Michael Brantley's return keys Cleveland hope for Series return

Michael Brantley's return keys Cleveland hope for Series return

Indians

Michael Brantley's return keys Cleveland hope for Series return

By Scott Bordow, azcentral sports

It was obviously a magical 2016 season for Cleveland despite blowing a 3-1 lead over the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. When the year began the Indians weren’t even the favorite in the American League Central. Sports Illustrated, for example, had them finishing 83-79.

But despite having outfielder Michael Brantley for just 11 games (shoulder) and losing Abraham Almonte and Marlon Byrd to suspensions for the use of performance enhancing drugs, Cleveland rolled into the postseason and then swept the Boston Red Sox and beat the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS 4-1 before falling to the Cubs.

The Indians didn’t bring home a championship trophy like LeBron James did for the Cavaliers, but they gave the city a summer it will never forget.

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Top draw

Brantley, who had offseason shoulder surgery and then was shut down in August, had little impact on the Indians’ run to the World Series, but his return would further bolster a dangerous lineup. Just two years ago Brantley hit .310 with 15 homers, 84 RBIs and 15 stolen bases. When fully healthy he’s a middle-of-the-order bat. Cleveland will take it slowly with Brantley during March but the Cactus League should give Tribe fans an idea of whether Brantley can again be the player he was in 2015.

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Position battle

It sounds silly to say the closer job is up in the air. After all, Cody Allen converted 32 of 35 save opportunities last season and has 90 saves over the past three seasons. But left-hander Andrew Miller is one of the more dominant relievers in the game, striking out 123 batters last year in 74 1/3 innings. It will be difficult if not impossible for Miller to be used as he was in the postseason, when manager Terry Francona brought him in for multiple innings. The question becomes whether he serves as a set-up man for Allen, takes over in the ninth inning or the two share the job, depending on workload and matchups over the final three outs.

Breaking in

It’s going to be difficult for a young player to break into a lineup that’s set on a return World Series berth, but with the loss of free agent Rajai Davis there is an outfield spot open and it’s just waiting for Bradley Zimmer, the top prospect in the organization. Few doubt Zimmer’s ability or eventual impact but there’s some question as to whether he’s ready for the major leagues after a 2016 season in which he hit .250 with 171 strikeouts in 468 at-bats. Where Zimmer begins the 2017 season likely will depend on how he plays in spring training; if he puts up good numbers he’ll likely be in the Opening Day lineup. If he struggles, another year at Triple-A – and an eventual midseason call-up – is more probable.

Manager: Terry Francona

Last season’s record: 94-67

Big changes: After coming within one win of capturing the World Series the Indians didn’t need to do much in the off-season. The big move, of course, was signing first baseman/designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year, $60 million deal. Other than that, Cleveland is counting on its core and the return to health of players like Brantley and starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco to go even further in 2017.

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