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Remind Me Again... Why Aren't The Indians World Series Favorites?

I get it. With the Los Angeles Dodgers sitting at 50 games over .500, it's a tough sell to say the Cleveland Indians are having the best 2017. Despite five straight losses, L.A. is still able to surpass 100 wins before the NFL's opening weekend kicks off. The calendar just hit September and yet their run differential is unthinkably +209. Take a moment to wrap your head around that one. The Dodgers are accomplishing all of this in a year where the game's undisputed best pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, has missed five weeks with a bad back. He returns to the hill today, meaning one of the biggest World Series favorites in some time is going to get better. 

Over in the American League, the Houston Astros are no slouch. They are right on schedule for their predicted emergence into dynasty mode. Fueled by Hurricane Harvey's recent devastation, the Astros will likely receive a sentimental boost to their already stellar title chances -- a la the 2009 New Orleans Saints. They are going to play harder than ever for their city and the fans in attendance will become a postseason X factor. Not that they need it; Houston's video game numbers lead all of baseball in runs per game (5.52) and team batting average (.284). Oh, almost failed to mention, they just rented Justin Verlander.  

Stumbling but not forgotten, the Boston Red Sox are exactly what they've been for the better part of a decade and a half. And the New York Yankees are back to being the Yankees, albeit as a Wild Card. The salivating over a potential Yankees/Red Sox ALCS has already begun in both towns -- along with a few FOX Broadcasting Company board rooms. 

There are others that would like to have a say about that. The consensus best player on the planet (Mike Trout) might finally carry his Island of Misfit Toys (that other Los Angeles ballclub) into the playoff(s). With the personnel they consistently roll out, an Angels Wild Card berth should earn Trout the most-deserving MVP Award ever bestowed. To do so, he'll have to jump over the hard-charging Twins and fend off the Orioles, Rangers, Rays, Mariners, and Royals -- all of whom were written off for dead, yet somehow find themselves within 4 1/2 games of the second WC spot. 

Meanwhile in the National League, the Wild Card combatants have been penciled in since May -- the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies. Thanks to the Dodgers, the two have known their fate for most of the summer; the success of the entire season hinging on a single game against a familiar opponent. It is sure to be must-see entertainment, with two slow-pitch softball offenses (and potential uniform selections) squaring off in the desert. 

Beyond all the NL West talk, the Washington Nationals have three legitimate Cy Young candidates (Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez) and a ho-hum 15-game lead in their division. They have to figure out how to win a postseason series one of these years, right? 

And, on top of all those great teams and year-long headlines, the reigning World Champions are closing in on a return to the tournament. Of the current division leaders, however, the Cubs are strangely absent from weekly discussions about true contenders. Part of this is how well the teams out east (Nationals) and west (Dodgers, Rockies, D-Backs) have been doing. Chicago did themselves no favors. It took a long, long time -- and a lot of help from a poor NL Central -- to finally get the hungover ship back on course.  

The other part is due to historic averages. When you go 108 years between titles, there is a supposition that the next one can't possibly come the following year. And this thought doesn't exist just because it's the Cubs. Technically speaking, there haven't been back-to-back MLB champions in this millennium. The last occurrence was a "three-peat" in 1998, 1999, and 2000 (Yankees); in an era before the effects of revenue sharing really took hold. Now we have expanded the parity -- with two more Wild Card participants -- making it even tougher to complete the task.    

It's hard enough to get one these days. The Dodgers could very well win 72% of their games this season, but if they fail to win three of their first five in early October, the entire ride could abruptly end. Arizona's 90-win season could last two whole days longer than that of 60-win Philadelphia. It's strange to say the least; the most robust American professional sports schedule, with a playoff that drastically changes its challenge. Call it a 162-day class with the final exam drawn up by a substitute. Those are the uncertain circumstances that all knowingly and willingly take on. 

In any event, it's been a great year to be a baseball fan. Without debate, it will be as loaded an MLB postseason has ever been. Thanks to additional entrants, you'll have blue-bloods and bitter division rivals; nearly every large television market and star power galore. We might even get treated to multiple one-game tiebreakers as an appetizer. If the playoffs are indicative of the health of the game, 2017 should be a feather-in-the-cap moment for the league. 

You could argue that the only way the outcome is at all tarnished is if little ol' Cleveland wins the whole thing. They won't have a top-five MVP candidate, nor many big names that roll off the casual viewer's tongue. They won't be a ratings boost, since they aren't based in a major market. They won't provide networks with the sexy storyline of a historic record (Dodgers), possibility of repeat champion (Cubs), chance for a first-timer (Nationals and Astros), return to glory (Yankees), becoming the first-ever team to make the playoffs after losing 100+ games the year before (Twins), or the cementing of best team so far this century (Red Sox). Aside from a pretty cool collection of baseball dolls, this year's Indians club has only marketable angle: their 68 straight years of falling short -- the top active streak thanks to Chicago in 2016. What a terrible way to get people to pay attention to you. 

In essence, this Cleveland team is not unlike the 2005 White Sox. They will enter the playoffs as the only qualifier the nonpartisan masses won't particularly care to see. And to that I say, "Screw the ratings and [MLB commissioner] Rob Manfred's best interests. I just want to finally celebrate." Even though that '05 Chicago squad is, by far, the most forgettable World Champion in my lifetime, no one can take away that title/trophy/banner/ring. 

Only 15 teams ended their seasons unsatisfied in 1920 and 1948. Just this once, can we please have 29 other fan bases feel underwhelmed as Cleveland loses its collective mind? It's been long enough to go without that smugness.  

New Challenges They Will Be Up Against:
  • Starting over from scratch
Not much carries over on the new path to the same goal. Starting back up that mountain -- with all past accomplishments reset to a 0-0 record in April -- is far too daunting for the average professional athlete. You need an extraordinary group of hungry young men to break camp truly wanting another go at it. Cleveland now has that. But playing 360 competitive (and 33 exhibition) baseball games in 19 months becomes tough to swallow if the summit is never reached. 

Contrary to the idiom that is commonly heard, windows don't close on sports teams. More often times, it's a case of fatigued sails losing the wind easier than they used to. The window is wide open for this organization. But that doesn't mean they'll have the requisite energy to expel this year. Every pitch Corey Kluber threw last October -- that in the grand scheme was for "nothing" -- is one less he'll have at the end of his career. Almost reaching a goal, but coming up empty, drains the life out of any attempts that immediately follow. Recent history showed us it's almost better to miss the next postseason altogether and recharge the batteries (see: the 2010-2014 San Francisco Giants).

The science and the psychology bear it out: playing deep into October, but not winning it all yet again, will make it even harder for the Indians to hoist the trophy in 2018. It's just too much baseball without getting a taste of that addictive, drug-like exaltation -- the type that can drown out weariness and fuel a desire to do it again. That "hit" is vital to sustain this quantity of games year after year. It's what makes those 1990-93 Buffalo Bills teams freaks of nature to keep coming back.
  • With World Series home-field advantage now going to the ALCS/NLCS winner with the better record (the way God intended), odds are the Indians would start Game 1 on the road
2017 marks the first time in the Fall Classic's illustrious 113-year history that home and road isn't either on an annual rotation or tethered to the result of the All-Star Game. The NL Central winner, or the league's second Wild Card team, would have to go on a serious Cinderella run for that to change. That means no Game 7 at home -- not that it worked all that well last year. 
  • Since 2001, only three teams have won back-to-back pennants
The teams to achieve this feat experienced three unique World Series outcomes: Win/Lose - Philadelphia Phillies (2008-09), Lose/Lose - Texas Rangers (2010-11), Lose/Win - Kansas City Royals (2014-15). In that time, no one has captured the elusive Win/Win.
    That period includes 30 modern World Series participants (28 opportunities for back-to-back pennant winners) and a repeat occurred at a frequency of only 10.7%. A return trip -- especially by the previous year's losing side -- is rarely as periodic as fans would like. Ask members of the '98 Padres, '05 Astros, '07 Rockies, or '08 Rays how many of those subsequent World Series they thought their team would be a part of. If you're all-in, you better get that ring. Free agency's a you-know-what. 
    • Being yesterday's news
    When the average fan loses his/her dog in the fight, each World Series navigates a fine line between "apathetic traditionalist using games as background noise" and "bandwagon passenger glued to the TV screen". The Tribe's charismatic style of play took quite a few adopted fans on a fun ride last year. They run the risk of be played out this October. 

