Tribe has path paved for repeat run in 2017

With core returning, club confident it can play at championship-caliber level

Tribe has path paved for repeat run in 2017

CLEVELAND -- The Indians like how they are situated, coming off a division championship, the American League pennant and pushing the Cubs to the limit in the World Series. As the club plans for next year, there is comfort in knowing that most of the roster is returning, and with more experience.

"It's definitely a good feeling going into the offseason feeling like we have a really good core in place," Indians general manager Mike Chernoff said. "A lot of that core is here even beyond this year for 2017 and going forward. So it feels like there's a lot to build around. We know we have a championship-caliber team that hopefully can compete -- not just for one year, but for multiple years."

The Indians have a talented rotation led by Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. The bullpen is anchored by relief ace Andrew Miller and closer Cody Allen. The lineup has an emerging star in Francisco Lindor, a leader in Jason Kipnis and a breakout performer in Jose Ramirez, among others. Michael Brantley is expected to be back healthy and the Indians have agreed to a three-year deal to add slugger Edwin Encarnacion to the fold, too. Two-time Manager of the Year Terry Francona will continue to pull the levers.

Francona on staying in moment

The Indians look to be in a great spot as 2017 approaches, but there are still questions:

1. Can the Indians repeat as AL Central champs?

The White Sox made it clear that they are rebuilding, with the trades of ace Chris Sale and Adam Eaton this offseason. The Tigers are also reportedly looking to shed some of their big contracts. The Royals declined last year after winning the World Series in 2015. The Twins are a team in transition. Given the landscape of the division, the Indians will head into '17 as the clear favorites to win the AL Central crown again. Cleveland will also be one of the heavy favorites in the AL, given its run to the World Series and the fact that the bulk of its roster remains intact.

2. Can the Tribe count on Michael Brantley?

Cleveland has indicated that Brantley, who underwent season-ending surgery on his right biceps in August and was limited to 11 games last year, will be ready for Spring Training and Opening Day. But even if Brantley is healthy, it will be important to see if he can be the hitter he was for the Indians in 2014-15 after essentially missing a full year. Getting Brantley back at full strength would be a huge boost for the lineup.

3. How will Encarnacion impact the lineup?

Last year, the Indians ranked 13th in the AL and 23rd in baseball with 91 home runs by right-handed batters. Mike Napoli accounted for 37 percent of those homers with 34. Overall, the first baseman hit 18 percent of Cleveland's 185 homers as a team. With Napoli hitting the free-agent market, the Indians upgraded with Encarnacion. The Tribe's new slugger belted 42 homers with 127 RBIs for Toronto last year, and has averaged 39 homers with a .912 OPS over the past five seasons. While Napoli thrived against lefty pitching, Encarnacion has been effective against both lefties and righties. His .909 OPS against right-handed pitchers is the third-best mark among righty batters since 2012, trailing only Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera. Encarnacion has also posted a .544 slugging percentage over the last three years, compared to a .435 mark for Napoli, who had a .285 slugging from Aug. 15 through the end of the postseason last year.

Encarnacion headed to Cleveland

4. Who will be the starting catcher?

During the playoffs, Roberto Perez put his skills as an elite defender, game-caller and pitch-framer on display. With the exception of his two-homer outburst in Game 1 of the World Series, though, Perez's offense lagged. He filled in as the starter for Yan Gomes, who was still dealing with a fractured right wrist in October. Neither catcher hit much in 2016, but both are valued greatly for their defensive prowess. Gomes won a Silver Slugger Award in 2014, so he has hit in the past. He is also under contract for $4.5 million and through at least '19. Expect Gomes to open '17 as the starter behind the plate, but the Indians know they have a capable catcher right behind him in Perez.

Statcast: Perez's two homers

5. Will Bradley Zimmer reach The Show in '16?

This could be a situation similar to 2015, when shortstop Lindor joined the Indians by mid-June. Zimmer, who is Cleveland's No. 1 prospect per, reached Triple-A Columbus last summer, but he still needs some polishing. The center fielder posted a .654 OPS in 150 plate appearances at Triple-A. Overall, Zimmer hit .250 with 15 homers, 25 doubles, six triples, 62 RBIs, 76 runs, 77 walks, 38 steals and 177 strikeouts between Double-A Akron and Triple-A last season. If he shows solid progress in Triple-A, he could impact the Tribe next season.

Zimmer looks to join Tribe

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.