Cleveland Indians

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Overview (Present Rank: 4th | Future Rank: 8th)

Ever since Cleveland's collection of MLB All-Stars (Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle, Sandy Alomar, Roberto Alomar, Omar Vizquel) in the late-90's won five straight division titles, the Indians have only reached the postseason on two separate occasions. Hiring Terry Francona as the team's manager brought hope to the city of Cleveland at a time when the Browns were still the Browns and LeBron James was still ballin’ in South Beach. During his first year running the show, Francona led the Indians to their first playoff appearance in over five years.

After powering their way to being one of the best teams in the 90's, the team is utilizing pitching as it's most valuable weapon here in the 21st century. Not only has Cleveland won three of the last nine American League Cy Young awards (CC Sabathia [2007], Cliff Lee [2008], Corey Kluber [2014]), but they currently own one of the best rotations in baseball. Combined with the promising young core on offense that's suddenly entering their prime, the Indians are in a prime position themselves to become a legitimate title contender. Cleveland is hoping productive, young position players, an elite rotation, and a strong farm system leads them to their third playoff appearance in 15 years, and possibly the franchise's first American League pennant in almost 20 years.

 

*Detailed analysis conducted April 3, 2016; rankings and charts updated throughout the season.

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Catcher (Present Rank: 29th | Future Rank: 18th)

It’s no coincidence that once the Indians acquired Gomes from Toronto to start behind the plate, Cleveland’s pitching performances have improved immensely. From 2008-2012 the Indians' pitching staff owned an ERA that was among the ten worst teams in the league. Since Yan Gomes started framing pitches, controlling the base paths, and blocking pitches in northern Ohio, they have kept their ERA among the top half of the league, peaking at eighth last season.

Gomes brings some value in the batter's box as well, but had a big drop off in production last year after a collision with Rajai Davis at the plate injured his knee just five games into the season. In the peak of his career at 28 years old, Gomes could get back to the robust .294/.345/.481 batting line he produced two years ago if he can maintain his health.

Roberto Perez impressed in his rookie season with a .751 OPS, not bad at all for a backup catcher. His true breakout in Triple-A in 2014 elevated him to a potential future role with the Major League ball club. With Gomes under team control for the next six years, Perez will likely have to stick in the backup role until he goes elsewhere. Even if he does get shipped out of Cleveland, his skills might restrict him to the backup role anyways.

Down on the farm, the Indians have Francisco Mejia continuing to develop into an everyday catcher. Mejia turned heads immediately after signing out of the Dominican Republic in 2012 when he batted .305/.348/.524 in Rookie-ball as a 17 year-old. He hasn't been able to replicate that kind of production over the past two seasons in either Low-A or Single-A ball. Armed with a laser arm, Mejia still has the tools to be an efficient backstop.

Future Outlook: Gomes can handle starting duties, but might not have to

Yan Gomes is an above-average starting catcher. At a defensive-premium position, Gomes gives you everything you want from behind the plate. He is a master at framing pitches and keeping baserunners modest. He can be a top-5 offensive catcher as well when healthy. He has four more years guaranteed that are all under $7MM a piece with two team options valued at $9MM in 2020 and $11MM in 2021 with a $1MM buyout attached to each.

If for some reason Gomes’ production falls off a cliff, or injuries keep getting in the way, Francisco Mejia is impressing scouts enough to think he might take over the role come 2020. Best-case scenario for Cleveland is Gomes keeps producing, Mejia develops into a starting caliber catcher by 2019, and newly promoted President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti can trade one away for assets in other areas.

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First Base (Present Rank: 6th | Future Rank: 10th)

Because of Santana’s awful defense, Terry Francona is moving the slugging 30 year-old to a full-time DH role. That opened a spot for Mike Napoli to join the Indians. Known as a great locker room presence, Napoli has been an integral part of two American League championship teams after winning the 2013 World Series with Boston. Napoli is 34 years old now and showed some serious signs of decline last season before bouncing back in his 35 games with the Rangers. Considering his consistent track record and rebound in Arlington, Napoli should be worth the 1yr/$7MM flier Cleveland took on him for 2016.

Cleveland has one of their top-5 prospects looking to make an impact at first base in the future. Taken in the third round of the 2014 draft, Bobby Bradley had an immediate impact in rookie-league as an 18 year-old. He had an incredible .361/.426/.652 batting line over 155 at-bats. Bradley followed that up with 27 homers and 92 RBI’s over 108 games in Single-A last year. His power could lead to 30+ HR’s annually if he can improve his approach at the plate and cut down on his 148 SO’s from this past season.