    In all sports, neutral observers gravitate towards new blood and get annoyed by the things they found endearing in the past. The 2004 Red Sox were fun to watch; three years later, they were irritating. I'd say the exact same thing about the Royals. 2014 was admittedly a thrill, even though they are division rivals. After 2015's title, however, they moved to public enemy #1. It's just how it goes.  
    • An atrocious interleague record of 6-14 
    Thankfully, of the 11 postseason victories necessary to lift the Commissioner's Trophy, only four are required against the Senior Circuit. However, you could easily spin that negative by saying the Indians would have a league-best .625 win percentage if schedules never crossed over. Their 70 wins against the American League are the most in baseball. That sneaky dominance over the AL -- paired with the 5-1 record they have against the Astros -- is what gives fans confidence that back-to-back pennants are the minimum expectation for this October.
    • A ton of smaller injuries vs. a few big ones
    A preposterous quantity -- seven -- established major leaguers began this week on Cleveland's disabled list: Abraham Almonte, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin, Andrew Miller, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis, and Michael Brantley. Thankfully, not a one of them was officially logged on anything greater than the 10-day registry. It sure beats having smaller volume but longer timetables for return. At roughly the same time last year, several key pieces were already shut down for the rest of the season. I'll trade a few guys banged up in August for not having to go through that again.

    The negative byproduct of all these reinforcements -- combined with today's roster expansion -- is altered chemistry. After all, there are only nine spots on the lineup card available for manager Terry Francona. Note: If there is a positive to glean from having injuries it is a playoff-roster loophole. The limit is 25 guys, but you can add any inactive players that appear on the DL near the end of September. In theory, Cleveland could carry 26 or 27 bodies into the ALDS; banking on the extras to get healthy during that series.    

    In the interim, the Indians have won 28 of their last 39 games; seven in a row. They've mostly done this without Kipnis, Tomlin, Chisenhall, and Brantley. Do those guys jump the line and immediately supplant those that have filled in so well? The last time Chisenhall (July 9), Tomlin (July 30), and Brantley (August 8) saw game action, Jay Bruce was a New York Met. Bruce's torrid start to his Tribe career won't affect Josh Tomlin much, but what will it do to the playing time of the others?  

    Part of the equation might have already played itself out. I believe this Michael Brantley injury is more serious than everyone is leading on. If you read his lips, during the telecast on August 8, he clearly says to the trainer, "I heard it pop." That sure doesn't sound like the run-of-the-mill ankle sprain. I hate to say it, but superhero "Dr. Smooth" might have an alter-ego named "Mr. Glass Man". 

    Another telling sign is that Chisenhall is playing an unfamiliar left field (zero career MLB games) in some of his recent minor-league rehab assignments. Do not be surprised if that is preparation for Brantley being sidelined for yet another stretch run. I love his talent, but I'll believe he is healthy enough to play his second career playoff game when I see it.

    PART II:

    Assuming the other six injured players return -- and no new names are lost for the season -- let's take a look at where upgrades, downgrades, and similarities might exist between Cleveland's 2016 playoff run and the one upcoming.

    Good 2016 Postseason Numbers That Are Not Likely Replicated:
    • (.163) opponent's batting average for Cody Allen
    Baseball is slow to own up to the fact that closers have a short shelf life. Unless you have one of the top five guys in the league at any one time, all you really have is a specialized game finisher. A "closer" is an over-hyped (and overpaid) product of the deck being stacked in a pitcher's favor. Register three outs before you give up three runs? Sounds easy enough to do 90% of the time. The top 3 starters on all 30 clubs could do that with similar, if not better, effectiveness. Fine folks with credible publications have cataloged this topic for decades.    

    The '90s and early '00s opened Pandora's Box; making the closer and his saves super fashionable. But not all ballclubs had a Trevor Hoffman or Mariano Rivera to justify the moniker. If you're bored, look up what happened to the shimmering careers of John Axford, Matt Capps, B.J. Ryan, Heathcliff Slocumb, Leo Nunez/Juan Carlos Oviedo, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Chad Cordero, Glen Perkins, and now Sam Dyson (with Aroldis Chapman not far behind). I could have included dozens more. Take note of the age and point in their MLB tenure when those pitchers recorded their last 20-save season. 

    Since it became the norm to use three or four All-Star selections on each league's mid-season save leaders, the excellence of closers has been further skewed. At a minimum, Huston Street is going to end his career with the thirteenth-most saves in MLB history (331). The 33 year-old could crack the all-time top-ten list with a mere 44 more. Ask yourself if that would pass the eye test for greatest relievers you've ever watched. 

    My philosophy is that every team should swap out a closer after three or four seasons of work. Groom the next guy in AAA and have him ready for when the league catches up to the current man in the role. Something the St. Louis Cardinals have done well this decade is play hot potato with the job title. They catch lightning in a bottle and appreciate it for what it is: a fleeting commodity. From 2009 to 2016, they bounced from Ryan Franklin to Fernando Salas to Jason Motte to Edward Mujica to Trevor Rosenthal to Seung-hwan Oh. They milked that garbage heap of spare parts for 280 saves, three All-Star appearances, and two NL pennants -- in a span of just eight years.   

    So why does it go south? Some can blame their age; either reclamation projects after a starter's role doesn't pan out, or the trendy play of bringing over a veteran from Japan/Korea. More often times, however, the high frequency of use is what exposes their weaknesses. A majority of relievers only have two quality pitches, meaning pitch sequences are limited in their variance. Three years in and every hitting coach in the bigs has the book on your tendencies. It's what gives closers a shorter serviceable lifespan than the modern-day NFL running back. 

    These days, the exception to this longevity-robbing rule centers around either throwing 100+ MPH, possessing a once-in-a-generation pitch, or having a deceptive quirk (i.e. sidearm). This is apropos in a section about Cody Allen. He has none of those things going for him. Thus, you might not know it, but we are in the midst of his downturn. Toss out his late-season call-up in 2012, this year he is on pace to set career worsts in losses, blown saves, home runs surrendered, hit batters, WHIP, ERA, and opponent's batting average. In short, this 28 year-old -- by his choice of specialized profession -- is already beyond his best days.  

    Thankfully, Allen pitches for the league's most progressive (or old-school, however you wish to judge) manager in regards to back-end bullpen roles. The last Indians pitcher in a tight victory is not necessarily the highest-leverage reliever. And the historic numbers back it up. The win probability of a team entering the ninth inning -- with a lead of any size -- was 95% in 1901 and this figure has remained unchanged (+/- 2%) each and every season over the last 100 years. "Tito" Francona grasps this better than anyone in the game. The true save could come in the form of a hold, long before the other team's final at-bats.  

    With Andrew Miller's acquisition, Francona has returned baseball to the Goose Gossage era of "firemen" relievers. Cleveland's 6-foot-7 lefty enters at the first sign of trouble, and stays as long as it takes. Francona doesn't let the framework of an inning or a silly stat dictate his decisions. Second and third, one out in the seventh can be a bigger pressure cooker than any scenario in the ninth.   

    The fresh inning is everything. Those not willing to bring in a guy in for a four- or five-out save clearly don't trust that the closer is the best bullpen arm available. Inherited runners, tie games, and even deficits were not uncommon scenarios to greet the top relievers of the '70s and '80s. The new-school closer -- including Allen -- seemingly requires all the parameters to be neat and tidy for his arrival. We're talking WWE-style entrance music, empty bases, and (statistically-speaking) a foregone conclusion. Without the ideal conditions, closers are exposed as human. Or worse... league-minimum middle relievers masquerading. This explains why a majority of guys currently holding the role are notoriously terrible in games on the road and/or tied; the smoke and mirror bravado of "showtime" is stripped away. 

    It wasn't long ago that Allen was asked to throw multiple innings frequently -- six times in Cleveland's 15 playoff games. He went a minimum of 1 1/3 IP to earn three of his six postseason saves; inheriting baserunners in four of his ten October appearances. I just can't see that being the case this time around. Allen's simply not the same man.     

    I hope I'm wrong, but expect to see Allen's batting average against (BAA) above .200 this postseason. The funny thing is, he might still repeat his 6-for-6 save performance of last October. That's how gimmicky the stat can be; how protected a closer is in his circumstances. Francona could extinguish the real fire with others and still present Allen with a clean-slate opportunity at final-out glory. Everyone can leave happy.       
    • (7) stolen bases by the team
    Anytime you lose a Rajai Davis' 391 career stolen bases (average of nearly 34 per season), the team's running game is going to take a step back. Davis led the big leagues with his 43 swiped bags in 2016, with a team-high four SB in the postseason. Coco Crisp and Mike Napoli (yes, Mike Napoli) were tied for second on the club in playoff larceny, and they are also gone.

    So who is left to steal bases? You could point to Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Jason Kipnis as guys with career numbers to support a claim. For various reasons, each isn't running as much this year.

