As the 2019 season nears and the White Sox get ready to take on the rest of the American League, we're taking a team-by-team look at all 14 of their opponents.
The Indians have dominated the AL Central in recent seasons and are just three years removed from a trip to the World Series, just two years removed from that 22-game winning streak and a 102-win season.
But the Indians are not one of the American League's uber teams. In fact, despite having perhaps the best starting rotation in baseball, they seem to pale in comparison to the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Houston Astros. Somehow, in a weak division that features three teams that combined for more than 300 losses in 2018, it's hard to describe them as a playoff lock. They still have to enter 2019 as the favorites in the Central, but that's a status earned as much by the weak teams around them as it is by their own strength.
We'll start with the positives, though, the things that should send the Indians to a fourth straight division title, and of course that begins with the starting staff. The quintet of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber features as many as four Cy Young candidates, depending on how much you like Clevinger — and that should be a lot after his 3.02 ERA and 207 strikeouts over 200 innings in 2018. And that was the fourth, yes, fourth most strikeouts of that group. Carrasco led the way with 231 (to go along with his 3.38 ERA). Kluber was his typically amazing self with a 2.89 ERA and 222 strikeouts. And Bauer, in only 27 starts, went all the way to 221 strikeouts with a rotation-leading 2.21 ERA.
That's four potential aces, right there, and there's no rotation in the game that comes close to that.
The Indians are also the home of two of the best position players in the game: Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. Lindor will likely miss the start of the season while injured, but that doesn't strip him of his ability to mash, as he did last season when he launched 38 homers. But Ramirez was even better in 2018, challenging for the MVP with a .939 OPS, 39 homers and 105 RBIs. Those two guys are absolutely fantastic, and a better 1-2 punch than you'll find elsewhere in the AL Central.
And that's why the Indians should remain atop the division. None of the other four teams, including the Minnesota Twins, the only non-rebuilding squad of the four, have anything close to what the Indians have in their rotation and in the middle of their lineup.
Good thing for the Clevelanders, too, because the rest of this group isn't terribly imposing.
Edwin Encarnacion and his 32 homer, 107-RBI production was sent away so that Carlos Santana could come back to town, even though as an inductee of the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame he never left. Santana had eight fewer homers and 21 fewer RBIs than Encarnacion last season. The quiet steadiness Michael Brantley brought to the proceedings is now playing for one of those uber teams in Houston, and there's still nothing replacing him in the outfield. The Opening Day outfield is projected to consist of Jake Bauers (a .201 batting average as a rookie for the Tampa Bay Rays last season), Leonys Martin (a sub-.300 on-base percentage in just 133 games over the past two seasons with four different teams) and Tyler Naquin (three homers and a .287 on-base percentage in just 80 games over the past two seasons). Former Colorado Rockies MVP candidate Carlos Gonzalez was signed to a minor league deal recently. He's no longer an MVP candidate but would figure to be an upgrade to that outfield. Jason Kipnis is well removed from his glory days, with a .704 OPS over the past two seasons.
Then cast your eyes to the bullpen, where you might expect to see Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. But those two departed via free agency for the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Angels, respectively. Brad Hand is still an All-Star closer, but this is a team that had claimed the relief corps as a strength for so long, only to finish with a relief ERA of 4.60, 25th out of 30 teams.
The Indians do seem, in certain areas, a far cry from the team that was good enough to reach the World Series and rattle off that 22-game win streak. But thanks to a weak AL Central, it'd still be somewhat surprising to see them toppled from the top of the division. They have a dominant starting staff and two legitimate MVP candidates. Who can compete with that. Not the Twins. Not the rebuilding squads in Kansas City, Detroit or on the South Side of Chicago. The Indians' window might be nearing its close. But it won't slam shut this year.
2018 record: 91-71, first place in AL Central
Offseason additions: Carlos Santana, Jake Bauers, Hanley Ramirez, Kevin Plawecki
Offseason departures: Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Michael Brantley, Josh Donaldson, Lonnie Chisenhall, Melky Cabrera, Josh Tomlin, Rajai Davis
X-factor: Brad Hand made the NL All-Star team with the San Diego Padres in each of the last two seasons, sensational in 2017 and quite good again in 2018. But his numbers were even better last season after the trade that sent him to Cleveland. He posted a 2.28 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 27.2 innings with the Indians.
1. Leonys Martin, CF
2. Jason Kipnis, 2B
3. Jose Ramirez, 3B
4. Carlos Santana, 1B
5. Jake Bauers, LF
6. Hanley Ramirez, DH
7. Tyler Naquin, RF
8. Roberto Perez, C
9. Eric Stamets, SS
*Francisco Lindor, SS, expected to start the season on the IL
1. Corey Kluber
2. Trevor Bauer
3. Carlos Carrasco
4. Mike Clevinger
5. Shane Bieber
Prediction: First place in AL Central
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