Last season, the Indians had the best record in the American League, finishing with 102 wins. They received great production from their lineup, pitching staff, and bullpen; they were the most complete team in the American League. But they proceeded to blow a 2-0 lead to the New York Yankees in the ALDS which was their second consecutive postseason collapse (they blew a 3-1 lead to the Chicago Cubs in the 2016 World Series).
The offseason didn’t treat the Indians well. While they did add first baseman Yonder Alonso on a team-friendly two-year deal, management lost Carlos Santana, Jay Bruce, Joe Smith, and Bryan Shaw to free agency. On paper, the case could be made that the Indians are a tad bit worse than they were in 2017. A reason for that notion is the production they received from Lindor and Kipnis in 2017.
After hitting over .300 in back-to-back seasons, Lindor hit just .273 in 2017. While he did post career-highs in home runs (33) and runs batted in (89), Lindor’s dip in average offset the power numbers. He also hit just .111 in the postseason, and for what it’s worth, was hitting just .154 going into the Indians’ Monday night matchup with the Los Angeles Angels.With a stacked American League surrounding the @Indians, they'll need big years from Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis to survive in the pennant race.Click To Tweet
Did Lindor’s overall production significantly hurt the Indians last season? No, he’s arguably the best shortstop in the majors both in the field and at the plate. And his slick play at short helps make up for any struggles he experiences at the plate. But to get out of the AL playoffs, they need Lindor to hit with more consistency, and considering he’s just 24 and doesn’t strikeout often, the potential for the shortstop to advance his game even further is feasible. The same goes for Kipnis.
2017 was not kind to Kipnis. Whether it be missing nearly half the season due to injury or hitting just .232, the second baseman endured a discouraging season. The two years prior, he hit .303 and .275 and remained healthy. The one facet of the 31-year-old’s game that has always been constant is his defense. He’s one of the best fielding second basemen in the game and forms one of the best double play duos in the majors alongside Lindor. But if he can’t stay on the field or hit with more consistency, the Indians will suffer; they need him and Lindor to have big, or, at the very least, improved campaigns.
Manager Terry Francona has a great lineup at his disposal. With Lindor, Kipnis, Edwin Encarnacion, 2017 AL Most Valuable Player finalist Jose Ramirez, Alonso, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Michael Brantley (when he returns from injury), the Indians unite to form a dynamite order. But they pose such a threat assuming Kipnis returns to form and Lindor gets on base more often. And if they do as such, it makes their club even more formidable.
When you have a rotation that features Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and budding righty Mike Clevinger, you have a chance to be in every game. And while their bullpen was torn apart a bit this offseason, the Indians still have a stellar backend in Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, and Tyler Olson. Their pitching depth will be critical against other AL powerhouse teams.
Look around the American League. The Yankees have star players who haven’t reached their peak yet (Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino), a great bullpen, and they added the 2017 NL MVP, outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, to an already stacked lineup. The case could be made that the Yankees, not the Indians, are now the most complete team in the AL.
The defending champion Houston Astros are in that same conversation. They have one of the best one-two pitching punches in baseball in Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, as well as a stacked young lineup featuring Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, among others. The Boston Red Sox added J.D. Martinez, are poised to get bounce back years from Mookie Betts and Rick Porcello, and have a great bullpen. The Yankees, Astros, and Red Sox are all World Series contenders meaning a league that was once dominated, or leaned in favor of the Indians, is now as balanced as ever.
Free agency wasn’t kind to the Indians and the competition has stiffened ever since their ALDS series loss. Now does this mean the Indians won’t win the AL Central or pose a threat in October? Of course not, but, for the moment, they’re not the surefire best team in the AL and need more internal production and/or growth. Bounce back years from Lindor and Kipnis can be the boost the Indians need.