Cleveland Indians: Does Edwin Encarnacion Put Them Ahead Again?

The Cleveland Indians are making a push to remain in the conversation this winter after appearing in the World Series for the first time in nearly two decades.

When the offseason began, many just assumed that the Cleveland Indians would bring back Mike Napoli and that would be that. Case closed. They got their power hitter back in the lineup and made a very Tribe-esque move. Only that’s not what they ended up doing.

Maybe it was Ken Rosenthal’s piece saying that teams would be sorry if they missed out on Encarnacion that pushed the Indians to sign the guy with a parrot on his shoulder. No matter the reason, Cleveland needed to add a power bat and now they have done that–and then some. Encarnacion is a big upgrade over Napoli at the dish, and while neither is necessarily a gold glove caliber first baseman, EE also provides an upgrade there.

The question now is: Is this enough to put them on par with the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros?

Without looking into the data, the logical answer is yes. They swept the Sox out of the playoffs in 2016, and while Boston has added another ace to their rotation, they were operating at nearly full strength while the Tribe were throwing out Corey Kluber, a drone accident and Josh Tomlin. No offense to Tomlin and Bauer, but they weren’t the two starters that Cleveland had hoped to rely on in the postseason. The Cleveland bullpen will remain intact, and they should be in better shape overall, both in the rotation and potentially with Michael Brantley joining the lineup if he can stay healthy. That’s a lot to offset the Sox addition of Chris Sale.

Houston has their own worries as well, as their rotation has some question marks, and they could use an upgrade in left field. Which is more important depends on who you ask.

Boston will be relying on Sale and David Price atop the rotation, as well as some further development from Eduardo Rodriguez, not to mention repeat performances from Rick Porcello and Steven Wright. They have a young core that will have to make up for the absence of David Ortiz, but should be plenty good enough to make it to postseason play.

If Houston’s rotation holds up with Dallas Keuchel returning to form as well as Lance McCullers staying healthy for the entire season, the Astros have a ridiculous offense and a solid bullpen with which to get the job done.

But the Indians did the job last season, reaching the postseason with injuries, and then reaching the World Series with tatters of their full strength club. They also have playoff experience now, which should come in handy. No other team has an Andrew Miller, and he could certainly prove to be the difference between these three teams once more.

If there were a team that could challenge Cleveland, my money wouldn’t be on the Sox, but instead on Houston. They have Michael Feliz, Chris Devenski and Joe Musgrove who could all take a shot at a role similar to the one that Miller filled in October. While the trio isn’t likely to be as effective as Miller has proven to be, they do provide the Astros with more bullpen depth which would shorten a theoretical playoff game.

George Springer, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa are a formidable trio, and the Tribe don’t necessarily have three offensive threats of that caliber. However, what the Indians lack in star power they make up for in all-around solid offensive players. In 2016 they had eight players with at least 100 plate appearances that held a wRC+ over 100. By comparison, the Astros had six. Each team will be missing one of those type players in Napoli and Luis Valbuena, and Houston has been busy adding more of these type of guys to their roster.

Josh Reddick (106), Carlos Beltran (124) and Brian McCann (103) add some depth to the lineup, while Cleveland replaces Napoli’s 113 mark with Encarnacion’s 134 (it was a down year).

Cleveland looks to have the edge in terms of starting pitching, but the question with them always seems to be whether their big arms stay healthy for an entire season. If the question is not if, but when, then Cleveland should hope that they have a full staff by the time the playoffs are approaching, because they’re going to have much stiffer competition in 2017.

Between Houston and Cleveland it’s a toss up right now. It could all come down to scheduling, quite honestly. Take last year for example. If the Giants had won the division (ahem, bullpen) and Madison Bumgarner hadn’t had to pitch the wild card play-in game, then they would have had Mad Bum twice in their series with the Cubs. It was already a thrilling four game set, and having Bumgarner on the mound in Game 4 could have prolonged the series by at least one game–then who knows what would have happened?

If the Astros and Indians meet up in the ALDS with neither team making it as a wild card, then it should be an even matchup. If it’s an ALCS meeting, then whichever team wraps up their ALDS matchup first should have the edge as they’ll be able to set their rotation before what would be an extremely entertaining series before the Series.

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