    Thanks to a power surge (25 HR), Francisco Lindor is attempting steals at half his usual rate: 24 SBA in 2016, only 12 so far this year. The same is true of Jose Ramirez: 29 SBA in 2016, only 17 this year. The reason for the latter drop off can be attributed to position in the batting order. Ramirez was typically a small-ball, top-of-the-order guy last season. In 2017, he's consistently hit between third and fifth; not exactly prime base-stealing territory. It is the negative side effect of burying team speed in the heart of the lineup. 

    If able to perform, Michael Brantley is third on this current roster in steals, but is highly unlikely to risk further injury or precious postseason outs challenging opposing catchers. With Jason Kipnis' lingering hamstring issues, he'll be an equal station-to-station baserunner. That's yet another sports car -- 120 career stolen bases, or roughly 18 per year -- that'll have the brakes permanently activated.

    As if the pressure on Bradley Zimmer hasn't already hit critical mass, it now appears the rookie (and current team leader in stolen bases) will be asked to attempt a majority of the October steals. Expect more players going from first-to-third on singles, but seven postseason steals aren't realistic. They'll have to win games another way. 
    • (30) strikeouts for Andrew Miller 
    This ain't just the right-knee tendinitis talking... Miller's record 13.97 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) might never be matched by anyone in a single postseason ever again. Saying this number will fall isn't going out on a limb. That being said, the reason I'm implying sure is. 

    Injured or not, opponents have laid off that infamous wipe-out slider this year. It is the double-edge sword of getting all sorts of publicity on national telecasts all October. The talking heads with TBS and FOX broke down Andrew Miller's pitches ad nauseam; specifically how many sliders were chased outside of the zone. It appears that more right-handed hitters are expecting it first pitch -- either sitting on it and taking it for a ride, or leaving it low. 

    This feeling is bearing itself out with cold hard facts. Miller's 2017 strikeout rate is down 1.9 per nine innings, with a walk rate that is up 1.7 per nine -- compared to his lofty 2016 regular season. Regression to the mean was bound to occur, while the knee tendinitis has been an unforeseen accelerant.   

    That's not suggesting Miller is anywhere close to scrub level; the All-Star will still be the best bullpen option for Terry Francona. If anything, the ever-evolving league and chance injuries will light a fire under him when he gets back. Expect a similar ten appearances and 19.1 innings pitched this postseason. Just temper the expectations on the volume strikeouts and a repeat ALCS MVP performance. Remember, batted outs count the same on the quest for a title. 
    • (3) home runs from Roberto Perez
    You want to talk about fluke things that occurred last postseason? Consider this: Roberto Perez recently hit his third home run of the 2017 season -- in 161 at-bats. It only took him 43 AB to hit that same mark last October. 

    It's tough to imagine his career slash line ever growing out of its current .216/.312/.345 rut. His lifetime average is 0.32 RBI for every game played. In short, he is what he is. And that's fine for a back-up catcher -- one who is used almost exclusively for his pitch calling ability with guys who won't see much action this October. It attests that anyone can pick the postseason to play the hero. 

    Barring another Yan Gomes injury, Perez won't have a chance to repeat his 3 HR, 7 RBI, 7 BB playoff performance from a year ago. Then again, odds are neither could duplicate those numbers independently; both are susceptible to frequent patches of automatic outs. A repeat in playoff-caliber offensive production -- from Cleveland's catcher position -- will have to come from both contributing. 

    To their credit, Gomes and Perez have combined for a great last two weeks: .275 AVG, 4 HR, 18 RBI. The trouble is, how do you predict which catcher will be the better option on a given night? A two-hit performance could end up buried on the bench, while the 0-for-4 gets the start in a pivotal game. You just never know with baseball. 
    • (89) wins for their opponent in the American League Championship Series 
    Last year's AL Wild Card Game winner, the Toronto Blue Jays, parlayed their one-game "series" win over Baltimore into quite the unexpected playoff winning streak. The four seed in the tournament then upset the 95-win Texas Rangers in a similar ALDS sweep. There are a few reasons why that theme won't continue in 201: (a) The top team in the American League will reside in Texas once again, but this version will be far tougher to knock out in the first round. And (b), 2017's Wild Card winner won't be nearly as good as Toronto was in 2016. 

    For starters, this year's Houston Astros are on a collision course with a 100-win season and a +180 run differential. The 2016 Rangers carried an abysmal +8 run differential into the playoffs -- barely good enough for fourteenth-best in all of baseball. They were an apparition; the Astros are for real. And, ho hum, they just added Justin Verlander. 

    As for this year's AL Wild Card, the ceiling for both is more in the range of 83-86 wins. Additionally, playoff experience will not be an asset for the league's fourth or fifth seed. Whether it's the Yankees, Angels, Mariners or Twins, recent postseason absences should provide the Astros with yet another sizable advantage. Even with the lauded Yankees in that quartet, the current top Wild Card contenders haven't won a single playoff game since Game 5 of the 2012 ALCS. 

    If this October holds a Wild Card victory for Minnesota, it will be their first win in over a decade (Game 1, 2004 ALDS). It's been even longer for Seattle. Their record-tying 116-win team stubbed its toe in the 2001 ALCS and they haven't returned to the playoffs since. Take note, 2017 Dodgers.           

    With all these variables, the 2017 ALCS is all but certain to include Houston. And they could have more regular-season wins than 89 wins by the end of next week. 
    • (1) win in Fenway Park being good enough to take the ALDS
    This Boston team is a tough team to peg. Their winning percentage (.568) is not far off their 2016 clip (.574), but they are amassing wins in a very different way. Signing perennial Cy Young candidate, Chris Sale, has obviously made their starting pitching light years better -- against everyone except the Indians, apparently. But losing "Big Papi" (David Ortiz) to retirement has killed their home-run production. The Red Sox are hitting 1.06 HR per game -- down from 1.28 last year. This is especially odd because the league is set to shatter nearly every home-run record in the books. 

    Alas, the key acquisition and departure canceled each other out; creating a club that doesn't have much power, but kills you with a thousand paper cuts and stingier pitching. It goes to show there are many roads one can take to get back to the same locations -- in this case, Progressive Field and Fenway Park for another ALDS. That's not to say a Cleveland series victory will come as freely.

    Two years ago, almost to the day, I texted a friend, "If the Royals win it all this year, it will be because of the Ben Zobrist pick-up." The super-versatile, top-of-the-lineup hitter proved to be the difference maker for Kansas City's championship. The trade-deadline move pushed a good roster to great, one year after a runner-up finish. I feel like the replacement of a few proper nouns makes my initial text equally true in 2017: Red Sox and Eduardo Nunez.

    Since he was brought in from the Giants on July 25, Nunez is slugging .563 (7 HR in 29 games) to go with his .320 batting average and a Swiss Army glove. The 30 year-old former All-Star is certainly not Papi, but along with rookie call-up Rafael Devers, he's been an injection of life into an offense that would otherwise be listless.  

    Look for a vastly different postseason series this October, due in large part to the pitching match-ups. No disrespect to Clay Buchholz and Josh Tomlin, but this year, the varsity squads are ready to go. Corey Kluber vs. Chris Sale and Carlos Carrasco vs. Drew Pomeranz are sure things. It gets really interesting when Games 3 and 4 roll around. Both clubs have plenty of options. For Cleveland, you have Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, and Mike Clevinger; Boston's pool contains Eduardo Rodriguez, Rick Porcello, David Price, and Doug Fister. 

    As strange as it may sound, the dumbest moves Boston could make involve starting two pitchers that they spent $299.5 million to go out and get. This particular duo has five All-Star appearances, two Cy Young Awards, and (if Boston is smart) shouldn't see an inning of October baseball -- unless it's on TV at their house. I'm, of course, talking about David Price and Rick Porcello. 

    Far too busy feuding with legendary pitcher Dennis Eckersley, berating New England media, and tweeting really dark, self-deprecating "humor", Price has been more of a distraction than pitcher this season. He missed the first 49 games with an elbow strain, and is now back on the DL with inflammation in that same left elbow. Team sources swear Price will be ready for late September and October, but his conservative throwing program just recently allowed him to make throws up to 120 feet. It could be some time before he's medically cleared to rejoin the club, if at all. 

    Even if he was having a superb, healthy, drama-free season, would manager John Farrell really count on him? Price's career postseason stats -- as a starter -- are well documented (and dreadful): 1-8 record, 6.00 ERA, and 11 HR surrendered in 10 starts. Talk about a crapshoot. Add in the fact that Price might only have one or two regular-season starts to test his effectiveness and strength. 

