2017 Fantasy Baseball Preview: Cleveland Indians
The Cleveland Indians’ 2016 season ended in heartbreak, but the team still went 94-67 en route to winning the AL Pennant. Most of the roster carries over from last season, with the notable exception being Edwin Encarnacion replacing Mike Napoli, who is gone via free agency. Postseason hero Rajai Davis was also signed by Oakland, but the return of Michael Brantley and the development of outfield prospects Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen should help to mitigate his loss.
Pitching remains the team’s strength, with a rotation anchored by Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar. The bullpen, led by Cody Allen, and bolstered by the trade deadline acquisition of Andrew Miller, ranked fourth in the league ERA at 3.45. Free agent signing Boone Logan, one of few pitchers who found success at Coors Field over the past two seasons, gives the team a capable LOOGY.
Not to say the Indians slouched offensively, however, as the lineup finished fifth in runs scored. Fantasy-relevant players include Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Brantley (health permitting), and Jose Ramirez. The lineup is solid from top to bottom, both at the plate and in the field. On defense, Cleveland was third in UZR/150 and ninth in DRS.
7/9 of the starting lineup bats switch or left-handed, with the exceptions being Edwin Encarnacion and Yan Gomes – and this is no coincidence. Progressive Field is an above-average environment for left-handed hitters, but a slightly below-average one from the right side. Cleveland appears primed for another deep playoff run with high-end talent and depth across the roster.
- Carlos Santana – DH
- Jason Kipnis – 2B
- Francisco Lindor – SS
- Edwin Encarnacion – 1B
- Michael Brantley – LF
- Jose Ramirez – 3B
- Lonnie Chisenhall – RF
- Yan Gomes – C
- Tyler Naquin – CF
Santana makes for an unlikely leadoff man, with 34 HR and a .259 AVG, but he gets on base. From the No. 1 spot, Santana scored 57 runs with 41 RBIs in 395 PA. Expect him to rack up counting stats again while hitting for power and a high OBP.
Star SS Francisco Lindor followed up an impressive rookie year by batting .301 with 15 HR and 19 SB. He cut down his strikeout rate from 15.8% to 12.9% while increasing his walk rate from 6.2% to 8.3% and is locked in as a top-5 SS.
The Indians made a splash by signing Edwin Encarnacion to a three year, $60M contract. His slight decline in performance was masked by a career high 702 PA, while Encarnacion’s strikeout rate crept up to 19.7% – his highest rate since 2009. At 34 years old, we may not see another peak season, but he’s a good bet for 30-35 HRs with a strong OBP.
Jose Ramirez did his best Lindor impression at the plate, batting .312 with 11 HR and 22 SB. Many are writing off last season as a fluke, but the underlying skills are there to repeat.
- Corey Kluber
- Carlos Carrasco
- Trevor Bauer
- Josh Tomlin
- Danny Salazar
Last week’s injury scare seems to be behind Carlos Carrasco, so he remains a high-end No. 2 pitcher. His strikeout (27.5%) and walk (5.7%) rates over the past three seasons are right among the elite pitchers, though Carrasco gives up more hard contact. He’s still a very good pitcher if he can remain mostly healthy.
Danny Salazar also battled injuries last season and saw his walk rate spike to 10.8% from 7.0% in 2015. His strikeout rate was still among the best in the league (27.6%), and his 2015 stat line is a reasonable expectation with a clean slate of health.
The lowest walk rate among qualified SP last season belonged to Josh Tomlin. He also ranked second overall in spin rate (2,483 RPM). A low strikeout rate and high hard contact rate capped his value last season though, and unless something changes, Tomlin isn’t much more than a streamer.
- Cody Allen – CL
- Andrew Miller – SU
- Bryan Shaw – SU
- Boone Logan – MR
- Dan Otero – MR
- Zach McAllister – MR
- Hoby Milner – LR
Cody Allen held onto the closer role even after the acquisition of Andrew Miller last season, striking out 33% of batters he faced, while keeping his ERA under 3.00 for the fourth year in a row. Worth considering: his velocity declined for the second straight year, from 95.3 MPH in 2014 to 94.2 MPH in 2016.
Speaking of Miller, the best RP in baseball struck out an insane 44.7% of batters he faced while walking just 3.3%. Terry Francona prefers to use him in a fireman role, so he should steal 5-15 saves from Allen, but a 1.45 ERA and 0.69 WHIP are valuable in any league, even if he isn’t a standard closer. Boone Logan should be a strong source of holds since he’ll often face left-handed batters in the late innings. Bryan Shaw, Dan Otero, and Zach McAllister aren’t fantasy relevant outside of deep formats and holds leagues, where each can help in ERA and WHIP.
