Last year, I chose the Detroit Tigers to win the AL Central and the Cleveland Indians to finish in second, capturing a Wild Card berth. I could not have been more wrong really. The Tigers finished in dead last of the AL Central and the Indians were 15 games behind the first place Royals at season's end.
However personally I am still quite bullish on the Indians again this year, and there are several things to like (or dislike if you are a fan of another AL Central team).
All projections courtesy of FanGraphs Depth Charts
The infield for the Indians is lead by wunderkind Francisco Lindor (who by the way was ~1.5 wins better than Carlos Correa in 2015 who is getting more hype). We used to say "yeah...but what about his bat?" but Lindor is only 21 years old and projects to be a league-average or better hitter with some of the best defense at the most premium position you will find.
Mike Napoli is somehow still around despite seeming like he's 40 years old (he's actually 33). He is on his third team since the start of 2015 and projects to be an above-average hitter but with limited defense and baserunning at first base. Yan Gomes is two years removed from his 4.5 win season of 2014 (after a solidly above average 2013), and is coming off a knee injury that cut short his 2015 season. Gomes is a good defender behind the plate and a nice hitter in the box (for a catcher). You know who he is kind of similar to?
Kipnis is coming off an excellent season last year where he was worth just over five wins (easily the best second baseman in the league last year). You could maybe even make the case that his three-win projection is a bit low. Kipnis can hit, he's a very good baserunner, and is average-to-slightly-below defensively at the keystone.
Juan Uribe is a fresh face in Cleveland this year...as fresh as a 37 year old one can be. Uribe has made a career on being an excellent defender at the hot corner and an okay bat. He will get the lionshare of the playing time at third, but he's getting old for the game and is probably going to split time with Jose Ramirez and Giovanny Urshela.
Carlos Santana is a bit more scary through name than production. You might still have a consistent three-win player in your mind from years passed, but at thirty years old he is not that guy anymore. He's still an above-average hitter but he's not a third anymore and he doesn't have the bat he once had.
All of these names are projected to get 140+ plate appearances for the Indians in 2016. Many people wondered what the heck the Indians were going to do this offseason to add to their outfield, and now we're all still scratching our heads. They looked to be somewhat okay just a few weeks ago, but things look different now.
Michael Brantley should be a mainstay there but he had shoulder surgery this winter and is questionable for the start of the season. No 28 years old, he is getting further from that breakout six-win season and third place MVP finish. Abraham Almonte teased the 2016 Indians a bit in last year with a decent showing. They hoped to get a full seasons worth of plate appearances from him...then he went and got suspended for PED usage.
I have followed Tyler Naquin as a prospect for a few years and he has hit quite well despite having well below-average power that has played up slightly given his hit tool. Naquin hasn't had a single plate appearance in the major leagues but he is slated to be the Indians starting CF in just a few weeks and came off a very good stint in AA/AAA as a 24 year old, hitting .300/.381/.446 in 84 games.
Rajai Davis goes from one AL Central team to another after leaving the Tigers this winter. He is not a good hitter, but can still field despite his age. He was going to get the short side of the platoon as a right-handed bat, but with Almonte being suspended he may now have a larger role.
Remember when Lonnie Chisenhall was like a top 20 prospect and a key piece to the revival of the Indians? Well he's 27 now and just had his career best season last year of just two wins. Chisenhall has followed the Alex Gordon path of being overall underwhelming as a third baseman and moving to left field. He too is dealing with an injury (forearm).
Marlon Byrd signed a minor league deal with the Indians just a few days ago and could reasonably see a good chunk of major league plate appearances. He's probably not anything more than a bench bat or someone to play when either
a) your other outfielders are too hung over
b) your team is down by 30 runs
c) Lebron James demands it
d) Rachel Phelps buys the team
It is hard to find a better one-two than the Indians' Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. Technically Clayton Kershaw and whomever pitches after him is better, but as far as parity between the one-two, those guys are the best. Salazar has the stuff to be another five win pitcher but his inconsistency has suppressed his raw tools and a replacement level season from him wouldn't be out of the question either.
Trevor Bauer continues to be one of the most frustrating pitchers in baseball (like the Royals Danny Duffy). He hastwo excellent pitches in his fastball and curveball but he also 10% of the batters he faces. Like Salazar, the range of the outcome of 2016 Bauer is wide. Josh Tomlin is hanging very loosely to the fifth starter role right now and up and coming Cody Anderson (who looks like Matt Harvey) could swoop in and grab if from him.
Cody Allen was the best reliever in baseball last year by FIP and fWAR but looks to regress a bit for 2016. He will still likely be pretty good, but another 2.6 win season is probably too much to ask for. After Allen, there is just a group of solid relievers. None of them are elite setup men or lights out 7th inning guys, but a band of dudes who collectively make up a top ten relief corp (remember the bullpen mafia?).
fWAR Totals and W/L Projection (per FanGraphs)
Projected W/L: 87-75 (1st in AL Central)
If you are bullish on the Indians you are leaning on their nice core of infielders, elite starting pitchers, and solid bullpen. If you are bearish on them you can point to their woeful projected outfield, their lack of a good fourth and fifth starter, and the fact that a lot of their value rests on starting pitchers, a great injury risk.