    As for Porcello, regression to the mean is the simplest explanation for what we've seen out of him this season. From his rookie year in Detroit (2009) through the end of his first season in Boston (2015), he compiled a modest career record of 85-78 with a 4.39 ERA. Then, completely out of nowhere, one stellar season of 22-4 and 3.15 flashed their way into the pan. The anomaly was good enough to capture the 2016 American League Cy Young. 

    To even out his career statistics, 2017 has been especially unkind to Porcello: only nine wins to 15 losses, 4.45 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, with batters hitting .284 against him. The 205 hits surrendered by Porcello are the most in baseball; 32 have left the ballpark. Now I know everyone is tallying more home runs in 2017, but this is extreme. It wasn't that long ago that he gave up 34 HR over the span of two full seasons (2012-13). In short, Porcello would have to be Farrell's last choice to start an ALDS game. Well, second to last.    

    Indians fans should be hoping for a speedy recovery for Price and faith restored in Porcello. I, for one, fear journeyman Doug Fister (80-83 career record, 3-7 this year) more than Price (126-68, 5-3). That looks so bizarre written down, but it is justifiable. In a scheduling oddity, the two teams recently packed a season's worth of inter-division contests into 3 1/2 weeks. Fister started three of the seven games, dominating the Tribe in two of them. His most-recent outing was a complete game one-hitter. The Red Sox should ride his hot hand against Cleveland in Game 3. 

    Though it looks promising now, home-field advantage for this hypothetical series should again come down to the regular-season's final weekend. With the head-to-head tiebreaker lost 4-3, let's play out a worst-case scenario where Boston hosts Games 1, 2, and 5. The Red Sox have no reason not to go with Sale and Pomeranz, in that order. The latter has owned the club that drafted him fifth overall (2-0, 1.69 ERA lifetime vs. Cleveland), while the former cannot buy a victory against the Indians (5-8, 4.78). Knowing that, you would safely assume the series is 1-1 as it switches venues. 

    Back in Cleveland for Games 3 and 4, expect anything. If the series is tied, I'd put my money on Bauer vs. Rodriguez followed by uncertainty and mayhem -- a decision as close to the start of Game 4 as each manager can legally provide. Farrell, a former big-league pitcher and pitching coach, will try to change the match-ups later in the series -- like an NHL coach trying to get his star player away from the opponent's bruising fourth line. In this metaphor, that immovable force is Kluber. Don't be surprised to see Sale on short rest in Game 4, if for no other reason than to get him out of a second head-to-head with Cleveland's ace. Given the track record, they would gladly take their odds of Pomeranz back at home in a potential Game 5.   

    If Price or Porcello is entrusted to start Game 4, Cleveland could get away with a single victory in Fenway. Beat Rodriguez and Price/Porcello at home and be done in four. But don't get your hopes up. I don't think either will be given the ball in any situation other than middle relief. Game 4 will be Salazar vs. Sale or Fister. In other words, look for this year's ALDS to go an epic five games -- calling upon Kluber to win twice in Boston. If anyone can do it, it's the guy wearing 28 for the Indians.  

    Good 2016 Postseason Numbers That Are Plausible To See Again:
    • (15) hits out of Jose Ramirez in 15 games played
    What a story this "kid" has been. In college football terms, Ramirez is the equivalent of a walk-on in a fifth-year senior season; still on the team because he's exceeded expectations at every turn. Picked up as an amateur free agent in 2009, the 17 year-old was toiling around in the then-unknown Dominican Prospect League -- an organization founded the year of Ramirez's only season. To say the start-up had a rocky inauguration is an understatement. The preeminent talent in that Caribbean nation was already playing elsewhere (Arizona Fall League, Mexican Pacific League, Puerto Rican League, and others). So, when Ramirez dominated nameless local competition, the Indians weren't really sure what they were getting. 

    What they got was a play-anywhere jitterbug whose career slash line is now .284/.339/.442. Ramirez is averaging 1.18 hits per game this year; up from 1.16 hits per game in 2016. There's no reason to doubt a 200-hit season -- 1.25 hits over 160 games -- is waiting for him somewhere on the horizon. Remember, the darling of the 2017 All-Star Game is a deceivingly speedy switch-hitter who is only 24. 

    As for the playoffs, it's well within his skill set to hit his way on each October/November game. Expect a few of those to be doubles for Ramirez. Over the span of the last two seasons, his 89 two-baggers are the most in either league.    
    • (.741) OPS from Jason Kipnis
    As a fan, you have to believe the playoffs will be the reset button he's been looking for. This lost season is what it is: a meager 79 games played, a lifetime-low .228 AVG, the only year of his career below .300 OBP -- and it's not even close (.285). That doesn't mean squat in October. Soon, Kipnis will get the chance to shake the Etch-A-Sketch that is 2017's regular-season. Like the team's overall record, all his stats revert to a blank screen. 

    Given his current roller coaster season, it's doubtful he'll lead the team with his four postseason home runs. But the Tribe's second baseman has certainly proved his worth as a big-stage performer. Last year's wild ride pulled a leadership component out of Kipnis that's been immune to his slump. His clubhouse presence will translate to victories; as will the multi-hit playoff games we all know are in there somewhere. 

    Personally, I don't want to see him batting in the two-hole any longer, but I get this feeling Francona really does. There will be a section later where I advocate that, instead, he should be ambushing fastballs in the bottom third of the lineup. Wherever he settles back in, anticipate an OPS closer to his seven-year cumulative mark (.762). This is an instance of progression to the mean that will be well-received.       
    • (.311) OBP from Carlos Santana (including eight walks)
    If we assume that Santana will get 60 postseason plate appearances, his career BB rate makes it a lock that he'll draw nine walks (60 x 0.15 = 9). In that scenario, the Cleveland DH/1B will only have to get ten hits to have a playoff on-base percentage over .311 (.316). 

    There is a caveat to all this talk. Even though the 31 year-old is experiencing a tremendous uptick to his defensive metrics, first base is not a glove-driven position. As they say in the old country, "the bat plays." Lonnie Chisenhall's imminent return from the disabled list could cause a serious log jam. That's because waiver acquisition extraordinaire, Jay Bruce, has been impossible to keep out of the lineup. Cleveland's new right fielder has made fans wish his skill set was signed years ago. He's certainly not going to make it easy for Chisenhall to get his everyday job back.

    Let's not forget how good Chisenhall's 2017 was going, though. In limited time on the field, he was averaging an absurd 0.79 RBI/game. Bruce (with the Indians) is second with a 0.68 average; Encarnacion: 0.60, Brantley: 0.59, and Santana: 0.56. If those five are healthy, and maximizing their abilities, Santana's ceiling is arguably the lowest. With only one RF, one LF, one DH, and one 1B available each night, what do you do? 

    This segues nicely into a big decision the Tribe will have to make this off-season; Santana is a free agent. Over his eight MLB seasons -- all with the Indians -- Santana has been consistently inconsistent. Some years he has power (three non-consecutive years with 27+ HR). Then poof, it goes away the very next season. Some years he can't hit left-handed (.210 AVG in 2015, .202 AVG in 2011). It always seems to be something. 

    This isn't all his fault, however. Santana has played over 100 games at four wildly different spots in the batting order; over 200 games at three different "defensive" positions (222 as a DH). He's never had the stability of showing up to the ballpark knowing exactly where he's going to hit and play. The only thing he can hang his hat on each and every year is the walks. His 113 BB led the league in 2014.

    Right now, Santana is surprising many with a highly-productive month and a half. His .288 batting average and .974 OPS are tops for any second half in his career. This boost in output is typical for free-agents-to-be. Playing out an expiring contract -- or "walk year" -- is treated like an audition for the other 29 clubs to see a player's peak. You could also chalk it up to batting order stability; settling into a more-regular sixth spot in Terry Francona's lineup. 

    Now, are those second-half stats sustainable enough to hang onto? Or, put another way, are they good enough to trust in the playoffs? Santana is still going to have major offensive limitations for the position(s) he plays. That being said, he is helped out by Chisenhall, Bruce, and Brantley being left-handed. Value shows up when a switch-hitter is needed. 

    Santana could still match his previous OBP... even if that's only getting opportunities against lefties. You have Chris Sale, David Price, Drew Pomeranz, Dallas Keuchel, Gio Gonzalez, Jose Quintana, Jon Lester, Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood, Hyun-jin Ryu, Rich Hill, and a host of lefty specialists lurking. And this list doesn't even include left-handed pitchers on the Wild Card rosters. Throw in Andrew Miller and it's clear that the 2017 postseason will have the deepest talent pool of southpaws ever. The Indians might face the most good ones.

