2017 Indians: There’s no good reason why not


Larry Brown

Larry Brown was born the same year as the basketball coach of the same name, but his batting average was a bit below the basketball coach’s winning percentage. It’s fair to say, though, that Brown the baseball player has been on probation less. Larry Brown the baseball player was a defense first-shortstop at a time they were in vogue in the American League (Ed Brinkman, Mark Belanger). Brown came up with the Indians in 1963, became the starter the next year and kept the job for the rest of the decade, despite never hitting more than .253 until he lost the job in 1970 (.258) or more than 12 homers. But from 1964-68 he earned at least 1.0 of defensive WAR annually, Brown had highs of 12 home runs (1964), 40 RBIs (’64 and ’65), 22 doubles (’65) and 52 runs scored (’65). He hit .253 in ’65, which was probably his best year, but in 1966 he collided with teammate Leon Wagner in the Yankee Stadium outfield and suffered a fractured skull. Brown was sold to the A’s in April 1971 and was on the 1972 world champions, but didn’t play in the postseason because he had been placed on the 60-day DL. According to Brown’s bio at sabr.org, A’s owner Charlie Finley, “sent Brown a package with a faux World Series ring. Upon reading the enclosed card praising the ring as ‘finest quality synthetic white sapphire,’ Brown called Finley to voice his objection.” To the surprise of no one who knew Finley, Brown was released. He played 17 games for the 1973 Orioles, playing in the field in his only postseason appearance, and 54 more for Billy Martin’s Texas Rangers in 1974. Career numbers: .233 average, .612 OPS, 47 homers, 803 hits, 331 runs, 254 RBIs, 76 OPS+,.964 fielding percentage, 6.8 WAR.

Up next: The Indians drafted outfielders Brad Zimmer and Clint Frazier with their top picks in consecutive drafts, and the two spent much of the last two years  as teammates and outfield mates. It took Andrew Miller to part them, Frazier going to the Yankees in the trade and Zimmer staying. Did the Yankees get the better prospect? Baseball America, which has Frazier ranked 39th and Zimmer 62nd on its list of top 100 prospects, says so, but it’s hard to tell by looking at the numbers. Frazier has a career minor-league triple slash of .275/355/448, Zimmer 268/372/445. Frazier has 43 career steals, Zimmer 38 last year, but 14 caught stealings, or one more than successful steals by Frazier in 2016. Frazier hit 16 homers last year, Zimmer 15. Frazier walks less and strikes out less, Zimmer walks more and strikes out more. Both have speed enough to play center and arm enough to play right, but Frazier is 22 months younger, which is probably why he’s a Yankee prospect today.

What he said: “(They) invested in us. They believe in us. They believe that this is their window. They went out and made the right moves. They left it up to us, which is what, as a player, you want it to be.” Jason Kipnis on the Indians’ front office’s moves in the offseason. What he meant: “If Game 7 of the World Series comes down to the last out, it’s better not be Michael Martinez this year.”

Outlook: The Indians won 94 games last year and 10 of their first 12 in the postseason, then took a 1-0 lead in Game 5.

If you’re a Civil War buff, that’s what was considered the South’s autumn of 1862, the time when victory never looked more promising or certain. After that, though the last three games of the World Series for the Indians were Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Appomattox rolled into one, made so much more painful by how close the Indians came to winning.

It’s the fourth time the Indians have lost the World Series since they last won it in 1948, and maybe the most excruciating in so many ways (1997, when Jose Mesa lost the lead in the ninth inning of Game 7, can certainly make its case).

The 2016 Indians blew a 3-1 Series lead, the sixth team to do that, just months after the NBA Cavaliers overcame one to break the city’s title drought. Just like that, Believeland turned back into Denyville.

Like the ’75 Red Sox, the Indians pulled off one of the Series’ most improbable comebacks, only to lose in the end. They had the tying run in scoring position twice in Game 5 and failed to score, including with none out in the seventh. And when they were down to their final out in the 10th inning of Game 7, they had no one left  to bat but the bedraggled Martinez, who would have been just as effective if he taken a white flag to home plate rather than a bat.

You can be sure when the drum was struck for the final time last season by that Indians fan way out in center field, it was done out of anger with Martinez in mind.

The Indians begin 2017 as the Royals did 2015, swirling the disappointment of the previous World Series with the anticipation of the next one.

These Indians will start the season as the best team in the American League if not in baseball, thanks to the better health of their starting pitchers, a full season of Andrew Miller, the potential return of Michael Brantley, their best outfielder, and the addition of free-agent Edwin Encarnacion, which not only bolstered their team, but inflicted a critical blow to one they beat in last year’s postseason.

Even without Brantley and Encarnacion, the Indians were second in the AL in runs scored last year, and they were second in pitching, too, even though Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco were limited to 25 starts each.

As Cleveland fans know only too well, though, things can go wrong, and what’s promised in March can sour in August. Even these Indians, as strong as they look, have a few areas to tidy up before the fall.

Indians catchers had a .564 OPS in 2016, last in MLB, and the front office has done nothing but hope Yan Gomes can do better and wait for Francisco Mejia, who hit .342 at A ball last year. Trevor Bauer is still tinkering with drones and his curveball; if only he could control the drop of the latter as well as he does the former.

And the outfield, from which almost Series hero Rajai Davis was allowed to depart, could use a better bat than Lonnie Chisenhall, whose .767 OPS was 113th among players with 400 or more at-bats. The Indians were 19th in OPS among right fielders, but of the nine other playoff teams, only the Dodgers were worse.

The Indians were second in the AL in runs scored because they were first in steals and stolen base percentage and second in doubles, and much of that because of their infield, which might have been the best in baseball in 2016.

Second baseman Jason Kipnis hit 23 homers, 41 doubles, walked 60 times and stole 15 bases; shortstop Francisco Lindor hit .301 with 15 homers, 30 doubles and 19 steals at age 22; and third baseman Jose Ramirez, who’s played at least 50 games over the last four seasons at second, short, third and left, hit .312 with 46 doubles and 22 steals at age 23.

Two years ago Sports Illustrated put the Indians on their cover, picked them to win the World Series and asked Why Not Cleveland, touting the swing-and-miss capabilities of their young pitching staff.

Indians pitchers were first in strikeouts last year, if barely (1,398 to Houston’s 1,396 and the Yankees 1,393), but it’s the offense of their young infielders, the arrival of Encarnacion and the depth of their pitchers that has more than SI asking why not Cleveland in 2017.

There’s no good answer.

Team song: Billie Holiday: All or Nothing At All

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