While waiting for Bradley to become an everyday player in 2019, the Indians will need someone to fill the gap. Jesus Aguilar is a candidate as he’s been successful at every level in the minor leagues. However, he doesn’t have the athleticism or swing path to hit pitches on the corner of the plate. Him and Nellie Rodriguez both struggle against top-caliber minor league pitchers making it likely the same thing will happen when facing Major League pitchers.

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Future Outlook: Who’s bridging the gap between Napoli and Bradley

Paying Mike Napoli $7MM will likely make him the frontrunner for Cleveland’s starting first baseman job in the 2016 season. If he goes back to his pre-2015 self, the Indians could always re-sign him to a two-year deal solving the issue. If not, the Indians will look toward the free agent or trade market to acquire somebody like Mark Trumbo, Pedro Alvarez, or Mark Teixeira to hold down the fort until Bradley arrives.

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  Second Base (Present Rank: 7th | Future Rank: 12th)

Outside of an injury plagued 2014, Jason Kipnis has been one of MLB’s best second baseman over the past few seasons. As he enters his age-29 season, there’s no reason to think anything will change as long as he stays healthy. With a knack for getting on base, 2016 could be his best season yet, topping the .303/.372/.451 slash line he put together last season. He has four more years guaranteed on his contract with another $16.5MM option for his age-33 season in 2020.

Jose Ramirez is not a lucky guy. Despite possessing elite athleticism with an ability to run, field, and hit for average, Ramirez never cracked the Indians top-10 prospects because of the loaded talent ahead of him. Now in the Majors, it’s the same story as he’s doesn’t have a starting role thanks to two of the best middle infielders in the game slotted to start ahead of him. Ramirez is a great value as a utility infielder, and even played left field a bit last year to increase his versatility. If he can get on base more, another team might make Cleveland an offer they can’t refuse and give Ramirez the starting role he was always looking for.

With the 93rd overall pick in last year's draft, the Indians took 21 year-old second baseman Mark Mathias. Mathias doesn’t have many MLB-ready tools, but he does have a bat that he constantly puts on the ball. He’s an average defender and runner, and won’t hit for much power, but the man can hit the baseball. In his 67-game debut in Low-A ball he struck out 36 times while walking 35 times showcasing his advanced approach at the plate. If he can keep developing his hit tool, he should be an average starting second baseman, at least offensively.

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Future Outlook: Jason Kipnis is the guy, nobody else really matters

When a team has a guy like Jason Kipnis as a second baseman, whoever else is in their organization at the position is pretty much irrelevant. They happen to have a quality backup in Jose Ramirez who can play almost anywhere in the infield as well as a young prospect that has the bat to carry him to the Majors. If Mark Mathias keeps improving, he could give Antonetti a tough decision come 2019: go with the young Mathias or the declining Kipnis (he’ll be 32 at the time). Until then, he can sit back and relax as Kipnis does his thing for the next three to four years at an elite level.

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Shortstop (Present Rank: 2nd | Future Rank: 4th)

As good as Kipnis is, Francisco Lindor might already be better and he’s only 22 years old. The eighth overall pick in 2011 has gotten better every year since his professional debut. He played in 99 of the Tribe’s last 100 games posting a sensational .313/.353/.482 slash line in the process. Throughout his minor league career, all the talk was about Lindor’s gold-glove caliber fielding abilities. If Lindor can continue to improve his game, he could soon be one of the game’s premier players.

Another defensively gifted shortstop the Indians possess is Erik Gonzalez. The 6’3” shortstop hasn’t made his Major League debut yet, but he’ll turn 25 years old this season. Gonzalez took a little longer to develop than Lindor, but has reached almost the same level of fielding excellence. His awful pitch recognition skills leave his bat a work in progress. If he can improve on seeing the pitch better, he could be a legitimate starting shortstop for a team; Jose Iglesias comes to mind as a pro comparison.

