ll be sprinting towards the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft. But the Twins could be sneaky competition. They were a playoff team last season, and without losing any key components, they’ve been scooping up quality players on discounts in this weird offseason.

Since their 2017 campaign ended with a Wild Card loss to the New York Yankees, the Twins improved an underrated offense with Logan Morrison and they addressed their biggest weakness by acquiring Jake Odorizzi from the Tampa Bay Rays fire sale and signing Lance Lynn to a budget contract. Now, not only do they have Joe “ruins everything good in the world” Mauer, a superstar in the making in Byron Buxton, a powerhouse third baseman in Miguel Sano, a potential top-flight pitcher in Jose Berrios, but they also have established middle-of-the-rotation arms in Odorizzi and Lynn.

I’m not saying the Twins are guaranteed to give the Tribe a run for their money in 2018 — their rotation still has a chance to be absolutely atrocious and their bullpen won’t be much better. I’m just saying I’ll be cautiously watching them all season. They have all the potential in the world, and if they meet it all they’re going to be scary good. Luckily that’s a big if.

Looking ahead to the future

No matter what happens this season, you as an Indians fan can sleep at night knowing the future is still bright.

Peter Gammons recently called the Indians the “best run team in professional sports,” and he’s certainly not far off. Gammons, of course, notes Tito’s masterful use of the bullpen, the way the Indians roster is constructed, and more in his essay, but I like this bit the most, when speaking of the potential greatness of the Indians’ pitching staff:

What’s fascinating about the foursome is that they are all consumed by greatness. Bauer is coming to grips with all the elements of that consumption. Clevinger, whose stuff is unquestioned, has been inconsistent throwing strikes in his 174 2/3 major league innings, walking 84, striking out 187. His numbers ahead in the count are dominant. His numbers when he throws ball one are, well, not so dominant. So this winter he worked on his balance to help that consistency, working on balance beams, “learning,” he says, “how to walk properly” and doing a series of big toe exercises. For those of us that have been to 45 previous spring trainings, there are plenty of things we can learn in year 46. And there’s Danny Salazar, he of the great stuff but physical issues that probably will keep him out of the rotation in early April. And Josh Tomlin, vastly unappreciated.

Inject it into my veins.

Gammons also briefly touches on the depth of the Indians’ farm system, which is about to lose a lot of talent to graduations to the majors, but still features a lot of potential in the lower ranks. Francisco Mejia and Triston McKenzie top prospect charts everywhere, but outfielder Greg Allen and his speed seems like he could contribute soon, and there is a crop of pitchers hitting the ceiling of the minors who will form a marching band of No. 5 options when the inevitable midseason injury occurs. Not to mention the tremendous power potential of Bobby Bradley, who is likely to find his way to Triple-A sometime in 2018.

Simply put, the Indians are going to compete in 2018, and some smart front office work has them ready to compete for several years after the current core begins to age. Smart drafting and forward-thinking contracts mean the Indians are poised to take over the Cleveland sports landscape.