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The American League champion Cleveland Indians reported to spring training with a roster that on paper was stronger than the one they used to get to the 10th inning of Game 7 of the World Series, before losing to the Chicago Cubs last year.
Because of that, there wasn't much competition for jobs in camp. It was mostly a case of monitoring the progress of the returning injured players, ramping up the healthy players for the start of the season and evaluating the progress of selected prospects that will start the season in the minor leagues, but could be summoned to the major league club during the season.
The biggest question at the start of camp was the health of All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley, who missed virtually all of the 2016 season with a shoulder condition that required two separate surgeries. The news on Brantley was good. He began playing in spring training games in late March, and there was growing optimism that he could begin the season on the major league roster or at least join the team shortly after Opening Day.
That's great news for a lineup that already was bolstered by the addition of free-agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion. Cleveland was able to sign him to a three-year, $60 million contract, to the astonishment of many, including Indians officials themselves.
Encarnacion gets plugged into the cleanup spot in the batting order, replacing Mike Napoli, who was both popular and productive hitting out of the No. 4 spot last year.
Napoli had a career year in 2016, hitting 34 home runs with 101 RBIs. However, Encarnacion, who at 34 is a year younger than Napoli, has averaged 39 home runs, 110 RBIs and a .912 OPS over the last five years. The Indians were second in the American League in runs scored last year. With the addition of Encarnacion and the return of Brantley, who in 2014 finished third in the American League MVP voting, Cleveland's offense could be even more prolific this year.
The Indians will begin the season missing one of the key members of that lineup. Second baseman Jason Kipnis will begin the season on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation. The team projects Kipnis will return to the lineup by mid-or-late April.
The loss of Kipnis in the first few weeks of the season means third baseman Jose Ramirez will likely move to second base, which was his original position as a minor leaguer. The leading candidates to replace Ramirez at third base are minor leaguers Giovanny Urshela, Yandy Diaz and Erik Gonzalez.
The pitching staff is about as good as it gets in the American League. Last year's staff led the league in strikeouts, and was second in the league with a 3.84 ERA. The starting rotation and bullpen return intact. Terry Francona, the 2016 American League Manager of the Year, is one of the most skilled bullpen handlers in the majors. He proved it last year in the playoffs, when he redefined postseason bullpen usage by using his top relievers in a variety of situations.
The Indians this year will benefit by having a full season of Andrew Miller, the midseason acquisition last year who was virtually unhittable in a combined 36 appearances for Cleveland in the regular season and postseason. Miller, who was voted the MVP of the AL Championship Series, and closer Cody Allen anchor the back of the bullpen.
"Our goal this year is to pitch them a lot without pitching them too much," Francona said. "It's a fine line."
The rotation of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin all won 11 or more games last year. Kluber, who in a combined 38 starts in the regular season and postseason, had a record of 22-10 with a 2.96 ERA. The durable Kluber has averaged 33 starts and 224 innings in each of the last three years. Whether there will be any effect from throwing a career-high 249 innings last year remains to be seen.
Carrasco was bothered by some swelling in his elbow during camp. The condition is not thought to be serious, but it did set Carrasco back a few days and Francona said Carrasco will remain in Arizona to make another start when the Indians break camp before rejoining the team.
It's possible Carrasco could start the season on the disabled list, but he would likely be back by mid-April. The Indians won't have to adjust their rotation because, due to off-days in April, they can get through the first week or so of the season with four starters.
Overall, the Indians are about as complete a team as there is in the American League. There are no glaring holes in the roster, there's a good mix of veterans and younger players who, following last year's march to Game 7 of the World Series, are battle-tested for another postseason run.
The Indians are a heavy favorite to win the Central Division, and appear to be well positioned to return to the World Series, which they haven't won since 1948.