    Carlos Santana's career batting average is 36 points higher swinging right-handed vs. LHP than it is swinging left-handed vs. RHP. Having him as a match-up righty could be a high-leverage ace up the sleeve. You know he'll draw some important walks. Hopefully they contribute to a World Series ring and then Santana can keep on walking right out the door.
    • (103) wins by the National League pennant winner
    The 2016 Chicago Cubs had the first-rate roster, the 100-win season, the longer curse, the bigger city, the older ballpark, the greater number of bandwagon fans, yadda yadda yadda. And yet, they were a bounce of a ball away from a runner-up finish last season. The Cubs were pushed to the brink by an underdog bunch of relative unknowns. It instills a sense that the Indians have absolutely nothing to be scared of this year.

    If they are fortunate enough to return to the World Series, you can expect an opponent that once again eclipsed 100 wins in the 2017 regular season. The Los Angeles Dodgers would have to take four weeks of September off to not hit triple digits, while the Washington Nationals need an 18-win month to stay on pace. That's not out of the question, however; they had a 17-win April to open up this current campaign.     

    Bring it on. If you're anything like me, you want that first World Championship in generations to have to go through legendary opponents. The baseball historian in me always reverts back to the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates. For me, it's the gold standard of any Fall Classic. When the Pirates snapped a 35-year drought, they earned their third title in franchise history while being outscored in the series 55-24 by the mighty Yankees -- who even way back then had 18 World Championships. That's the type of story I want to tell my grandchildren.    
    • (.571) slugging percentage out of Edwin Encarnacion (this time in a Cleveland uniform)
    Most of my baseball coach colleagues -- that know I die hard for the Tribe -- bombarded me with one question more than all others this season: "When is Edwin Encarnacion going to get going?" The three-time All-Star was targeted this off-season to be the unquestionable team leader in home runs; the middle-of-the-lineup bopper to replace Mike Napoli and make everyone's life easier. 

    June 8 might have been rock bottom. He was stuck on 10 HR (two behind Lindor) with a .230 batting average. It was not what Tribe fans signed on for. After all, the Dominican free agent did not come cheap -- three year/$60M deal. At that time, folks began to peek over at Napoli's 11 homers in Texas and express a little buyer's remorse.

    I did my best to explain that the start to his Cleveland tenure was nothing out of the ordinary. Sure, he pressed to make an impression on a new team; one that ousted his Blue Jays in the most-recent ALCS. Sure, a majority of his March/April at-bats were outdoors for the first time since 2009. Sure, he turned 34 in January -- an age of decline for typical DHs. Despite all that, Encarnacion's sleepy beginning to 2017 wasn't that abnormal.  

    I knew a flip of the switch was on its way. And just like that, Encarnacion hit seven home runs in his next 12 games (June 9-20). No big thing; he recently hit six bombs over an eight-game span, including four in three days. He's now at 31, ramping up results at the right time. Wednesday night's titanic blast set a new high-water mark among active MLB players -- 224 HR since 2012.  

    His career OPS in April: .756, May: .818, June: .948. It's like the stat corresponds with Ohio's monthly high temperatures -- 70s, then 80s and 90s. In other words, this wasn't just a Cleveland 2017 thing... it was each and every year. The trouble is, weather is a bell curve. The chilly air will soon return to his "home". In a perfect world, his red-hot bat is now impervious to cold spells. To be safe, let's have the road to a title pass through Houston and Los Angeles. 

    Then again, 2017 has proved Encarnacion to be as consistent as they come, no matter the location. Over the past six seasons, he's shown he can get his 30 HR and 100 RBI anywhere. So who wouldn't trade the futility -- at the outset of this regular season -- for a fraction of the .286 AVG/3 HR/9 RBI/.930 OPS Encarnacion put up in the 2016 postseason? Based on what we've seen lately, an encore, with a new band, is entirely possible. And it would smash the .232 AVG/1 HR/3 RBI/.521 OPS that Napoli fizzled to. Bye bye, buyer's remorse. This will be expanded upon in Part III on 2017 upgrades.
    • (4-1) record for Corey Kluber
    There's no opponent out there that Kluber cannot beat four out of five tries. Thus, there's no reason he can't repeat his. So I'm going to keep this section short and sweet: 

    Kluber will not win this year's American League Cy Young Award, but the seven-year veteran is going to have his best season. With a half dozen September starts to make, it is safe to assume he'll be no worse than 16-5, with 260 strikeouts and an ERA around 2.95. With the run he's been on since July 2, I have confidence saying a better final stat line is not only plausible but probable. 

    If Kluber's 2016 regular season (18-9, 227 SO, and a 3.14 ERA) translated into what we saw out of him last October, then his best-possible 2017 outcome (19-4, 280 SO, and a 2.35 ERA) might make the world explode. It very well could, but not because of anything Corey Kluber will be responsible for. 

    We may never know if he is made up of robot nano-DNA, but it should be established that he's not an immortal deity. He's an ace, not a savior. Understand that asymptotes/limits/ceilings are real. Don't fall into the trap of believing Kluber can (and must) do anything better this postseason. Sometimes there's just nowhere left to go to find improvements. In that, expect to see the 1.83 ERA, 35 strikeouts, and 1.05 WHIP come back down to earth. And that's okay. Kluber can still see another 4-1 record next to his name, even if the supplemental stats worsen. 

    With key pieces missing last fall, holding opponents to seven earned runs over six playoff starts was practically required. But Kluber won't have to do all the heavy lifting this time. The outcomes of this year's ALDS, ALCS, and World Series do not hinge on his individual success; they are simply aided by it. Kluber could go 1-0 in the playoff's first round and the season could still end after four games. Conversely, he could go 0-2 (throwing Game 4 on short rest) with the Tribe advancing. That's baseball.

    Kluber's status quo is so much better than 98% of his contemporaries that being "mediocre" would still be good enough for Cleveland to win it all in 2017. This new-look offense should also have something more to say about results. They appear capable of bailing him out, if he ever runs into those hard times avoided last year. 
    • (.310) batting average from Francisco Lindor 
    Francisco Lindor casually reminded us that being named a major league All-Star is not always about first-half production -- as the league's clever marketing directors would suggest. Sometimes selections reward a personality that is too big to ignore; one that jumps right out of the television and into the living room. Lindor was chosen by his fellow players, who joined a group of half the world's population, as those who were in awe of his 2016 postseason performance. It's like Joe Buck Inception-ed the FOX viewership into collectively making Lindor their favorite player.  

    The 2017 All-Star nod was clearly a legacy vote for the latter part of the previous year, primarily the playoffs. It sure wasn't based on solid stats to open this season. After seven early home runs, Lindor's approach eerily matched Major League II's Willie Mays Hayes -- the Omar Epps depiction of a singles hitter trying to yank everything out of the yard. Over a 56-game span (May 1 to July 4), Lindor hit .220 (51-for-231). That's not exactly All-Star material. 

    But somewhere around the break, something got "Mr. Smile" back on track. Perhaps sharing Marlins Park with the best in the world prompted him to act the part. His second-half batting average is now .305. Ironically, his slugging percentage is 73 points higher in July and August than it was in April, May, and June -- even though the big first-half storyline was how he had become this power-hitting shortstop. His return to a pure line-drive stroke has the extra-base hits coming in bunches, without sacrificing the average. 

    Look for Lindor in the nation's capital for next year's All-Star Game. He'll be the one there on account of his constant air time this postseason. His pure joy for the game often gets the camera pointed in his direction; his play keeps it there. Put him down for a hit streak that equals the number of games the Indians play in October.      


    The record might not show it, but this current Cleveland Indians team is about to make the 2016 version of the club look like a bunch of scrubs. Sure, last year's team never lost four games in a row. Sure, June/July of 2016 included a 14-game win streak. Sure, that club got to the World Series experiencing only one defeat. Those not with Cleveland any longer are to be forever praised for that valiant effort, but this 2017 roster is out to plug some gaping holes. We might not have noticed them during the miraculous run, but they have retroactively appeared in our memories -- as new players have added perspective.

    If you've never heard of baseball writer Rob Neyer's Beane Count, you should really take a look at his formula. The home run/walk combo (for and against) is quite predictive of long-term success. Last year, the Indians were thirteenth overall; this season, second. 

    Read this and you'll wish the Tribe could go back to those Game 7 moments and replay them with the upgraded understudies. But neither life nor baseball works that way. This isn't Chutes & Ladders; there is no shortcut, no bye to the finals, no VIP pass around the queue. It'll take a full nail-biting eleven wins all over again.

    Poor 2016 Postseason Numbers That Are Likely To Improve:

    • (4.88) combined ERA from the #2 and #3 starters
    This is the most obvious difference between then and now. If there is a deep run in the 2017 postseason, this is going to be the topic beat to death by the likes of Joe Buck, Ken Rosenthal, et alia. We'll all be so sick of hearing how Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar weren't healthy last year -- as if it's breaking news. You'll hear it (err... read it) here first.

