Spring Training is less than a month away! Let us keep you company until the first pitcher-and-catcher workouts on Feb. 18 with a team-by-team countdown of reasons to get excited for the 2016 MLB season. Today: The Cleveland Indians.
While the respective dinger exploits of Yoenis Cespedes and Daniel Murphy certainly helped, the Mets blazed through the NL last season behind an army of flame-throwing starters -- the product of a certified ace and several heralded prospects coming together at the perfect time.
But enough about last season. Spring Training is less than two weeks away, which means it's time to dream about which team is most likely to follow the Mets' blueprint and shock the league with a breakout staff in 2016. Allow us to introduce the Cleveland Indians.
The Ace: Corey Kluber
The first thing to know about the Indians? They strike people out. Like, a lot. Cleveland starters combined to whiff 8.91 batters per nine innings last season, the AL's highest mark by a significant margin. If you're wondering how the heck that's possible, say hello to Corey Kluber, a man who can do stuff like this to actual Major League hitters:
The 2014 Cy Young Award winner went just 9-16 this past season, but don't be fooled: He was still one of the very best pitchers in baseball. Kluber's walks and hits were actually down in 2015, and his ERA spike (3.49 in '15, up more than a full run from the year before) can be chalked up to a fluky rise in home runs -- after giving up just 29 over 2013-14 combined, he gave up 22 last season. Should you still harbor some skepticism, we've got some more GIFs for that:
The above is just six of Kluber's 18 strikeouts against the Cardinals back in May. Five days later, he fanned 12 White Sox.
The Next Big Thing: Danny Salazar
Salazar signed with the Indians at 16 and immediately proceeded to tear through the Minor Leagues. Ever since, we've been waiting for the breakout. But he struggled a bit adjusting to the big leagues, posting a 4.25 ERA in his first full season in 2014. Which left us to wonder: Would he realize his potential? Was 2015 the year he put it all together? Survey says:
At just 25 years old, Salazar posted a 3.45 ERA while striking out more than a batter per inning and doing an A+ Jason Kipnis impression:
Get on the Cy Young/Oscar Nominee Dark Horse bandwagon soon, because there might not be any room left come summer.
The Wild Card: Carlos Carrasco
Carlos Carrasco's career has been a roller coaster -- from top Phillies prospect to Cliff Lee trade piece to Tommy John surgery to the Indians rotation to the Indians bullpen and, finally, back to the rotation again. It's been a long and winding road, but consider this: Since rejoining the rotation in 2014, here is a complete list of pitchers with a better FIP than Carrasco.
1. Clayton Kershaw
2. Jake Arrieta
What's his secret? He keeps the ball down -- more than half of the balls put in play off Carrasco were grounders -- and, because Cleveland starters are committed to remaining on-brand, he strikes a bunch of people out. Last year, Carrasco sat down 10.6 (!) batters per nine, which roughly translates to:
The Sleeper: Trevor Bauer
It seems strange to label Bauer a sleeper -- he had a historically awesome career at UCLA, was selected third overall in the 2011 Draft by the D-backs and has carried the weight of expectation ever since. But after tearing through the Minor Leagues, he was rushed to the Majors at age 21, and he struggled to find his footing.
Very quietly, though, he's shown signs of putting it all together in Cleveland. Over the past two seasons, Bauer has already established himself as a solid rotation piece -- posting ERAs of 4.18 and 4.55 -- and when he's on, he is on. Like the time he threw six no-hit innings against the Astros in his very first start of the season:
Or the time he gave up just two runs in a complete game against the Royals:
Or the time he savaged his own teammate while taking over the Indians' Twitter account during Spring Training last year:
atchison with a clean inning. still 6-0 good guys here in goodyear. Atch is probably done as it is close to his bedtime- Cleveland Indians (@Indians) March 13, 2015
Sure, consistency (and proper social media etiquette) remains an issue, but Bauer is somehow still just 25, with plenty of time to figure it out, and he's already shown flashes of being an ace -- not bad for a guy penciled as the No. 4 starter.
So, to recap, the Indians will roll into 2016 with: An ace, a guy well on his way to becoming an ace, a guy who may have quietly grown into an ace, and a former super-prospect with definite ace potential. Oh, and the fifth starter spot is a toss-up between Josh Tomlin and Cody Anderson, who were well above average last season in limited action. We go now to Cleveland for a live reaction: