The Cubs did something similar. Remember?
I’m sure the Indians do.
In 2015, with talks of billy goat curses, Steve Bartman and more than 100 years of disappointment pounding their ears, the Cubs couldn’t move past the National League Championship Series. Then came last year’s World Series for the ages. During extra innings in Game 7, the Cubs became baseball’s best team for a season for the first time in 108 years, and they did so against …
See where I’m going? I’m not saying the Indians will grab their first World Series championship since 1948 and only their third in history. I’m also not saying they won’t. I’m just saying they have Encarnacion to combine with all of that other stuff to give them a splendid chance of doing so.
Suddenly, baseball has an epidemic of young teams tasting the big time. We saw it with Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon and others for the Royals, and the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Addison Russell did much of the same for the Cubs.
The Indians have youthful players with impressive skills, ranging from Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis to Tyler Naquin and Jose Ramirez. They’ll only improve now that they’re hitting in a batting order that includes Encarnacion, who has averaged 39 home runs and 110 RBIs over the past five seasons. Just last year, he slammed 42 homers and drove in 127 RBIs for a Blue Jays team that was eliminated in the American League Championship Series by the Indians. So this first baseman/designated hitter is familiar with his new teammates, and he also knows about only getting “close” to a World Series championship, which means he wants to do better than that in a hurry.
In addition to Encarnacion, what also helps the Indians’ cause for redemption is a pitching staff that should be whole again following a slew of injuries. For quality and quantity, few rotations in baseball match that of the Indians’ Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin. The Indians needed every bit of that depth last season. In early September, Salazar left the rotation after he strained his pitching forearm, and several days later, Carrasco was sidelined by a line drive that damaged his pinkie finger.
The Indians made it to the World Series anyway.
As for the bullpen, Andrew Miller is among the game’s best relievers, and he joined them last year after a July trade with the Yankees. He wasted no time helping the Indians’ cause with his 4-0 record, 1.55 ERA, three saves and 46 strikeouts compared to two walks in 29 innings pitched.
Imagine Miller’s numbers with the Indians for a full season. Better yet, imagine all of that goodness on the horizon for their bullpen, combined with that starting pitching and their offense featuring Encarnacion, those rising stars and outfielder Michael Brantley, their best player before he suffered a torn labrum in September 2015. Brantley spent 2015 hitting .310 with 15 homers, a Major League-high 45 doubles and 84 RBIs, but he played just 11 games last season.
You know the rest. Yep, the Indians still made the World Series, and that’s greatly because of a common denominator for this team during the previous five seasons. His name is Terry Francona, their future Hall of Fame manager.
Nobody communicates with players better than Francona, and when you study his resume, you see a master of strategy. How else could he spend 16 seasons in the Major Leagues, winning 53 percent of the time along the way to two World Series championships and three AL pennants? Both of his titles came with a Red Sox franchise that hadn’t discovered ways to handle the Curse of the Bambino in 86 years. Francona did so in 2004 during his first season in town, and then he did it again three years later.
He has a chance to continue his miracle work in northern Ohio. He already has guided the Indians to their first stretch of at least four consecutive winning seasons since they had seven straight from 1995-2001. The Indians grabbed a couple of pennants back then, in 1995 and ’97, and this is just as impressive: From June 1995 to early April 2001, they set a Major League record with 455 consecutive sellouts at home.
The Indians have struggled at the gate in recent years, but their rebirth is contributing to a rejuvenated fan base. Soon after they signed Encarnacion just before Christmas, they sold beyond $1 million worth of tickets. The more packed you see Indians games this season, the more you’ll see their players react to it all, and the more you’ll see the Indians of 2017 resemble the Royals of 2015 and the Cubs of 2016.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.