Derek Falvey walked into the Twins’ dining room in Fort Myers, Fla., last week, and noticed something foreign, yet eerily familiar on the television: a Cleveland Indians game.
“I found myself watching and thinking how strange it was — wow, I haven’t watched Corey Kluber pitch all spring,” said the Twins’ new chief baseball officer, who spent most of the past decade in Cleveland’s front office. “I’ve done it so many times before, so many years. I hadn’t given [the Indians] much thought. And there he was, same as ever.”
The vignette, even two time zones away in Arizona, sort of sums up the Indians’ prospects for 2017: Kluber is still pitching, so Cleveland figures to be the same as ever. They’re runaway favorites to repeat as AL Central champions, in other words.
“When you play Game 7 of the World Series, retain most of your team and add an impact righthanded bat, it’s probably fair to say they have a good chance to win again,” Falvey said somewhat grudgingly. “They have assembled a really nice roster.”
That impact bat he mentioned is Edwin Encarnacion, a mid-lineup slugger who produced 42 homers and 127 RBI last year in Toronto — numbers that no Indians hitter since Manny Ramirez in 1999 has equaled. But the free-agent first baseman isn’t the only addition that the defending AL champions have made. Boone Logan adds lefthanded depth to a bullpen that was second-best in the AL last season. Andrew Miller, a trade-deadline acquisition, will be around to snuff rallies for a full season. Austin Jackson should replace much of the outfield defense and some of the stolen bases lost when Rajai Davis left.
And Michael Brantley, the Indians’ best hitter until a shoulder injury late in 2015 kept him sidelined for all but 11 games in 2016, could be back to further energize the Indians’ most potent offense in a decade.
“The addition of Encarnacion is great, but losing Mike Napoli is a bit of a hit for them, in terms of what he meant to the team in the clubhouse as well as on the field,” Falvey said of the cleanup hitter, who signed with Texas. “But they added a lot of additional value coming back in Encarnacion and Brantley coming back offensively, so I’m sure they feel they can absorb that loss. And then their pitching continues to be basically intact, and even augmented. So they’re going to be really good.”
Oh yeah, that pitching — Falvey’s specialty as the Indians’ assistant general manager. It starts with Kluber, who owns a Cy Young Award and finished third in the voting last year. Miller has proved to be the most versatile reliever in the game today, with a late-breaking slider that can render him unhittable. The staff also includes Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, young righthanders who give the Indians the best starting rotation in the division.
And Falvey names another factor, often underrated, for Cleveland’s ascension: the defense.
“In 2015, we began to make defense more of a focus, because we saw that as a meaningful opportunity to enhance the team, and it really played out that way,” Falvey said. “Francisco Lindor matriculated into the big leagues, which solidified the shortstop position. Jose Ramirez got to move to a better position for him defensively [at third base]. Lonnie Chisenhall went to right field, which was a better fit for him than third base. And with the pitching staff as the core, that defense really helped all the pieces fall into place.”
Speaking of falling, that’s what the rest of the AL Central seems to be doing, a factor that could simplify Cleveland’s climb. The Indians won the division by eight games in 2016, then watched their rivals act as if rosters were frozen in place. The Tigers didn’t follow through on the rumored teardown, but that means they will rely on the oldest core of key players in the majors: Miguel Cabrera, who turns 34 in April, plus Justin Verlander (34), Victor Martinez (38), Francisco Rodriguez (35) and Ian Kinsler (35 in June). And with the death of Tigers owner Mike Ilitch in February, it’s unclear whether Detroit will spend to supplement the roster.
The Royals will spend the summer hearing about the impending free agency of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain, but the trade of closer Wade Davis and the end of Kansas City’s shutdown bullpen may hurt worse. The Twins hope their young roster makes big strides, but as a 59-win season showed, there’s a long climb ahead. And the White Sox are more interested in stripping their team of traceable assets, having dealt ace lefthander Chris Sale and offensive igniter Adam Eaton, in hopes of contending in two or three years.
In other words, don’t expect much of a pennant race.
Injuries could derail the Indians, of course; Carrasco and Salazar both got hurt late last year and missed the postseason run. Already this year, Chisenhall and second baseman Jason Kipnis have been temporarily shelved by shoulder injuries. But Falvey is interested in seeing how they respond to a more personal injury, one that he feels, too: heartbreak. They reached the 10th inning of the seventh game of the World Series, about as agonizing a failure as a team could experience.
“I’ve talked to Tito [Indians manager Terry Francona] about this a bit. You really have two choices: You can keep thinking and talking about last year, or you can use it as motivation and especially a point of confidence for that team,” Falvey said. “They realize, they were there. They belonged in Game 7 of the World Series, they were that good a team. And that confidence is invaluable. They don’t hope they can get there, they know they can.”