CLEVELAND, Ohio — The team absent perhaps its most reliable batter for all but 11 games somehow ranked second in the American League in runs scored last season.
The Indians, without the services of Michael Brantley, received career years from Jason Kipnis, Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana. Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Tyler Naquin all blossomed in their first full seasons. Rajai Davis swiped more bases than any other AL speedster. Aside from Brantley’s hiccups and a black hole at the catcher position, the Indians’ lineup flourished.
Can there be a repeat in 2017 if Brantley can’t contribute like he once did? Edwin Encarnacion should make the task more attainable. The slugger ranks second in baseball with 193 home runs over the last five years.
Where does that position the Indians, in terms of the league’s best lineups? Let’s take a look.
OK, so maybe offense isn’t our strong suit
The Padres will put on the act “Wil Myers and The Band of Misfits and Prospects.” It’s not expected to be a box-office hit. The White Sox are rebuilding; any player with big-league service time is expendable. Aside from Joey Votto and Billy Hamilton, the Reds don’t boast anything worth the price of admission. The Rays prefer to be called “pitching-focused,” not “offensively lacking.”
It’s a good thing the Athletics signed Rajai Davis, in case they find themselves trailing in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the World Series. The Angels have filled some holes around Mike Trout, but he remains, just barely, the most productive player in the lineup.
This thing could go either way
Jesus Aguilar, in camp with Milwaukee, probably won’t crack the Brewers’ Opening Day lineup, if that tells you anything about the Brewers (it doesn’t). Max Kepler is back to terrorize Tribe pitching for the Twins. Dexter Fowler gives the Cardinals a much-needed offensive jolt. If Freddy Galvis can hit 20 home runs for the Phillies, anyone can. The Braves’ rotation might be filled with AARP members, but the lineup revolves around young shortstop Dansby Swanson.
That sound you hear is the clock ticking toward free agency for Royals’ core pieces Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain, who can all hit the market this winter. Giancarlo Stanton can mesmerize anyone with his majestic home runs, but the Marlins need him to just stay healthy. Yoenis Cespedes is back with the Mets, which removes Asdrubal Cabrera from the role of primary power source. What can Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez produce over 150 games, after an incredible half-season debut? No Giants player slugged more than 17 homers last season, which shouldn’t have mattered because it was an even year, so they were supposed to win the World Series.
Just missed the cut
Corey Seager and Justin Turner give the Dodgers as much infield thump as any team. Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt remains one of the league’s most unheralded treasures. The Pirates’ outfield of Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen is a force. The Mariners have pieced together a strong middle of the order, fit with Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, Nelson Cruz and Jean Segura.
10. Toronto Blue Jays
Even without Encarnacion, the Blue Jays boast an imposing offense, with Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Bautista in the middle.
9. Baltimore Orioles
No player in baseball has clubbed more home runs over the last five seasons than Chris Davis. No player in baseball clubbed more home runs last season than Mark Trumbo. Oh, and few players ooze more talent than Manny Machado.
8. Detroit Tigers
The Tigers are still trying to hang on. If Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez can stand upright and wrap their fingers around the handle of a bat, their lineup will give them a fighting chance.
7. Colorado Rockies
The Rocky Mountain altitude can make any lineup overachieve, and the Rockies fared far better at home than on the road in 2017.
Home: .304/.369/.516 (opponents at Coors Field: .288/.352/.469)
This group, though, is loaded. D.J. LeMahieu captured the National League batting crown last season. Trevor Story enjoyed a rookie-season power surge. Nolan Arenado has led the NL in homers and RBI in each of the last two seasons. Charlie Blackmon posted a .933 OPS. Now, Ian Desmond joins the fold.
6. Cleveland Indians
Even without Brantley, this lineup could thrive, but there are questions. Can they run as expertly and as aggressively as they did in 2016? Can Naquin make the necessary adjustments (read: hit a high fastball)? Can the Indians can something, anything from their crop of catchers?
5. Boston Red Sox
When it comes to well-rounded outfielders, Mookie Betts might only be bested by Mike Trout. Boston outscored the rest of the AL by a significant margin. The Red Sox shouldn’t have trouble circling the bases, even with David Ortiz now sipping Mai Tais under a palm tree.
4. Texas Rangers
Mike Napoli and Jonathan Lucroy, together at last, but in the center of the Rangers’ lineup, not the Indians’. They’ll be surrounded by plenty of talent, including Rougned Odor (33 doubles, 33 homers last year), Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Carlos Gomez and Nomar Mazara.
3. Washington Nationals
A top four of — in some order — Adam Eaton, Trea Turner, Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy is as good as it gets. It doesn’t slack much after that, either, with Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Matt Wieters and Ryan Zimmerman in the mix.
2. Chicago Cubs
There’s no need to drone on and on about Kyle Schwarber, though his bat will add another element to Joe Maddon’s lineup in 2017. Anthony Rizzo and reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant don’t need much help as it is.
1. Houston Astros
There really isn’t a weak spot in this batting order, unless Carlos Beltran shows his age. Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Yuliesky Gurriel form quite a prolific, young infield.