The Indians will win the Central, and other predictions for 2018

Last year was supposed to be the Indians’ year.

It wasn’t.

The Indians went all-in for 2017, and in doing so created a club as talented as a generation of Indians fans have ever seen. And the season was a historic success.

The Tribe won more than 100 games, and somehow claimed 22 straight victories over a three-and-a-half week stretch over August and September.

It was remarkable. But it ended badly. Losing three straight postseason games to the underdog Yankees (yes, that’s a thing that happened) made 2017 a memory, and a frustrating one at that.

Six months later, the Indians are back. They are championship contenders, and most expect them to win the American League Central.

I do, too. But the expectations — with the fans and the franchise — are higher than that. In fact, it’s getting to the point where winning the World Series is about the only thing that will make the season a success.

While many in the media make World Series predictions, it’s almost a pointless exercise. Most World Series contenders add pieces at the deadline, and those transactions change their rosters drastically.

Would the Houston Astros have won the World Series last year without trading for Justin Verlander? Would anyone have predicted last March that the Tigers would even trade Verlander?

I’m confident saying the Indians will win the American League Central in 2018. After that, who knows?

Nonetheless, I do have some predictions for the Indians in 2018:

n Jason Kipnis will have a big comeback season.

Limited to 90 games in 2017 due to injury, Kipnis was a disappointment when he did play. He hit .232 and had just 12 homers. Worse for Kipnis, the Indians played their best baseball of the season when he was on the shelf. Jose Ramirez moved to second, Gio Urshela and Yandy Diaz played third, and the Indians won and won and won.

When Kipnis returned, manager Terry Francona was reluctant to change the infield, so he moved the veteran to center field.

Results were mixed, but the biggest issue was Kipnis was a non-factor offensively. In the aftermath of the season, there was talk of a trade.

But Kipnis looks to be healthy and in great shape and hit playing well in Spring Training. He’s back at second base. I expect him to have one of the best seasons of his career.

n Bryan Shaw will be missed more than Carlos Santana.

This is not a knock on Santana, who was a durable, steady presence for the Indians at first base. But the Tribe was able to sign Yonder Alonso to replace Santana.

There was no ready replacement for Shaw.

Shaw took plenty of heat from Indians fans. He took the loss in Game 7 of the ’16 World Series. He sometimes imploded in big situations.

But some of that was by design. Francona didn’t use Shaw in games where the Indians were up 8-2. He used him in tight games, some of which were literally no-win situations. If you are pitching in a tie game in the seventh, a mistake gets magnified. But for all the talk about how good the Indians bullpen is, the reality is that when the moments were big, Francona only seemed to completely trust three guys — Andrew Miller, Cody Allen and Shaw.

And Shaw was remarkably durable. He led the league in appearances in three of the last four years. He pitched in 79 games last year. Essentially, he’s a late-inning reliever who pitched every other day. His earned run average was a little high last year — 3.52. Whoever replaces Shaw may be as effective. But he’ll be unlikely to match Shaw’s durability.

* Bradley Zimmer will have a breakout year. And he’ll steal a ton of bases.

I haven’t heard anyone say it, but one of the reasons I believe the Indians were so keen on bringing back Rajai Davis is the impact he has on young players.

The Indians stole 88 bases last year. No player stole 20. Zimmer actually led the team with 18.

In 2016, when Davis was in Cleveland, the team stole 134 bases.

Davis is a base-stealing savant. He led the team with 43 that year. But he also helped turn the Indians into an aggressive squad on the bases. Jose Ramirez stole 22 bases that year. In fact, everyone of the Tribe regulars except for Yan Gomes stole bases. Even Mike Napoli had five steals.

Which brings us back to Zimmer. An outstanding defensive outfielder who seems to glide to the ball, I believe Zimmer has superstar potential. He has the ability to hit 20 homers and steal 35 bases. Will he? I hope he’s talking to Davis.

* Michael Brantley will not be that much of a factor.

No one likes Brantley more than me. Once viewed as a potential fourth outfielder, his quick stroke, his speed and his consistency turned him into one of the best outfielders in the game.

But that was three years ago. Since then, the star outfielder has been a question mark. He missed all of the 2016 season.

Yes, Brantley was an All-Star last year. But he was hampered a again by injuries, and probably shouldn’t have been on the postseason roster. When he played against the Yankees, he looked extremely rusty.

This season, Brantley is again dealing with injuries, and there’s some question about when he’ll be back as an everyday player.

He’ll be 31 in May. But the Indians picked up his $11 million option for this season. It was surprising, since maybe that money could have gone to Jay Bruce, or someone who hasn’t been injured so much over the last two years.

Maybe he’ll return to form. But I wouldn’t count on it.

* Somehow, some way, Yandy Diaz will make big contributions to this club.

Diaz has nothing left to prove in the minors. But he finds himself in Columbus because Ramirez is back at third base and the team doesn’t appear convinced he can play the outfield.

Look, if it were up to me, Kipnis would have been traded, Ramirez would have stayed at second and Diaz would have patrolled third. And that’s even with me believing Kipnis will have a big season.

That’s how much I like Diaz.

He hit .350 in Triple A last year. He hit better than .260 at the big league level. At 26, there’s just not much left to prove.

But his chance will come. Injuries and someone’s ineffectiveness will open the door for him. And then he’ll be in Cleveland.

For good.

* Francisco Lindor will win the MVP, and Carlos Carrasco will win the Cy Young.

No real heavy explanation needed here. Lindor is hitting his prime. Carrasco was one of the best in the game last year. I expect them to push the Indians into October, and beyond.

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