Future Outlook: Francisco Lindor is the guy, nobody else really matters

The same thing applies here as the second base situation with Kipnis. Lindor is a phenomenal defensive talent, that much is proven every time Lindor steps foot on the infield. While his BABIP was a little higher than any season in the minors, his rookie season showed he can eventually reach that elite level of hitting as well, and become one of the most valuable two-way players in the league. Gonzalez is of the same prototype, but doesn’t have the same pitch recognition skills or explosive bat speed as Lindor. Even if he improves his approach at the plate, Gonzalez is likely to remain a bench player.

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Third Base (Present Rank: 8th | Future Rank: 17th)

Giovanny Urshela struggled to hit .225/.279/.330 in his Major League debut. Urshela put a lot of work in the offseason with Lindor as he's determined to get better. The Indians didn’t have enough faith in the 24 year-old to carry the load all by himself just yet. They picked up third baseman Juan Uribe on a 1yr/$4MM deal. Despite playing for three different teams in his age-36 season, he managed to bat .253/.320/.417 while adding 14 HR’s and 43 RBI’s to his stat sheet. Urshela still put up .275/.315/.362 against lefties which still fell short of Uribe’s .272/.350/.543 performance against southpaws in 2015. If Urshela can build on his strong Spring Training performance, he’ll cement himself as the future third baseman of the Cleveland Indians. Don’t expect Urshela to ever reach an all-star game, but if his bat comes around, he'll be a solid contributor at the hot corner.

Behind Urshela on the Indians’ prospect list heading into last season was Yandy Diaz. After batting .315/.412/.408 in 132 Double-A games over the past year he might have a brighter future than Urshela considering the poor rookie season he had. Diaz is a very disciplined hitter with more career walks than strikeouts. He may not hit for much power, but he’s a great contact hitter with a solid glove, good range, and a slightly above-average arm. Diaz has OBP machine written all over him when he hits the big leagues to pair with satisfying defense.

Future Outlook: Good, but not great

After a miserable rookie season, Giovanny Urshela is gaining many doubters. Luckily for Cleveland, Yandy Diaz is starting to prove he could be the answer at third base after Lonnie Chisenhall proved he wasn’t. The Indians haven’t had a consistently productive third baseman since Casey Blake in 2008. If Urshela and Diaz don’t answer the question marks surrounding the position, the Indians might have to look elsewhere for upgrades. For now, Chris Antonetti will keep giving players like Juan Uribe one-year deals to solidify the position in case Urshela or Diaz don’t perform up to standards.

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Outfield (Present Rank: 5th |Future Rank: 19th)

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The three best overall position players the Indians have right now are Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, and Michael Brantley. After another terrific season, Brantley might be the best out of the bunch. As he approaches his 29th birthday, he’s right in his prime with two more years left on the 4yr/$25MM extension he signed that also includes a 2018 club option for $11MM that’s a formality at this point. Brantley’s shoulder injury might hamper him in the beginning of the year, but look for him to make progress as the year goes on.

After struggling as a third baseman, the Indians moved Lonnie Chisenhall to Right Field with excellent .294/.359/.412 results at the plate. The little amount of success he had in 2014 and in the second half of 2015 can be attributed to a BABIP that was much higher than his career norms. Expecting regression from Chisenhall seems like the smart thing to do, but he was really a factor for the Tribe down the stretch. His fielding metrics received a positive grade with an outstanding 35.3 UZR/150. Chisenhall is only 27 years old with a top prospect background. Maybe the second half of 2015 was a sign of things to come. Or maybe his BABIP will go back to normal and his production will suffer.

Because of Abraham Almonte’s 80-game suspension, Tyler Naquin will be given the nod to start the season in Center Field. Naquin is a solid fielder with above-average speed that can translate to superior range in the outfield. He won’t hit for much power, but could have a solid batting average thanks to sufficient bat speed. Naquin fits best as a fourth outfielder or part of a platoon. Almonte is a better defensive center fielder than Naquin meaning he could take back the position full-time if Naquin isn’t hitting enough. Almonte’s only 26 years old, so he could still be improving as a player which would make his 2015 .250/.310/.409 slash line even better.

As a 38 year-old, Marlon Byrd was still doing damage in a San Francisco Giants uniform last August and September when he hit .272/.301/.463. Signed to a one-year minor league deal, Byrd now comes with very little risk with the potential of making a lot of noise. While he's certainly a poor defender, he can still get it done at the plate.

Now into his mid-30’s, Rajai Davis’ elite speed is becoming less and less a part of his game. Once upon a time, Davis would score 65 runs and steal 50 bases a year. In 2015, those numbers dropped to 55 runs and 18 stolen bases. With a history of hitting lefties better than righties, he could make a perfect platoon candidate to pair with Tyler Naquin.

