This one is going to sting badly Cleveland, regardless of what the Cavaliers did this past summer. The Indians had three chances to put away the Cubs and end their 68-year championship drought, but fell short all three times — and in grueling fashion in Game 7. But why focus solely on the negative?
This squad overcame everything from lowered expectations to crippling injuries to postseason nay-sayers, never doubting its ability to win the AL Central, capture the AL pennant and topple the heavily-favored Cubs. It just fell a game short.
However, there are plenty of reasons to believe Terry Francona can guide this team back to the Fall Classic and take that final fateful step in 2017. Here are just a few:
Welcome back, Michael Brantley
Brantley, arguably the Indians’ best player, had a grand total of 43 plate appearances during the 2016 season after debuting in late April and being sidelined for good in early May.
He had surgery in November 2015 to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder, aggravated the injury early in the season and had a second procedure on the shoulder on Aug. 15.
From 2014-15, Brantley hit .319/.382/.494 with 35 homers, 90 doubles and 181 RBI. He’ll be a big addition to an offense that could lose slugger Mike Napoli to free agency but will return Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis and Jose Ramirez, among others. Brantley figures to reclaim his job in left field with Rajai Davis and Coco Crisp set to hit free agency.
The sensational starting five
Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and … Carlos Carrasco. They’ll all be back – barring a trade – putting the Indians in an enviable position. Cleveland’s rotation was second in the AL this season with a 4.08 ERA and fifth in the majors with 884 strikeouts.
Kluber is a bona fide ace, Tomlin put on a clinic in the postseason, and Carrasco and Salazar both averaged more than a K per inning this season. Although a bit of an enigma, Bauer posted a 3.02 ERA through July 1.
Plus, the Indians discovered an intriguing rotation option in Ryan Merritt as they mixed and matched during the postseason with Salazar and Carrasco injured.
Andrew Miller isn’t going anywhere
Among the highlights of that late-July acquisition was that the lights-out reliever wasn’t simply a deadline rental. Not only that, Miller actually is affordable at $9 million in each of the next two seasons.
Terry Francona helped redefine the role of the October reliever with his brilliant use of Miller – the big lefty did his part, too – but the human strikeout machine will settle back into a more traditional role during the regular season. It’s just not possible to ask relievers to throw 40-plus pitches per appearance over the course of 162 games with so few off days.
However, Miller will be summoned often in non-ninth-inning situations. And what a weapon he has become in that role.
And it wasn’t only Miller; Cleveland’s bullpen ranked fourth in the majors this season with a 3.41 ERA and a 25.3 inherited runners scored percentage. And the entire crew – Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Dan Otero, Zach McAllister, Jeff Manship – is under contract for 2017.