    Trevor Bauer was clearly in way over his head. His .321 opponent's batting average -- in five playoff starts -- was the worst mark among anyone that pitched more than 6.1 innings. Bauer's final win of 2016 (playoffs included) came on September 23. You have to believe Carrasco gives the Tribe at least one "W" in October. "Cookie" is now 46-30 since the 2014 All-Star Break. That date (Sunday, July 13, 2014) is a key inflection point in the current trajectory of the club. The Indians were 47-47 that season at that year's "midway" point; including the playoffs, they are 300-238 since. 

    A big reason Cleveland ditched the mediocrity was because Carrasco became a full-time starter again. After missing the entire 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery, he worked his way back to health primarily as a reliever. Carrasco made only 11 starts in 45 appearances during one particular 2013-14 span. Since rejoining the rotation on a permanent basis, he has been a new man. Most noticeably, he now works exclusively out of the stretch -- a style typically reserved for relievers. The mechanical adjustment altered velocity and pitch movement along with a relaxed mindset and a modified pre-game routine. Pitching coach Mickey Callaway helped orchestrate every step of the total rebuild. He ultimately lobbied the loudest for Carrasco to get another shot in a starter's role.   

    The move has paid major dividends; he should have been named an All-Star in both 2015 and 2017. If not for this Corey Kluber guy, Carrasco would be a household name -- as the bonafide ace of Cleveland's staff. His current batting average against (BAA) is .237, which pairs nicely with his 3.78 ERA. You cannot understate how much better the Tribe's championship chances would have been if that fateful line drive (September 17, 2016; off Detroit's Ian Kinsler) never broke his hand.     

    Meanwhile, Josh Tomlin did an admirable job filling in for Danny Salazar. He sure made us forget all about a winless August (0-5), in which he posted an 11.48 ERA and barely hung onto a job. Few had any confidence in Tomlin as the man to plug the gaping hole in postseason roster, but an equal number could offer up any alternatives. The results -- a 2-1 record and only nine earned runs on the game's biggest stage -- were surprising to say the least. 

    But Tomlin's weakness was (and always has been) swing-and-miss deficiency. Tomlin only struck out 11 batters in 17.2 IP last postseason. Sometimes teams simply need a strikeout, especially in tightly-contested playoff games. Both Salazar and Carrasco are on pace for their fourth consecutive seasons with a K/9 greater than 9.0 -- meaning more total strikeouts than innings pitched. If their higher ceilings were medically cleared to start games last October, we would be looking at a Cleveland title defense. Period.    

    However, in all due respect to Bauer and Tomlin, both outperformed tepid expectations. In no way should they be blamed for extrinsic factors that forced them into tough spots; they were the #4 and #5 for a reason. To his credit, Bauer has worked his way up a rung on the starting rotation ladder in 2017. Evidently, it has finally clicked for the 26 year-old; his 14 wins are one behind the major league lead. His strikeout-to-walk rate is finally where the front office always hoped it would be (2.93). Bauer figures to settle in behind Kluber and Carrasco -- empowered by match-ups in 2016's postseason that were far more intimidating than anything he'll be up against in the future.  

    Not having two of your three best starters had all the pundits counting out Cleveland long before the World Series. If you told analysts the 2016 ALDS would end in a sweep, 99% would believe you were predicting a 3-0 Boston series victory. 

    My giddy anticipation for this upcoming postseason is directly related to the top-end starting staff as it was meant to be. They recently aided in an MLB record -- striking out ten or more opposing batters in 13 straight games. Getting a chance to see Carrasco and Salazar (as #4 starter or bullpen arm) in action might get fans thinking of what could have been. But if we focus solely on what they can deliver this go 'round, it should make the 2017 championship even sweeter. The original cast is finally back together to perform the biggest show on the biggest stage.        
    • (.157) combined batting average by the Tribe's center fielders 
    We all knew this number was going to get better in 2017; it couldn't get much worse than 9-for-57. The real question was "who is going to change it?" For the first half of this season, the consensus was emphatically Bradley Zimmer. The rookie filled in nicely for last year's idol-turned-imposter, Tyler Naquin. Recently, however, the clear choice has shifted -- at least in my eyes.

    2017's center field script is eerily similar to last: (a) break camp with the top young prospect as the heir apparent, and (b) take a one-year flyer on a former Detroit Tiger as the safety net. 

    Last year, the lion's share of playing time went to Naquin -- after a Spring Training performance that was tough to overlook. Rajai Davis famously seized control of the reigns late in the year, heroically sending Game 7 of the World Series to extra innings -- with his iconic home run off Aroldis Chapman. 

    It is very reasonable to suggest the same plot could play itself out again in 2017... but hopefully much sooner than November. This season, Bradley Zimmer jumped out to a .285 first-half batting average. Since then, he is "hitting" .203; just .141 in August. The silver lining: better now than in October. 

    Naquin hit the rookie wall too late for anyone in the organization to do anything about it. The belief, by most, was that he was the rare exception; those that can make it a full 180+ games without a true slump. Perhaps Francisco Lindor broke the curve the year before. The runner-up in the 2015 Rookie-of-the-Year voting saw his OPS grow each and every month of his maiden voyage. The hope was Naquin, who finished third in the subsequent Rookie-of-the-Year vote, would follow suit.          

    Unfortunately, the man who struck out 112 times in a solid regular season (365 PA) picked a really bad time to strike out 56% of his time at the plate (14 SO in 25 PA). Naquin put the ball in play on a measly nine occasions in 11 postseason games.  

    In my opinon, Zimmer should have finished out the AAA regular season in Columbus, as preventative action against a repeat of the Naquin October fiasco. He needed to regain confidence and get his mind right. It would have provided a greater opportunity for this year's version of Rajai Davis -- Austin Jackson -- to test drive the everyday CF job. Alas, Zimmer has done a decent job of hitting his way back on track the past two weeks. Nine of his ten August hits came in the last fortnight. We'll see if that continues. 

    Nothing has phased Jackson. He's already locked up the league's defensive play of the year, so runs saved should hardly take a step back if he starts in center. And as for the offense, he's got a sizable 2017 advantage in contact rate (76.8%) over Zimmer (67.3%). Jackson's .317 (.884 OPS) should be a real shot in the arm for this year's postseason offense. As of late, he's been hitting in the two-hole against lefties and much lower (if at all) against righties. Personally, I want to see Jackson in center, hitting second every playoff game -- no matter the pitcher. I trust "AJax" can get it done. Meanwhile, "Daddy Strong Legs" can pinch run for the slow-footed. 

    The 30 year-old -- and former Rookie-of-the-Year runner-up himself -- has had a fantastic resurgence in Cleveland. He's now like the old guy on the YMCA basketball court where wisdom outweighs pure talent, but he's better for it. Had he been given the necessary 3.1 PA per team game (in order to qualify for the batting title) I think his newfound approach and swing are sound enough to have kept him in the mix all season. Let's learn from mistakes of the past; take our chances with the wily vet in more than a ninth inning at-bat with the season on the line.   
    • (7) team errors
    Using standard defensive metrics (fielding percentage and total errors), Cleveland was 11th in Major League Baseball in 2016. This year, they are all the way up to fourth -- 64 errors in over 4,700 chances. With several new bodies wearing upgraded gloves for the 2017 Indians, you can forecast an improvement on the seven errors in 15 playoff games. 

    During the 2016 regular season, the Tribe averaged 0.55 errors per game (89 in 161). In the 132 games played thus far, their rate has dipped to 0.48. Although the current 2017 figure would put them right back at seven postseason errors -- if they again play 15 games -- the assumption is that October focuses the defense. You expect to see the games to get a little cleaner as they get more meaningful. Even if this club only shaves off a single error, the timing of the big mistake (that wasn't) could be the difference in a series win or loss.  
    • (3) runs batted in by the clean-up hitter
    For the Tribe in 2016's postseason, those mired in the deepest slumps seemed to always have the best RBI situations. The guys that couldn't get out got on; the guys that couldn't get on got out. The rally was killed by the same cast of characters round after round after round. This year, the Indians will have as many as six players knock in 70 or more runs. That hasn't happened in Cleveland since 2004. It bodes well for the 3 RBI figure to change, regardless of who's hitting clean-up.

    Last postseason, several players were out of position -- based on their offensive strengths and what a lineup calls upon each individual to gameplan for. Those suited for small-ball situations were thrust into middle-of-the-order run production expectations. Lindor raised his game to match that challenge. Sadly, it only masked the fact that Mike Napoli's worst month as an Indian came in October.

