Cleveland’s Path to the 2017 Playoffs by Craig Edwards November 3, 2016 Cleveland had a great year in 2016, capped by an incredible run to the World Series — a run that fell just a win short, ultimately, of the club’s first championship in nearly 70 years. While Chicago might bask in their glory for a bit — and it would certainly be appropriate for Cleveland to reflect on their fantastic season, as well — it might be a bit more uplifting for Cleveland fans to looks forward to 2017, as long as there’s reason for optimism next year. Rest assured, there’s plenty of reason for optimism next year. First things first: Cleveland won 94 games in 2016, and there’s no reason to suspect that the season was a fluke fueled by one-run wins or multiple extraordinary performances unlikely to repeat themselves. Their Pythagorean and BaseRuns records both had them exceeding 90 wins. Cleveland absolutely deserved the success they had, and virtually every important piece is set to return for next season. Francisco Lindor, who has emerged as the team’s star and one of the very best players in baseball, will be back and making the major-league minimum. Jose Ramirez solidified himself as a starting third baseman, and even if he can’t replicate his production in 2016, he should still be an above-average contributor. The same is true both for Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana. Those last three might have all played a little above their expected levels in 2016, but they should still be quite effective next season, as well. The rotation, weakened in the postseason by injuries, should once again represent a strength. Corey Kluber will be back to anchor the rotation, while Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar — who combined for just 283.2 innings in 2016 — will resume their position behind Kluber. Trevor Bauer will return to his role as a fourth starter, where his slightly above-average stats play well. In the fifth spot, Josh Tomlin is back with a salary under $3 million. While his numbers aren’t great, young pitchers like Ryan Merritt and Mike Clevinger tested the waters this year, got some time in the postseason, and provide necessary depth should pitchers get hurt or turn ineffective. Even Zach McAllister could pitch in, as well. The bullpen that was such a strength in the postseason is back, too: Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, and Bryan Shaw are all under contract at reasonable prices, expected to earn around $20 million collectively. While catcher can probably remain an adequate source of production between the efforts of Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez, the team does have some question marks at first base and the outfield. Gone are Coco Crisp, Rajai Davis, and Mike Napoli. Napoli’s loss, in particular (assuming they don’t bring him back), feels big, but his combination of merely above-average offense, poor baserunning and defensive limitations actually rendered him a below-average player this past year. Rajai Davis stole a ton of bases and hit double-digit home runs, but that merely made him an average player in the outfield, while Coco Crisp only played in 20 regular-season games. Half a season of replacement-level play from Juan Uribe is also gone next year — and, in a development that only serves to benefit the team, gone are the payments to Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, whose contracts finally end with the completion of the 2016 season. Financially, Cleveland looks in great shape. The team spent just a bit under $100 million this year. Not unlike the Royals, who increased payroll by $20 million ($30 million after deadline moves) after making the World Series the first time, Cleveland has some revenue with which to play now. Including projected arbitration numbers, Cleveland’s Opening Day payroll currently sits at roughly $104 million. Given the World Series run, and the attendance bump the team is likely to receive next season, increasing payroll higher shouldn’t be a problem. As for the team’s holes, Tyler Naquin is a fine player, but he might be a bit out of his element in center field. His arm will do just fine in right field, and a platoon of Brandon Guyer and Lonnie Chisenhall in left field likely provides adequate production. So before accounting for offseason moves, Cleveland is expected to enter the 2017 season with one true star position player in Lindor, good players in Kipnis and Ramirez, another above-average player in Santana, along with league-average production from catcher, left field, and right field. Nothing needs to be done with the rotation or bullpen, leaving only center field and first base as areas for improvement. It just so happens, Cleveland’s top prospect, Bradley Zimmer, plays center field and reached Triple-A this season. That’s not to say, of course, that he’s ready to appear in center field for Cleveland on Opening Day. Eric Longenhagen got a recent look at Zimmer at the Arizona Fall League and had this to say about the 23-year-old: Cleveland OF prospect Bradley Zimmer swung and missed a lot yesterday. It takes his bat quite a while to get into the hitting zone and his hitting actions look stiff and uncomfortable. The physical tools are clearly still there but I think there’s significant work to be done. That isn’t to diminish Zimmer’s promise as a prospect or even his present value, but assuming that he’ll serve as the club’s starting center fieler in April is probably a bit optimistic. That said, pursuing a long-term center fielder probably also doesn’t make sense for Cleveland. They could keep Naquin in center if other plans fall through and wait on Zimmer to push Naquin to a corner, or they could pursue a reasonably-priced stopgap in center, like Carlos Gomez, Austin Jackson, or Jon Jay. At first base, they could bring back Napoli, and expect similar production for another season. Alternatively, they could take a chance on an Adam Lind rebound — or, if they wanted to spend a bit more, sign Matt Holliday to play multiple positions as attempts to build value following two injury-laden, yet productive seasons. If Michael Brantley can return, even in a diminished capacity, added depth could be key in a long season. Then there’s the Andrew Miller question. Cleveland could return to the bullpen structure it featured before the deadline, enter the 2016 season with Allen as the lone relief ace, and try to get a haul from a team that loses out on Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, and Mark Melancon. Miller has two years and $18 million left on his contract. By selling now, Cleveland might be able to extend its window of contention a little longer while sacrificing a bit for 2017. They could also do the same for Cody Allen, whom the team controls for two seasons at what will be roughly the same price as Miller following arbitration. The club could fill holes at the major- or minor-league level and potentially recoup most, if not all, of the loss of prospects from the deadline trade with the Yankees. These options are likely less feasible given how well the two pitchers performed in the postseason, but if a great deal is out there, it should be explored given Cleveland’s strength at the closer position. Cleveland doesn’t need to sign a load of free agents to contend again next season, and the expiring contracts of Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher serve as a reminder of what can happen when a club gives out multi-year contracts to middling players. Many of the pieces are already in place, and a few minor additions should bolster a roster ready to compete. With the Detroit Tigers sending signals they want to rebuild, the Kansas City Royals’ run potentially closing, the Chicago White Sox mired in perpetual mediocrity, and the Minnesota Twins licking their wounds from a very tough 2016 season, the Central division will be Cleveland’s to lose — and it might not take as many wins to get to the playoffs next year. While contending for multiple seasons in a small market can be difficult, the path is right there for Cleveland to make a return to the playoffs and take a shot at the one win that eluded them last night.