With the versatility of being able to play anywhere in the outfield, Collin Cowgill’s bottom-tier bat serves well in the fourth outfield role. Of course, in the Indians depth-heavy outfield, Cowgill might not even make it on the big league roster. With some injuries, Cowgill could get another opportunity, but he’ll be behind Brantley, Chisenhall, Naquin, Almonte, Byrd, and Davis in the pecking order.

The Indians used their first pick in the draft on outfielders in three consecutive years. Tyler Naquin at 15th overall in 2012, Clint Frazier fifth overall in 2013, and then Bradley Zimmer 21st overall in 2014.

As things stand now, Zimmer is undisputedly the best prospect in the system. Zimmer was killing minor league pitching until he struggled a bit after his promotion to Double-A last season. Now that he’s 23 years old, Zimmer hopes to make his Major League debut within the next two seasons. He has all the tools scouts look for in an outfield prospect. He has plus-speed, raw power, a solid glove, a strong arm, and a developing ability to hit at a .280-.300 level. Zimmer can play Center Field, but with Frazier also in the system, Zimmer’s rocket arm might move him over to Right Field.

Zimmer might be viewed as the better prospect right now, but when all things are said and done, Clint Frazier could be the best outfielder in Progressive Field. Frazier really took his game to another level in 2015 batting .285/.377/.465 in High-A ball as a 20 year-old. He then made a name for himself in the Arizona Fall League as well. Frazier can throw and field just as good or better than Zimmer. While Zimmer is a better runner, the field is still out on who will be a better overall hitter with both flashing plus-power. Seeing the two play together will give Cleveland a top-5 outfield on an annual basis if they can just find somebody serviceable in the other spot, or if Naquin can develop into an all-around starting caliber player.

(EDIT: In a blockbuster deal for LHP Andrew Miller, the Indians traded Clint Frazier to the New York Yankees. Click here to see how Frazier will fit in with the Yankees now that they've assembled a wealth of young talent [7/31/16]).

They have some lower-tier outfield prospects like Mike Papi, Greg Allen, Luigi Rodriguez, Gabriel Mejia. They all have some serious flaws that need to be fixed to become regular outfielders. Even a role as a bench outfielder seems like high expectations for them at this point.

Future Outlook: Zimmer and Frazier are coming, who’s joining them?

Bradley and Frazier are the two best prospects in Cleveland’s system right now. They are both about two years away from making their presence known on this Indians team. They could each develop into two of the best outfielders in the game. Michael Brantley is at that level now but is under team control for three more seasons, and will reach free agency heading into his age-32 season. Moving on and having faith in younger talent might be the better idea. Cleveland is hoping Tyler Naquin can emerge into that role, but if not they’ll have to look outside the organization to fill the hole.

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Designated Hitter (Present Rank: 5th | Future Rank: 15th)

With Carlos Santana proving to be incapable of fielding anywhere on the diamond, he will now become a full-time designated hitter. Former GM Mark Shapiro (now President and CEO for the Toronto Blue Jays) stole Santana from the Dodgers for a declining Casey Blake in 2008. Now, Santana has hit in the heart of the lineup for Cleveland for the past five seasons. After crushing 111 home runs in that time, Santana will enter the free agent market after the 2016 season if the Indians decline their $12MM team option for 2017. While his defense is atrocious, his bat is well worth the $12MM as long as he can stay healthy.

Future Outlook: Santana's on the verge of leaving

If Santana departs, Chris Antonetti's best move might be to find an outside replacement. If not, the logjam at third base could give Francona a player to plug in at DH. Giovanny Urshela and Yandy Diaz could both warrant playing time, but since both play third base, one might have to fill the designated hitter spot. Resigning Santana to a multi-year deal would be a an easy solution to this problem.

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Left-Handed Starting Pitchers (Present Rank: 29th | Future Rank: 6th)

In a rotation stacked with righties, the best lefty the Indians could put in their 2015 rotation is T.J. House. Ross Detwiler is the only southpaw on the Indians 25-man roster, but he's slated for a role in the bullpen showcasing Chris Antonetti’s clear preference in right-handed starting pitchers. House had a great Major League debut in 2014 going 5-3 with a 3.35 ERA, 7.1 SO/9, and 1.9 BB/9. A shoulder injury prevented him from making any noise in 2015 and clouds his future outlook. As a groundball-inducing machine that can prevent walks, House can still bring value to this Indians ball club despite his rough 2015 season. If injuries open up another opportunity, it’ll be sink or swim time for the 26 year-old.