    "Party at Napoli's" was extremely enjoyable all summer, but -- like so many parties -- it got awkward and sad the later it dragged on. In 2016, Mike Napoli only had one playoff home run, an average of once every 52.00 at-bats; a postseason strikeout every 2.48. With the Blue Jays last postseason, Edwin Encarnacion hit a homer every 11.66 at-bats; striking out once every 7.00 ABs. Let me, let me upgrade ya.

    This is where the injection of a healthy Michael Brantley shows its palpable value. The depth of the 2017 lineup is so vastly superior that it makes the 2016 run all the more unbelievable. The batting order can finally be stretched to a point where there is true protection for the best hitters. Whether it is Encarnacion, Jose Ramirez or Jay Bruce, you can bet the four-hole hitter is going to see their postseason RBI total swell. You can also bet the go-to batting order will not open with Santana followed by Kipnis and Lindor.

    Ultimately, Cleveland's right side of the infield should gain the most from moving far away from the top of the order. It's human nature for pitchers to believe easier outs await them at the bottom. Managers with the requisite depth can "hide" talent below the five spot to create a false sense of repose in opponents. Experienced hitters like Santana and Kipnis would get plenty of fastballs meant for lesser hitters. Hopefully Francona takes full advantage of having power lurking in the weeds that is the sixth and seventh spot.  
    • (.541) OPS from the right field position
    With the numbers Jay Bruce has put up in Cleveland, it's not crazy to speculate that right field's playoff OPS could double. Bruce has a career .791 OPS, with an even higher .804 number in the playoffs. He clearly learned a thing or two from hitting behind Joey Votto for nine years. The 30 year-old seems to have matured as a hitter that refuses to offer at anything but his pitch.

    In 2016, 14 of the team's 15 playoff games were started by Lonnie Chisenhall; Brandon Guyer started the only other one (World Series Game 5). 

    Saying this number will increase doesn't mean that Chisenhall won't be a factor in the turnaround. He was in the midst of a career year before his July calf injury. Finally out of a platoon role -- in just his second season wholly focused on the outfield -- the seven-year veteran found a stable position in Cleveland's right field. He even had a legitimate argument for 2017 All-Star Game inclusion; a first half stat line of .302 AVG, 12 HR, 51 RBI, .953 OPS. For now, it looks like he's going back to the life of instability. Expect his slash line to be its strongest the days he's "home" in right.       

    Right field is a position that clubs -- at every level -- turn to for top-tier slugging percentage. One way or the other, the Tribe is going to start getting that production this postseason. They have to. A lone postseason extra-base hit ain't gonna cut it in 2017.

    The Law of Averages will catch up with Chisenhall or it will give the gig to Bruce full-time. Either outcome will be a net positive for the offense. The loser of this September job battle should still find his name in the playoff lineup. Both Chisenhall (a former third baseman) and Bruce can come in to play first base when Santana inevitably hits an 0-for-8 skid at the most inopportune time. Consider it an audition for the vacancy caused by Santana's impending free-agency departure. #SignBruce  
    • (4.1) innings pitched by the rotation's fourth starter
    I'm still in the camp of those that believe not starting Ryan Merritt in last year's World Series Game 5 was the biggest misstep of them all. Playing with house money -- up 3-1, on the road -- why not gamble with the rookie and keep normal rest for the non-Klubers of the staff? We had the bullpen to pull off a series-clinching win without Merritt making it through the fifth inning.

    Anyway, this time around, that fourth starter won't be an unproven September call-up. It will be either be Danny Salazar or Mike Clevinger. The two arrive at the fourth-starter discussion on starkly different trajectories. Salazar, a 2016 All-Star, was entrusted with starting Cleveland's 2013 Wild Card Game as a rookie. His sky was the limit. But he has certainly taken steps back in recent months, mostly due to injuries. Again on the DL, Salazar is having a rocky 2017 (5-6, 4.30 ERA). If he can somehow regain his form, however, he would be the best #4 in the playoffs. Having his caliber arm waiting for the back half of a series -- or back-half of a single game -- would be a luxury for the Tribe. It's just going to take some rebuilding... and prayer.   

    Clevinger, on the other hand, is the up-and-comer. He's now started 27 MLB games in his career, with number 28 happening later today in Detroit. The sample size and trust factor are growing as long as his mane of brown hair: a current 7-5 record with 108 SO, and a 3.72 ERA. These numbers should provide Terry Francona -- and pitching coach Mickey Callaway -- with confidence to give the ball to the fourth starter more frequently. 

    Although, on second thought, wouldn't you sign up for Kluber starting 40% of the games every postseason? Let's wait and see how Salazar, Bauer, Tomlin, and Clevinger do in September. 
    • (90%) success rate of baserunners stealing last postseason
    Baserunners were 4 out of 5 stealing against Roberto Perez and 5-for-5 against late-game substitute, Yan Gomes. The latter separated his shoulder on July 18, 2016. Then, right as he was poised for a late-season return, Gomes broke his right wrist -- hit by a pitch in a Double-A start. The man seriously could not catch a break in 2016. 

    Back to 100% health, Gomes has cut down an astonishing 44% of would-be base stealers in 2017. For context, the league average is 26%. He's reminded everyone that 2016 was an aberration -- a karmically-bad, almost laughable onslaught of Murphy's Law. Even at his best, he was nowhere near the arm strength on display this season. But that's all changed. Gomes' current career-high CS% should thwart any running game the Indians should come across this October. 

    If there is any offense provided by either of these men, it is a cherry on top. They will hit ninth, with a primary task of handling the pitchers.

    What a blessing the non-acquisition of Jonathan Lucroy has turned out to be. It appears the Tribe dodged a bait-and-switch disaster. Not only would this club be without catching prospect Francisco Mejia (along with Yu-Cheng Chang, Greg Allen, and Shawn Amstrong), but they'd be without any offensive production in return. Lucroy has devolved into a shell of his All-Star self. Throw out his 75-game rookie campaign and he is on pace for career lows in nearly every offensive category. Now with his third team in eight months (Colorado), the altitude hasn't helped him much with a power outage. 
    • (13) pitchers on the 25-man World Series roster
    Last year's volume of pitchers was clearly a "Johnny Wholestaff" maneuver. When you lose Carrasco and Salazar, you need all hands on deck; quantity to compensate for lost quality. This shouldn't be the case this year. It means more opportunities to counteract pitching changes with favorable offensive match-ups and pinch run guys with speed.  

    Under the assumption that Michael Brantley -- and all others, for that matter -- are healthy enough to play in October, you have 19 locks for the playoff roster (in alphabetical order): Allen, Bauer, Brantley, Bruce, Carrasco, Chisenhall, Encarnacion, Gomes, Jackson, Kipnis, Kluber, Lindor, Miller, Perez, Ramirez, Salazar, Santana, [grumble] Shaw, and Smith. So that leaves six spots for Almonte, Armstrong, Breslow, Clevinger, Diaz, Gonzalez, Goody, Guyer, McAllister, Merritt, Olson, Otero, Tomlin, Urshela, and Zimmer. With plenty of serviceable options in that latter group, it should be very interesting to see what Tito does. 

    He may have tipped his hand last October. Using Andrew Miller as often as he did, it showed that carrying even 12 arms isn't necessary. Francona will go to the law firm of Smith, Miller, Shaw & Allen routinely. You can make an argument for an additional lefty (Olson) as well as a ground-ball specialist (Otero), but the October 1 regular-season finale might be the end of the line for last year's unexpected savior, Josh Tomlin. I love me some Nick Goody, but his major role will likely have to wait for next year. In my world, ideally replacing Shaw long term. Shawn Armstrong is a textbook Quad-A player; the purgatory of being too talented for the minors and yet no chance to succeed in the Bigs. The pitching machine straightness of Zach McAllister's fastball can go away -- as far as some of his home runs surrendered. 37 year-old Craig Breslow? You can't be serious. Not even going to dignify that with a response. 

    Those moves would assure Almonte (pinch hitter), Zimmer (pinch runner), and Urshela (defensive replacement) each get a shot. Two of the last three Fall Classics have ended with a ball to the third baseman. What a fitting moment that would be if, this year, the final out of a World Series went to Giovanny Urshela -- a lukewarm #22 organizational prospect four short years ago. Not sure he could cut it at this level, Gio has worked his butt off to deserve that dream scenario.   

    I would be shocked to see Erik Gonzalez anywhere near this playoff roster. Scouts believe he is capable of five full MLB seasons; 2017 just won't be one of them. He has shown flashes of brilliance this season, but needs more work elevating batted balls -- a major league ground ball-to-fly ball (GB/FB) ratio of 4.78. The jury is still out if he has true staying power -- emphasis on power. 