Stud: Corey Kluber (SP)
What more is there to say about Corey Kluber? He threw 215+ innings for the third straight season with the sixth-best strikeout rate (27.5%), 25th best walk rate, 13th best ERA (3.01), and fourth best FIP (2.84) over that time span.
There’s few pitchers you can draft and bank on high-end production over the full season, but Kluber is a safe investment. The only red flags are a 1.3% drop in strikeout rate and 1.5% increase in walk rate between 2015-16, but offense was up across the league last season and Kluber’s plate discipline and batted ball profiles were approximately the same.
Bounce-Back Candidate: Michael Brantley (OF)
Just three years ago, Michael Brantley finished third in AL MVP voting, slashing .327/.385/.506 with 20 HRs and 23 SBs. He followed that up in 2015 with a .310/.379/.480 line, 15 HRs, and 15 SBs. A shoulder injury kept him out of all but 11 games last season, but his recovery has been promising this offseason.
Brantley is unlikely ever to hit 20 HRs again, but if he can stay on the field, should be a good source of AVG while chipping in a few HRs and SBs. ZiPS projects a .292/.353/.443 slash rate with 9 HRs and 11 SBs in 399 PA, which could even be conservative estimate, provided there aren’t anymore setbacks with Brantley’s shoulder.
Sleeper: Trevor Bauer (SP)
As illuminated by his own Twitter account, Bauer increased his percentage of pitches in the strike zone for the fourth straight season. 2016 marked the first time he beat the MLB average in that category, and as a result, his walk rate was the lowest of his career. He improved his spin rate from 2,170 RPM in 2015 to 2,261 RPM in 2016, 34th among pitchers who threw at least 2,000 pitches. Bauer’s GB% also jumped from 39.2% to 48.7% from 2015-16.
Still just 26 years old, Bauer hasn’t quite lived up to his #3 overall draft selection, but the incremental improvements are promising. The stuff has always been there, but inconsistency and poor command have held Bauer back. If the upward trajectory continues, a breakout season could be in the works.
Bust: Jason Kipnis (2B)
Kipnis is already expected to miss the first four-to-five weeks of the season with a shoulder injury, but he could disappoint even upon his return. He set career highs in HR, FB%, and HR/FB% last season, but even if those gains at age 29 were legitimate, shoulder injuries have been known to sap power. Additionally, from 2012-14, Kipnis averaged 27.7 SB per season, but that number has dipped to 13.5 over 2015-16.
With waning speed, and power that was likely to regress even with good health, Kipnis made for a risky pick even before his injury. He should still bat above .270 with some power and speed, but that production can be found much later in the draft.
Late-Round Flier: Yan Gomes (C)
Over the past two seasons, Gomes battled injuries and slashed a weak .205/.240/.365 over 653 PA. However, there remains some hope that he can return closer to 2013-14 levels of .284/.325/.476. Andrew Perpetua of FanGraphs noted that Gomes has seen his normal exit velocity just briefly between injuries over 2015-16, but the glimpses indicate his production could rebound with prolonged health.
There’s still 15-20 HR power lurking, as Gomes’ 5.5% Brls/BBE, which is a strong predictor of HR/FB rate, placed him one spot above Mookie Betts among players with at least 150 batted ball events last season. How’s that for cherry-picking? This mark was still below-average, but it’s impressive considering the injuries. 2017 could look like 15 HR with a .240+ AVG, which would make for sneaky value at catcher in deep or AL-only leagues.
Prospect to Watch: Bradley Zimmer (OF)
Zimmer struggled at points last season, but still offers an intriguing blend of power and speed with 15 HR and 33 SB between Double-A and Triple-A. However, he also struck out 28.3% of the time in Double-A, which rose to 37.1% in AAA.
In 52 Spring Training PA, Zimmer is batting .348/.404/.646 with 3 HR and 4 SB, offering a glimpse at his upside. Spring Training stats don’t have much predictive value, but what’s promising is that Zimmer has struck out just 11 times, for a 21.2% strikeout rate, indicating a better approach at the plate.
If the strikeouts can stay down, MLB.com’s 30th ranked prospect could do some damage at the plate. Something like 2016 Keon Broxton (.242/.354/430, 9 HR, 23 SB in 244 PA) with slightly less speed is within the realm of possibility. Greg Allen and Yandy Diaz are other names to watch for 2017.
Alex Isherwood is a correspondent at FantasyPros. For more from Alex, check out his archive.