The Cleveland Indians are feeling confident about the upcoming season with less than two weeks until Opening Day. The team has had a solid spring training with a few pleasant surprises. WKSU commentator Terry Pluto has spent the past week with the Tribe in Goodyear, Ariz., and says there are four reasons why the Indians will be Central Division contenders:
1. Michael Brantley's earlier-than-expected return
"At one point, I didn't believe this rumor, but I heard that he wasn't going to be back until August. He had major shoulder surgery. Well, anybody who's been around the Indians and Brantley, know that he's a relentless worker. People always (say), 'He looks just like God created a baseball player: long, lean and just in create shape.'
"It's not by accident. He told me, 'I did every drill. Every exercise. I never took a day off.'
"Saturday night, in front of more than 11,000 people at the ballpark in Goodyear, the biggest crowd they've ever had here. It was a 96 mph fastball and Brantley hit it over 400-ft into the right field seats. It was such a cool moment -- you don't get much of that in Spring Training."
Will Brantley be in the lineup on Opening Day April 4th?
"That has been his goal all the way for months. The Indians have tried to downplay it. They want to make sure he doesn't have any setbacks. He looks fine. You would never guess he had anything wrong with him."
2. Veteran players looking for "one good year"
In the off-season, the Indians signed several veteran players to one-year deals. Those include Juan Uribe, Marlon Byrd, Joba Chamberlain, Tommy Hunter, Dan Otero and Rajai Davis.
"Some people who would look at the Indians would say they're just going through a baseball rummage sale," Pluto says. "They're looking at guys who have played with several teams, guys in their mid-to-late 30's. Trying to squeeze one more good year out of them.
"The most interesting of those guys is a player named Mike Napoli. He played with the Angels, Texas and the Boston Red Sox. He's hit over 200 big-league homers. He's a first baseman.
"He had a really strange season last year. He didn't want to talk about it for a while. He said, 'Alright, here's what I've been dealing with the past 10 years.' He talked about sleep apnea. He said, 'I never had a really good night's sleep for over 10 years. I tried everything I could.' So finally, he went in and doctors did this surgery, reset his whole face so this guy could get a night's sleep.
"He's had a huge camp. He's hitting over .400. They might have gotten lucky on this one because this guy is a good player if he's healthy."
3. Tyler Naquin
"Tyler Naquin was their first-round draft pick back in 2012. He wasn't supposed to be the center fielder. The Indians had another good player named Abraham Almonte, who came up in the middle of last year. Almonte flunked the performance-enhancing drug test and suspended for 80 games.
Naquin is a player they've liked but they've kind of rushed the timetable on him. They brought him into Spring Training just curious to see what he does. He's hit around .400.
"But, his problem is he keeps running into walls! He's hurt his hip. They're actually going to talk to him about that."
4. The pitching
"Corey Kluber's given up one run in 14 innings this spring. Danny Salazar is throwing the ball in the middle 90's. Carlos Carrasco. Trevor Bauer has a terrific arm. They have some other starters, Josh Tomlin, Cody Anderson and Carlos Carrasco.
"They have a lot of pitching. In fact, that's the thing that attracted Mike Napoli to the Indians because he said he had a couple of teams after him. He said at this point in his career, he's been to the playoffs seven times with different teams, and he wants to get there again. And he thought Cleveland pitching was the reason to come here because they could get him there again."
Pluto concludes, "ESPN and the major sports websites are picking the Indians to either win the Central Division or contend."