Ryan Merritt is another candidate for some spot starts this year for Cleveland, but that's a worst-case scenario. With a high-80’s fastball and a repertoire full of average stuff, Merritt doesn’t have a ceiling that would put him in a big league rotation. However, due to his strong command and ability to pound the strike zone, he could receive starts here and there if others go down. Shawn Morimando is in the same boat with a slightly better track record in the minors with a better shot at cracking the rotation some day.

The Indians have three lefty arms in their organization that project to be effective starters at the big league level. One they got with the 17th overall pick in last year’s draft (Brady Aiken), one they got with the 31st pick in the 2014 draft (Justus Sheffield), and the third one was taken with the 28th pick in the 2013 draft (Rob Kaminsky) that they received from St. Louis in exchange for Brandon Moss before last year’s trade deadline.

Aiken was taken first overall in 2014 by the Houston Astros. After controversial negotiations, Aiken remained unsigned past the deadline, and became the first No. 1 overall pick not to sign in over 30 years because an elbow injury showed up on his medical report. After just one start in the independent field, Aiken’s elbow blew out and he was forced to get Tommy John surgery, exactly what Houston wanted to avoid. Despite the tear in his elbow, the Indians saw enough in his arsenal and command to invest a first round pick in him. Aiken has a very high ceiling with a very low floor. It’ll be easier to understand his future outlook after seeing how he bounces back from his latest procedure.

Sheffield is another high upside hurler as a 19 year-old that pitched a full season in Single-A ball last year. He’ll start the season in High-A ball at age-20, and if he can make it to Double-A by the end of the year, he’ll be on the fast track to the Majors. Sheffield’s quick delivery combined with his projectable fastball and devastating curveball give executives reasons to believe he can settle in as a mid-rotation starter.

(EDIT: With a need for a high-leverage arm down the stretch, the Indians traded Justus Sheffield to the Bronx for LHP Andrew Miller. Click here to see where Sheffield will fit in New York's rotation once he reaches the bigs [7/31/16]).

Kaminsky’s almost flawless minor league track record is a testament to the high floor he has. While his ceiling may not be on the level of Aiken’s or Sheffield’s, he’s the likeliest of the three to reach it. Kaminsky’s low-90’s fastball could get faster as he continues to build muscle. The lack of movement or command on it makes it an average offering unlike his curveball which is already a plus pitch. His above-average changeup completes his repertoire. If Kaminsky keeps throwing strikes, he’ll soon be a regular in Cleveland’s rotation.

Juan Hillman is another name to keep an eye on as the Indians’ second round pick in 2015. At just 18 years old, he still has a lot of developing to go through and likely won’t reach the Major Leagues until at least 2020. If he can build on his professional debut, Hillman could be a fixture in the Indians’ rotation throughout the 2020’s.

Future Outlook: Could be really good, or really bad

As things stand now, the Indians have one of the worst starting rotations that throw from the left side. That’s primarily because all five starters are right-handed. It’s also because the best left-hander they have is T.J. House, who is a spot starter at best. Luckily for Indians fans, they are stashing a trifecta of Sheffield, Kaminsky, and Aiken in the minor leagues. If all three reach their ceiling, they’ll have three reliable rotation options (a big jump from zero). If not, the Tribe will be right where they are now.

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Right-Handed Starting Pitchers (Present Rank: 3rd | Future Rank: 3rd)

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Starting with 2014 AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, the Indians are stacked with right-handed hurlers. After a stellar 2014 campaign, many believe Kluber took a step back in 2015 thanks to single-digit Wins and increased 3.49 ERA. However, Kluber was just an unlucky pitcher in 2015 backed by the third worst run support among pitchers with at least 27 starts. With the offensive upgrades of Uribe and Napoli, as well as a full season of Lindor defensively, Kluber shouldn’t be so unlucky going forward. Expect his 2016 production to be closer to 2014 than 2015. As he approaches his 30th birthday, Kluber likely won’t be a top-15 pitcher for much longer though.

