Last year, many Indians fans anguished over the so-called “SI Cover” curse. The prediction that the Cleveland Indians would win the 2015 World Series, however, was not their downfall. The downfall of the Indians once again was highlighted by mediocre offense, and the unfortunate decline of their biggest free-agent acquisitions in over a decade, Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. Swisher and Bourn ate up over 1/4 of the Indians’ total payroll and their sedentary production was an absolute killer in their lineup. Things improved offensively with the promotion of Rookie of the Year runner-up and budding star shortstop Francisco Lindor. Lindor produced way above what was expected of him and figures to be a key piece of the puzzle in 2016. Also the trading of both Bourn and Swisher to the Atlanta Braves was the equivalent of a one-thousand pound anchor being lifted from the Tribe’s lineup. Ultimately, the Tribe finished with a respectable, yet disappointing (based upon previous predictions) 81-80 record. However, there are five key things that will be the difference-makers in 2016 and will lead the Tribe to winning their first AL Central title since 2007.
- Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar – The top of the Tribe rotation is arguably the best in all of baseball. According to early projections, the trio all look to post ERAs under 3.35, have more than 200 strikeouts each, and have no more than 50 walks each. Respectively, they project to have WARs of 6.0, 5.8, and 3.5. No top of the rotation in all of baseball projects higher. Carrasco and Kluber each should easily contend for an AL Cy Young Award, and Salazar looks to break through in a big way as well.
- Terry Francona – Since Francona took over the Tribe they haven’t had a losing season. He’s compiled an overall record of 258-229 since 2013 and, of course, had a very storied career in Boston, winning two World Series in his tenure there. Francona is arguably the best manager in baseball, and would love nothing more than to add another World Series title to his name. He’s worked particularly well with the Tribe’s young roster and was reported to be a key reason behind the front office not moving one of their top-of-the-rotation starters for a bat. With a strong rotation and bullpen to work with (the Tribe had the Majors’ 4th-lowest bullpen ERA at 3.12 last season), Francona’s biggest task lies with getting his lineup in a situation to produce as many runs as possible to support their outstanding pitching. Luckily for him they’re most likely not going to have to score that much.
- The Middle Infielders – Both Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis are among the very best in the league at their positions. They hit 1 and 2 in the Tribe lineup, and they also will be quite possibly the biggest factors to helping the Indians win several games in 2016. Both infielders were top 2 in WAR at their position last season (Kipnis 5.2, 1st in MLB at 2B, Lindor 4.6, 2nd in MLB at SS). Both infielders also were 2nd at their position in both BABIP and wOBA (minimum 400 PA). On top of all this, both players are plus defenders, and remind some fans of the dynamic duo of Omar Vizquel and Carlos Baerga that dominated the middle of the field throughout the 90s for the Tribe.
- A Healthy Yan Gomes – Okay, so Yan Gomes was pretty bad last year…his lack of production no doubt had a big effect on the Indians lineup, and not in a good way. Gomes had a miserable slash line of .231/.267/.391 and hit only 12 homers. In 2014 we all saw a very different Yan Gomes, as he had a respectable slash line of .278/.313/.472 along with 21 homers. He led all AL catchers in WAR (4.5) and Slugging percentage (.472) (minimum 400 PA). With Gomes returning to full health now in 2016 he should return to form and be a big producer in the middle of the Tribe lineup.
- Michael Brantley – Losing Brantley for the first month of the season is really going to hamper the Tribe, but if he can return to full health, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more productive player in all of baseball. Brantley is the Tribe’s X-factor; over the last two seasons he has hit 35 homers and 90 doubles, he’s had batting averages of .327 and .310 respectively, and he’s had OPS’s of .890 and .859 respectively. Most impressively has been his ability to hit with runners in scoring position — over the last two seasons combined he’s owned a .351/.437/.507 slash line. When healthy, the hope is that he can return to this form once again. Brantley proved resilient last season, putting up big numbers despite dealing with back issues throughout his 2015 campaign.
So there it is, the keys to the Tribe winning a 2016 division title. Obviously on top of all this, several other things need to go right for the Tribe. But these five factors alone will be among the leading reasons why the Indians win their division.
All stats referenced, or used for statistical analysis for this article are courtesy of mlb.com, baseball-reference.com, and fangraphs.com.