Indians: Division favorites even with changes
CLEVELAND — Carlos Santana’s TV bashing days should be over.
Back with Cleveland after spending one year in Philadelphia, where he ended some teammates’ obsession with the popular video game Fortnite with one swing, Santana is excited to be returning to a team with World Series title aspirations.
It’s not that the Phillies didn’t have big goals, but while they were in a September swoon, some players sneaked out of the dugout during games to play videos in the clubhouse. Santana’s bat ended that.
With the Indians, there should be no such off-field distractions or diversions.
And while the rest of the AL Central made numerous moves this winter to try and close the gap on the Indians, the three-time defending champions lost some power but essentially stayed the course.
“We have a great team,” said Santana, the switch-hitting first baseman re-acquired by Cleveland via a three-team deal trade with Tampa Bay and Seattle in December. “Minnesota and Chicago, they moved a lot this offseason, but we’re confident in what kind of team we have. We have a playoff team. We’re fine. We’re not worried about offense, defense. We’re worried about winning.”
The Indians, who might have All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor back from a calf strain when they open the season against the Twins on March 28, don’t have much reason to be fearful in their division. And if manager Terry Francona’s recent sky-diving adventures in Arizona are any indication, Cleveland will face any nerves head on.
However, the scary thing is that if they want to win their first World Series since 1948, the Indians must climb into the same realm with Boston, New York and Houston. The AL’s elite didn’t undergo as much change this offseason as Cleveland, which slashed payroll by choosing not to re-sign free agent All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley, closer Cody Allen or dominant reliever Andrew Miller.
The Indians, who have lost to the Yankees and Astros in the division series the past two seasons, also traded All-Star catcher Yan Gomes, slugger Edwin Encarnacion and first baseman Yonder Alonso, creating a cavity of some power and leadership.
Still, there’s plenty of talent, and some new faces.
“We have a lot of the same core pieces, and if anything, we have a nice little breath of fresh air, some new excitement,” said right-hander Mike Clevinger, a member of arguably baseball’s best starting staff. “It is good to see some guys finding their new place here.”
It will be interesting to see how the season unfolds for the Indians, who dangled ace Corey Kluber and All-Star Trevor Bauer in trade talks but didn’t pull the trigger. The club may still be open to dealing one of them, especially if things don’t go as planned.
If they don’t, stay clear of Santana.
THE FIVE HORSEMEN
Everyone’s looking for the starting pitching that Cleveland’s got already. Last season, the Indians became the first team to have four different pitchers record 200 strikeouts in the same season. Kluber and Carlos Carrasco have track records and with Bauer, Clevinger and Shane Bieber (11-5 as a rookie), the Indians have three of the game’s best young right-handers.
The enviable depth is why the club would consider moving Kluber, a two-time Cy Young winner who has won at least 18 games in each of the past three seasons.
No team has a 1-2 punch quite like Lindor and third baseman Jose Ramirez. Both switch-hitters, the pair became the first players in club history to get at least 35 homers, 35 doubles, 90 RBIs and 25 steals in the same season. They’re also the first teammates with at least 80 extra-base hits in consecutive seasons since Yankees legends Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig.
Rather than go to arbitration, Lindor signed a $10.55 million contract this season, a colossal raise from his $623,000 salary last season but nothing like he could get as a free agent.
That won’t happen until the end of 2021 season, but the Indians have to be planning for a long-term future without Lindor, who has turned down previous long-term deals and has seen the mega-deals landed by fellow stars Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
Looking to offset their power depletion — Encarnacion, Brantley, Alonso and Gomes combined for 88 homers and 314 RBIs — the Indians signed Hanley Ramirez and Carlos Gonzalez to minor league contracts. Ramirez could serve as the primary designated hitter while Gonzalez, a three-time All-Star who led the NL with 40 homers in 2015, may stabilize the club’s unclear outfield situation.
Francona will have another late-inning relief option in former All-Star Tyler Clippard once he gets past a pectoral strain sustained in camp.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
Outfielder Oscar Mercado opened eyes with a torrid spring and nearly made the opening-day roster. The 24-year-old spent part of the offseason refining his swing and the hard work paid off. He’ll begin the season at Triple-A Columbus, but Mercado could get an early call-up depending on how things go for Cleveland’s evolving outfield.