By Tom Withers
AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND — They’ve got perhaps baseball’s deepest rotation, one of its best managers, a young, talented nucleus under contract for several more years and a dazzling shortstop with Cooperstown potential.
The Cleveland Indians appear to have it all. This might be the year they finally put it together.
“We’re going to be great,” said left fielder Michael Brantley.
As long as they hit, but more on that later.
Shaking off a poor start, the Indians, tabbed as a dark horse to win the World Series in 2015, regrouped in the season’s second half. Thanks to manager Terry Francona’s patience and persistence, Cleveland was in the thick of the playoff race until the final week. While they fell just short of making the postseason, the Indians showed grit, potential and promise of Octobers to come.
Despite numerous trade offers this winter for their starters, the Indians’ front office kept Cleveland’s roster mostly intact and added some speed (Rajai Davis), power (Mike Napoli) and a few proven arms (Dan Otero, Joba Chamberlain) to an already solid bullpen. Juan Uribe is a major upgrade at third base.
It remains to be seen if it will be enough to close the gap in the AL Central on the World Series champion Kansas City Royals, but the Indians should contend for a wild-card spot.
The Indians are lacking the big-name, right-handed bat they’ve coveted for years, but in Napoli, Carlos Santana and Yan Gomes, they have enough middle-of-the-order run producers to compensate. Brantley will likely start the season on the disabled list following offseason shoulder surgery, creating temporary holes in the lineup and left field.
There’s no doubt the starting pitching is there, with 2014 Cy Young winner Corey Kluber anchoring a staff of flame throwers who combined for more than 1,400 strikeouts last season.
Here are five things to keep in mind as the Indians, who haven’t won the World Series since 1948, take the field for their April 4 opener:
NO OFFENSE, BUT: Last season, the Indians ranked 11th in runs, 13th in homers and left more runners on base than any AL team. Their offensive ineptitude resulted in wasted pitching performances, something that can’t happen again if they plan to contend.
Napoli bolsters the middle of the order, but the Indians really need more pop from switch-hitting Carlos Santana, who excels at getting on base but would be more helpful driving in more runs (85 RBIs last two seasons).
BRANTLEY SHELVED: He didn’t meet his target date of being ready for Game 1, but the do-it-all 28-year-old should be back before May. Brantley played with an assortment of nicks last season and still batted .310 with 84 RBIs and league-leading 45 doubles. After being overlooked for far too long, he’s now regarded as one of the AL’s best corner outfielders.
The Indians will also begin the season without staring right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall. He’ll start the season on the disabled list with a wrist injury.
STRONG START: The Indians have stumbled out of the batter’s box under Francona, going just 29-45 in March and April since he took the job in 2013. Last year, Cleveland was doomed by a 7-14 record in April.
“It’s taken us too long to get into that rhythm and I’m aware of that,” Francona said. “I don’t want to beat them over the head with it every day because that’s not going to help, but it certainly would be advantageous for us to get off to a better start because we’ve had to dig ourselves out of a hole three straight years and that’s hard to do.”
GREAT EXPECTATIONS: The Indians were a trendy pick to win the World Series last year, putting unfair pressure on a young team. The spotlight was too big. Now, there’s a confidence and belief they’re ready for the next step.
“We’re going to go out and play hard,” said All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis. “That’s the best way to go about things.”
RISING (SUPER)STAR: Only 21, shortstop Francisco Lindor could be on the verge of greatness. All he did after being called up last June was bat .313, lead the AL with a .345 average in the second half, stabilize the left side of Cleveland’s infield and play with an infectious, boyish enthusiasm that rubbed off on his teammates.
“He’s strong. He’s fast. He’s 21, and he loves playing the game,” Francona said. “If I was him, I’d be having fun, too.”