Behind Kluber are a pair of No. 2-caliber pitchers with one forced to reside in the No. 3 spot. Let’s start with the 29 year-old Carlos Carrasco. He’s the single piece left from the Cliff Lee trade over six years ago. After having an unidentifiable role for the previous two seasons, Carrasco settled into the rotation full-time in 2015 with excellent results. Even after receiving Cy Young award votes for his 2015 performance, Carrasco’s peripherals point to an even better 2016.

Carrasco’s competitor for that No. 2 spot is 26 year-old Danny Salazar. Coming off of a 14-10 season with a 3.45 ERA, 1.130 WHIP, 9.5 SO/9, and a 2.6 BB/9, Salazar can still improve. Any improvement to his curveball, which he only threw four percent of the time, could see all those numbers get enhanced. Equipped with a mid-90’s fastball and an annihilating splitter, Salazar just needs to reform his command and the effectiveness of his curveball, and he could soon be one of the elite pitchers in the Major Leagues.

While it’s fair to say Kluber, Carrascor, and Salazar are all outperforming their pre-debut expectations, Trevor Bauer is unquestionably underperforming. Taken with the third pick in the 2011 draft, expectations were high on Bauer coming out of UCLA. After coming to Cleveland in the Shin-Soo Choo trade, Bauer hasn’t lived up to the top-prospect billing thus far. Two major problems are preventing Bauer from reaching his ceiling as a frontline starter. One is his lack of control that leads to numerous walks. The other is his lack of control that leads to an excessive amount of home runs. He still flashes all the stuff that made him a top-three pick and a must-have for the Indians when getting rid of a superstar in Choo. If he can finally harness his command, Bauer could be one of the biggest breakouts in the Major Leagues.

Josh Tomlin rounds out the rotation. After a mediocre a career at best before 2015, Tomlin broke out with a 3.02 ERA in 66 innings last season. He produced a 0.8 WAR from 2010-2014, but increased that number to 1.9 solely last year. While his performances have fluctuated over the past five years, two things are concrete: Tomlin doesn’t walk a lot of batters (career 1.5 BB/9) and he gives up a lot of fly balls (46.2% in 2015). If he can keep those fly balls in the yard, and get those strikeouts up, Tomlin could once again be an effective piece in the rotation.

Like Tomlin, Cody Anderson was also effective in his short time in 2015. After a disastrous 2014 season that saw him post a 5.44 ERA in Double-A as a 23 year-old, Anderson rebounded in a big way in 2015. He cruised through Double-A and Triple-A before posting a 3.05 ERA over 91.1 frames in the big leagues. His peripherals suggest major regression in 2016 and beyond. With five righties above him and locked up for at least the next four years (besides Kluber who’s eligible for free agency in three years), Anderson could be a prime trade candidate for teams looking for a back-end rotation candidate with some upside.

One of the older prospects in the system, Mike Clevinger, 25, showed a lot of promise in 2015. After undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2013, Clevinger finally showed the lethal fastball-slider combination that got him so much praise in the Angels' system. Getting a guy who is almost MLB-ready as a starter for one and a half years of Vinnie Pestano was a great value for Cleveland if Clevinger can command his four pitches with consistency.

At 6’5”, 165 lbs, there might not be any player in baseball with more projection than Triston McKenzie. After dominating high school batters in his senior year, many baseball executives believed McKenzie was well on his way to Vanderbilt. After dishing out $2.3MM to the 17 year-old, he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a Major League pitcher instead. With an effortless delivery, a fastball that can already hit 93 MPH, and a changeup/curveball combination that comes out of his hand at the same speed/angle as his fastball, there’s plenty to like about McKenzie. He’ll need a lot of time to develop and hone his craft, but when he eventually makes it the Show, he could be one of the better pitchers in the league.

Future Outlook: Already a top-five unit, it could get even better

The trio of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar combined with the upside of Trevor Bauer make this a top-five pitching staff. If Bauer can ever get a better grip on his stuff, the Indians would have four frontline starters. After Kluber and Carrasco’s inevitably decline in the near future, Cleveland will hope Tristen McKenzie is ready to live up to his potential by then. Salazar and Bauer will be in their prime, McKenzie will be on the rise, Kluber and Carrasco should still be effective, and the Indians will likely have more young guns on the way by the time 2020 comes around.

