Cleveland Indians Season Preview: Can they hang with the other AL heavyweights?

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The Klubot heads a dominant Cleveland rotation. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
The Klubot heads a dominant Cleveland rotation. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Editor’s note: Baseball is back and Yahoo Sports is previewing all 30 teams over the next month. This year’s previews will focus on fantasy and reality, as our MLB news staff and our fantasy baseball crew come together to assess each team before opening day. Next up, the Cleveland Indians.

Major League Baseball will have some competitive divisions this year. The American League Central does not figure to be one of them. The Cleveland Indians, who have won the AL Central the last three years, are about as sure a thing as you’ll find in baseball this year.

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They won the division by 13 games last year, never really being tested and never really playing up to their pretty high potential either. But in a division with the rebuilding White Sox, rebuilding Tigers, rebuilding Royals and up-and-down Twins, the Indians kinda feel like Baker Mayfield and OBJ playing football against a high school team.

They’ll be good. The question is, how good, and how much can they hang with the other AL heavyweights come October. Everything else? Well, it could be good for your fantasy team. Every Indians pitcher is worth a look in your draft, and they’ve got some franchise cornerstones in Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez any owner would covet.

The question beyond that is the big question for the Indians in fantasy and reality: Who else stands out? Will Hanley Ramirez revive his career? Will Jake Bauers turn into something? Will Brad Hand bring back Cleveland’s bullpen? Plenty of time to entertain those questions when your core is as strong as the Indians’. - Mike Oz

Cleveland’s Offseason grade

The Indians certainly could have done more, but clearly they didn’t need to do a ton to be the division favorite. So in an era where big-market teams are watching their checkbooks more than ever, it’s not a surprise that Cleveland is crossing their fingers for good health and hoping their strong core delivers another division title.

The offseason? It was pretty ho-hum. The Indians could have used another outfielder, but didn’t get anyone of note on the open market. They did trade Edwin Encarnacion and got back Carlos Santana for another tour of duty. For all the talk about them possibly trading a starting pitcher, that didn’t happen.

Beyond Santana, the Indians’ offseason was basically getting Jake Bauers in a trade with the Rays and hoping Hanley Ramirez is a buy-low steal who can help them as a DH.

The worst thing of the offseason, honestly, might be that Lindor got hurt and is doubtful for opening day.

Our grade: D+ — It wasn’t all that great, but it was like bombing a final when you already have an A in the class. - Mike Oz

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Cleveland’s Projected lineup and pitching staff

The Cleveland Indians projected lineup for 2019. (Yahoo Sports)
The Cleveland Indians projected lineup for 2019. (Yahoo Sports)

Who will be Cleveland’s fantasy breakout?

Shane Bieber struck out better than a batter per inning last season (9.3 K/9), he rarely walked anyone (1.8 BB/9) and his slider is simply cruel ...

He won't turn 24 until May, so this is a young player with plenty of development ahead. Last year's underlying numbers suggest Bieber's ERA could have been a full run better in his first MLB season. His minor league ratios were absolutely ridiculous prior to his arrival in Cleveland: 77 Ks, 7 BB in 79.2 IP, 1.47 ERA, 0.79 WHIP. It won't be much of a surprise if he emerges as a must-own mixed league fantasy asset. -Andy Behrens

What is Cleveland’s biggest fantasy question?

Cleveland's squad has the look of a stars-and-scrubs fantasy lineup, featuring a collection of $1 outfielders (Naquin, Bauers, Martin, Luplow, Joyce, et al). As of this writing, the team's outfield plan seems to be the big open question. Bradley Zimmer is a fun power/speed combo player, but he's returning from shoulder surgery and unlikely to be ready for the opener. None of the healthy scrubs have obvious mixed league appeal.

Another interesting sideshow for this team is whether Hanley Ramirez, at 35, can produce another useful season. He's only a couple years removed from a 30-homer, 111-RBI campaign in Boston, but he's hit just .245/.318/.421 over the past two seasons. -Andy Behrens

Cleveland’s Prospect to watch

Many of the team’s top prospects are buried lower in the minors. While he’s no longer a prospect, Jake Bauers will be a guy to watch in 2019. He didn’t hit for average last season, but a change of scenery could do him some good.

Pitcher Triston McKenzie would make an impact in 2019 on any other team. He’s continued to put up great numbers as he moves up the minors, but Cleveland has a dominant rotation and can give McKenzie more time to develop. First baseman Bobby Bradley might be the closest prospect to the majors. He should add pop, but it will come with a fair amount of strikeouts. Bradley is currently blocked at first by Carlos Santana. - Chris Cwik

Things that MUST go right for Cleveland

1. The replacements work out: The Indians lost 13 players from last season's roster, including the likes of Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion, Yan Gomes, Josh Donaldson and Andrew Miller. That means several new players or players with lesser roles will have to step up. The return of Carlos Santana will help, but the pressure will be on young stars like outfielder Bradley Zimmer to stay healthy and produce. With several bench and bullpen spots to be determined this spring, they'll have to hope other gems emerge.

2. Stars bring it: Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor have been playing at an elite level for awhile now. Both were top six finishers in the MVP balloting last season, and they're probably pretty safe bets to approach or repeat that level of play this year.

The rotation is not as strong a bet to remain elite just based on workload. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger became the first foursome from one team to finish with 200 or more strikeouts in the same season. That's the good. The bad is that the innings continued to pile up. That foursome might have to carry an even bigger load in 2019.

3. Division stays at bay: The good news for Cleveland is that the Twins will need to take two steps forward this season to make up for last season's step back. Meanwhile, the White Sox, Tigers and Royals will remain in rebuilding mode. The bad news is that Minnesota might be good enough to take the necessary steps, while the White Sox could be ready for a breakthrough. An improved division will put additional pressure on Cleveland. A bad division would give the Indians the luxury of figuring things out as they go. - Mark Townsend

If this team had a walk-up song, what would it be?

It might be a bit of sacrilege to pick a Houston rap song for a Cleveland team, but hey, I really like this one and it really does fit the 2019 Indians. UGK’s “The Game Belongs To Me” is a smooth song by some vets who know no one else is on their level. Which, hello, that’s the 2019 Indians in the AL Central. - Mike Oz

More 2019 MLB Previews From Yahoo Sports

Baltimore | Miami | Kansas City | Detroit | Texas | Toronto | San Diego

Chicago (AL) | Minnesota | San Francisco | Pittsburgh | Arizona | Seattle

Cincinnati | Los Angeles (AL) | Oakland | Tampa Bay | Colorado | Cleveland

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