    Similar things could be used in a discussion about Yandy Diaz. The surprising Opening Day third baseman struggled early and his stay in Cleveland only lasted until April 21. He, and the fine AAA staff in Columbus, clearly made a conscious effort to rectify the same GB/FB deficiency that plagues Gonzalez. Diaz was a ground-ball machine in his 64 first-half at-bats; resulting in a lone extra-base hit (a double down the third-base line).  

    He was recalled on August 22 and has put together a really nice week and a half. In his most-recent stint with the big club, he's 8-for-20 with impressive plate discipline (8 BB). He's had some of the team's better plate appearances, getting spot starts at third and DH. The problem will be finding more of them once Jason Kipnis returns from the disabled list. Diaz is slugging .650 during this current seven-game span, but is yet to hit his first-career home run. This is vital. 

    I'm not indicting Diaz's long-term future or saying hitting home runs is a prerequisite for playoff inclusion. I am saying roster spots 22-25 are more about niche assets -- a single superior tool out of the five -- that could address a weakness in the starting lineup. For Urshela, it's his plus glove. For Zimmer, it's his stolen-base threat. Those are things none of the full-time Indians can match; ideal to stockpile on the bench for the right substitution opportunity. At present, Diaz and Gonzalez offer me nothing that I don't already see. 

    The two have plenty of time for this to change. The embarrassment of riches on the infield will play itself out in the next few seasons. As the division nears wrapping up, they'll both get late-September reps to add more MLB experience to the back of the baseball card. That's the only place to truly develop what they need to work on. If you can believe Diaz's Cuban documents, the combined age of the utilitymen is only 52 -- both celebrating recent August birthdays. Their big moments will come.

    With most of the youngsters out of the running, the last guys on the bubble have to be Brandon Guyer and Mike Clevinger. I'm indifferent to both. Clevinger's talent is undeniable, but if Salazar wins the fourth starter's job, you won't ever need a fifth. Out of the bullpen, Clevinger only fits in the rare long relief role; a 59% strike percentage doesn't play well in high-leverage spots. If mopping up the middle of the game is what this club needs, I'd rather have Josh Tomlin (67%) or Ryan Merritt (66%). But I'm not banking on either dose of that free-swinger's Kryptonite until Cleveland goes up against the sluggernaut Houston Astros. Pitching won't be the most pressing shortage against Boston. Guyer gets hits off lefties... in theory. Plus you can tell him to lean into one like Roger Dorn. Advantage Guyer.

    If we get an additional spot -- due to disabled-list technicalities -- Clevinger will join the party. An extra two and it'll be Diaz.  
    • (103) games of total playoff experience by the 25-man roster entering ALDS Game 1
    51 of those games were attributed to Mike Napoli alone; 28 more by Coco Crisp. But even with those veteran departures, the invaluable quantity of previous playoff games will more than double. Under the assumption that Guyer and Otero make the roster (and Tomlin, Clevinger, McAllister do not), the Indians will enter the 2017 ALDS with a combined 250 games of late-October baseball notched on the belt. Not enough can be said about the Tribe's young core adding 15 games per player last season. It should make quite a difference when it comes to nervousness under the bright lights. Any pressure situation can be attacked with a "been there, done that" calmness.    

    Similarly, the 25-man roster combined for only seven All-Star Game appearances entering their 2106 playoff run. The assumed playoff roster of 2017 will have 17 such ASG nods. The national star power -- that name recognition in bars and living rooms outside the Cleveland market -- has been elevated to match the heights they achieved last year.     
    • (0) plate appearances for Abraham Almonte
    Hey there, quality playoff baseball team. Would you like a powerfully-built (if not genetically-enhanced), switch-hitting bench bat with gap-to-gap power, who can run a little bit, and plays solid late-game outfield defense? Oh, you would? Well, so did the Indians last year.

    Courtesy of a PED suspension, Almonte was unable to play in last year's postseason. In 2017, count on him turning over the lineup in some really crucial moments.
    • (7) games that Michael Martinez came in as a defensive replacement (and his four at-bats)
    Thankfully, the light-hitting 34 year-old shouldn't be anywhere near a big moment this time around. Then again, he is tearing up Columbus in his most-recent relegation (11 multi-hit games in his last 19 games). Terry Francona's love affair for Martinez has to be one of the most curious things in this history of the future Hall of Famer's illustrious career. The Dominican utility man has to have compromising photos of Tito in his possession. Blackmail threats are the only explanation any of my friends can come up with -- as to why he's played in 97 career games for Cleveland. Listed as able to hit from both sides of the plate, he is the baseball equivalent to the "if you have two quarterbacks, you have none" adage.
    • (1) horrifically boneheaded run-in with a very sharp, inanimate object
    Was there a bigger distraction to the goal of ending a 68-year title drought than Trevor Bauer's drone injury? It got to the point -- with the gained perspective and distance from the moment -- where I was honestly at peace with not being remembered as World Champions. The reason was Bauer's little finger. A Game 7 win and Cleveland would forever be tethered to that stupid footnote. It's as embarrassing as seeing Bronson Arroyo's corn rows in 2004 celebration footage.

    The foolishness has so many layers to it: the timing, the device, and the act itself. Let's dissect the three, as if it is an idiot's version of the board game Clue. The timing: in the midst of the American League Championship Series. 48 hours before the most important start of your career sounds like a very poor moment to bust out that hobby. The device: a four-propeller racing drone; essentially a toy marketed to a teenage audience. The act: plugging in the battery with the tip of his pinkie hanging out in the wheel house of one of the rotors. I cannot imagine anyone on the Cleveland Indians (or any team, for that matter) will do anything as colossally ignorant ever again. Someone will get hurt, but I don't think anyone could ever match that trio of circumstances.    

    PART IV:

    In summation, there are way more things that are likely to improve this go 'round than turn for the worse. Granted, this is all on paper. But every early prediction is. Professional baseball provides the largest sample size of regular-season data over any sport on the planet. What you see becomes gospel after seven months. These numbers are what these players are. And a +155 in run differential this year vs. +101 last season cannot be ignored. 

    However, I'm not stupid or naive enough to believe that upgrades to a roster ensure a different, better result. You can't logic and reason your way to a title. Every postseason has its own storyline and team of perceived destiny. It just feels like the pieces are finally where they need to be for Cleveland. They were a year early and a round deeper than my 2016 expectations. This year, I'm dreaming bigger.  

    No disrespect meant to the 2016 roster, but how the hell did a team that relied heavily on Rajai Davis, Tyler Naquin, Josh Tomlin, Trevor Bauer, Coco Crisp, Roberto Perez, and Brandon Guyer even come that close? Collin Cowgill, Marlon Byrd, and Juan Uribe would have been excellent trivia answers for forgotten members of a World Champion's Opening Day lineup. Writing this piece showed how glaringly deficient the 2016 Tribe was in so many areas. And despite the weaknesses above, that team was a solid inning away from winning it all. It is pretty remarkable.

    No one dared to critique their collective skill set as they took us on a fun ride last season. But as you look back, it makes you believe it ended the way it should have. With the aid of hindsight, a team led by Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Jake Arrieta, and Jon Lester should win that series in fewer than seven.

    If those Cubs win the NL Central, then both Cleveland and Chicago earn the right to wear the bull's eyes on the back. They have to be unseeded from their lofty positions. No amount of regular-season wins can do that. 

    And if you're judging the Indians chances in a rematch, you have to love the hangover that has plagued the Cubs for the majority of the year. It baits you into believing a Cubs vs. Indians Part II would be the best-case scenario for Cleveland. On paper, it would be the "easiest" opponent for any American League team. When you strip away the name and the pedigree, it is undeniable that the Central's division winner will be the least qualified for NLDS inclusion. 

    The odds makers would have to flip the underdog/favorite if the 2017 World Series match-up is a repeat. The incumbent has a lingering sense of "mission accomplished" to fall back on. There is comfort in knowing that a title drought of one year is nothing compared to 108. When you get a ring and lift a curse, what can you possibly do for an encore?

    The challenger is hungrier and re-tooled. To see how that script plays out, you don't have to look too far in the past. Before the Tribe last season, the last team to lose Game 7 of the World Series -- the 2014 Kansas City Royals -- came back the very next year to avenge their defeat. They beat the winner of National League East (Mets) in five games. I like that omen. Give me Indians over Nationals, four games to one. It puts the ultimate party in Cleveland, where it should be. 

    You know what... forget all the numbers. This team loves each other and thoroughly enjoys playing baseball for a Hall-of-Fame manager. Those might be all the reasons you need to believe.  

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