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Bullpen (Present Rank: 17th | Future Rank: 30th)

Most 23rd round picks don’t make a name for themselves in the MLB. Most 23rd round picks aren’t named Cody Allen. Allen’s meteoric rise through the minor leagues has culminated in a full-time gig as Cleveland’s go-to closing pitcher. Most impressive about Allen is his consistent success. He’s appeared in at least 70 games in each of the past three years (second-most in that time span) and has never owned an ERA above 3.00. If Allen keeps this level of consistency going, he’ll be signing a monster contract when he’s eligible for free agency after the 2018 season.

Setting the table for Allen in 2016 will be Bryan Shaw and Zach McAllister. While McCallister was ineffective as a starter, he proved to be borderline dominant in his first full season as a reliever with an 11-to-3 SO/BB ratio. Shaw has a longer track record of bullpen success than both McAllister and Allen. Shaw debuted in 2011, and has been a fixture in Major League bullpens ever since. He was included in the aforementioned Bauer-Choo three-team trade from December, 2012. McAllister has one more year of team control than Shaw despite both being 28 years old.

Taking over the closer role after Allen gets his millions in free agency will likely be Shawn Armstrong. Armstrong made his debut last season finishing an Aug. 8th game against the Twins by striking out two of the three batters he faced. That was the start of what the Indians are hoping is a long, successful career. His mid-90’s heater and explosive slider will play up in the big leagues. However, his deceptive delivery prevents him from throwing strikes consistently which could hinder his development.

Relief pitchers are the most volatile position in baseball. Jeff Manship, Dan Otero, Ross Detwiler, and Joba Chamberlain are all great examples of that. Each of them have gone through some rough patches in recent seasons, but have also flashed effectiveness at times. Tommy Hunter has been solid, but ran into trouble in Chicago last year with a 5.74 ERA in 16 innings while undergoing core surgery over the offseason putting his future outlook into serious question.

Kyle Crockett will catch on with the big league roster sooner or later. He’s pitched in only 48 Major League innings over the last two years as he has split his time between the majors and minors. Crockett projects more as a lefty specialist due to the absence of an effective changeup. With the lack of southpaws in the bullpen, Crockett's presence would be valuable if he can ever stick around.  

Austin Adams has also pitched in small doses in each of the past two seasons. Adams doesn’t have much of a platoon split like Crockett, but he also doesn’t figure to be in the back end of Cleveland’s bullpen anytime soon. Jeff Johnson is another guy in Cleveland’s system to keep an eye on. However, his ceiling is limited as a middle reliever.

(EDIT: As the team is running away with the AL Central, GM Chris Antonetti prioritized a high-leverage arm at the trade deadline. He ended up landing LHP Andrew Miller from the New York Yankees (while also giving up OF Clint Frazier and LHP Justus Sheffield). Click here to know what to expect from Miller as he brings his explosive left arm to the city of Cleveland [7/31/16]).

Future Outlook: Solid now, but reinforcements will need to come later on

Cody Allen and Zach McAllister are only locked down for the next three years while Bryan Shaw’s only under control for two. Chris Antonetti knows he’ll have to find upgrades at the position in the near future. He could also help himself out by drafting players with stuff that would play up in a Major League bullpen. Meanwhile, the relievers Francona is forced to go with after he takes out the starter and before he can go to Allen, McAllister, or Shaw all have an inconsistent track record. If Cleveland finds itself in contention by midseason, expect a lefty bullpen arm to be added. Maybe two.

 

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OVERALL OUTLOOK: A few upgrades away from perennial contender

The Indians have a solid ball club as things stand right now. However, Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley are the only two position players seemingly guaranteed to perform at a high level in 2016 (if Brantley recovers from offseason shoulder surgery). Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana, and Yan Gomes could all join them, but haven't proven to be consistent contributors yet.

Cleveland carries a right-handed heavy rotation led by the triple threat of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar. The rotation is one of the strongest parts of their team, both short-term and long-term. Adding another reliable lefty to the mix would help balance things out in the rotation and bullpen. If Bauer can develop into the pitcher he has the potential to be, the Indians suddenly have a rotation that can go toe-to-toe with any team in the league.

It’s very plausible for the Indians to make the playoffs consistently over the next few years. A few upgrades here and there with catcher, outfield, and the bullpen all coming to mind would give Cleveland a legitimate chance to compete for a championship. If they can fill those holes, the commissioner's trophy could be headed back to the Rock and Roll Capital of the World for the first time since 1948.

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