Offseason addresses some needs, mostly proves Tribe's faith in returning team

I’m saddened each time I realize I will likely never fulfill the only position that would properly make use of my encyclopedic knowledge of obscure scenes from popular movies: jumbo-tron video screen operator.

When I think of the 2016 Indians team, I already have the perfect clip for opening day to show for a public likely skeptical for a lack of impact moves.

Gene Hackman’s portrayal of coach Norman Dale in 1986’s “Hoosiers” faced a similar predicament when his team’s best player’s refusal to play didn’t sit well with the high school’s crazed fans. Without missing a beat, he declared, “I would hope you would support who we are—not who we are not. This is your team”

We all remember how the movie ended (it’s been 30 years - it’s not a spoiler anymore) — the Hickory Huskers catch fire and win the state championship against all odds. Then again it wouldn’t have been worth making a movie about if it ended any other way.

Anyway, barring Jimmy Chitwood changing his mind when the community threatens to force Terry Francona out of Clevland at a town hall meeting, it appears the Indians are content to idly stand pat until the season commences. The Tribe is banking on the steady improvement of a supremely gifted pitching rotation and young defensive talent along with a few modest veteran additions sprinkled in while the teams they vie against for the AL Central Division crown have each addressed their respective deficiencies.
Mike Napoli

You better have faith in the squad the Indians resembled to end the season because there will be few major differences with the exception of Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis.

If Rick Pitino was calling the shots for the Tribe, he might tell fans that Alex Gordon is not walking through that door. Todd Frazier isn’t walking through that door and Justin Upton isn’t walking through that door.

No, all those guys went to division rivals

The bad news for Tribe fans hoping for a big bang this offseason: It wasn’t winter 2012-13.

That winter, which netted Cleveland Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn has proven to be an outlier among a dozen other quite offseasons.

The good news for Tribe fans hoping for a big bang this offseason: it won’t be winter 2012-13.

Whether it’s coincidence, cautionary tale or excuse that the ill-fated deals doled out to Swisher and Bourn effectively ended any venture into the free agency market, it’s become abundantly clear the Indians will only wade about ankle-deep in the yearly unattached talent pool.

So the thinking goes, toxic deals like the ones the four-year Swisher and Bourn pacts represent can sink the franchise much faster than ones that aren’t made (In fairness, the Tribe does deserve some credit in ridding themselves of those deals, even if it meant swallowing $15 and Chris Johnson’s contract).

In the case of Frazier this winter, this thinking even extended into trades.

Consider this: in the three offseasons since Bourn and Swisher’s signings, Cleveland has inked just one free agent signing of more than one season: David Murphy to two years in 2014. This winter’s class of Napoli and Davis continued the trend, as both signed for just the 2016 season.

That each can potentially fill a need on the roster is a coup, considering few everyday players would even entertain the idea of a one-year deal. That both will finish the season still a vertical member of the Tribe is a question mark.

All those who were left asking themselves “what’s the holdup with Napoli?” between the initial news of the signing and the official word of his putting pen to paper aren’t just devout followers of Jesse Ventura. Nope, you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder why it took a guy who has seen recent seasons interrupted by the same hip trouble that truncated Bo Jackson’s career nearly three weeks to get a Wahoo hat after he took his official team physical.

And fans who conjured Bourn upon hearing of Davis’ signing weren’t merely paranoid judging from his diminished stolen base totals in each of the last three years (45 in 2013, 36 in 2014 and 18 in 2015).

But such is the nature of one-year pacts; they’re likely a player’s last deal before they’re relegated to the minor league contract market.

So what is it that Napoli and Davis bring to the table?
Rajai Davis

For starters, both fill needs that were identified in the off-season.

Davis can play center field, though he is probably better suited for left, while Napoli is a right-handed bat with power that plays a corner position. In both cases, the Tribe is hoping they can turn back time, as Davis, 35, and Napoli, 34, each had among their worst seasons in 2015.

Napoli staggered to a career-worst .207 average to go along with 13 home runs for the first 98 games last season for Boston before enjoying a renaissance of sorts with his old team in Texas, where he hit .295 with five dingers in 35 games. Napoli will fit in the Indians lineup due to his patient approach at the plate (he managed a .324 OBP despite his struggles in 2015), though he can also strike out at an alarming rate (whiffed once just over every three at-bats).

But what he does bring to the Tribe is a stellar defensive reputation.

Though Napoli’s defensive metrics did see a dip in 2015—a -0.3 defensive WAR for Boston and -0.2 for Texas—he is still considered an upgrade over Carlos Santana, whose -1.4 dWAR ranked four spots from the bottom among regular first basemen in the Major Leagues.

Although continuing to shore up a defense that exponentially improved as last season progressed isn’t a bad idea, I’m not entirely convinced the keeper of first base makes all that much of a difference when compared to other infield positions. Maybe I’m just old school that way.

Davis’ arrival comes at a welcome time for the Indians, who will be without Michael Brantley for at least the first month of the season while recovering from November labrum surgery in his right shoulder.

While he’s not a wizard with the glove, Davis gives Cleveland a solid veteran presence in the outfield, having played more than 700 innings in all three spots. Neither of the players currently penciled in to start, Abraham Almonte and Lonnie Chisenhall, have yet to log an entire season in the outfield. It will be interesting to see how Francona splits up the playing time in the outfield, especially once Brantley returns to the lineup.

If for nothing else, it's a plus just to get Davis out of Detroit. No matter where he's been, Davis has been a thorn in the Indians’ side, hitting .304 (58-for-191) with 18 steals and a .790 OPS for his career them

Among all the other outfielder acquisitions the tribe got on clearance – Colin Cowgill, Joey Butler, Michael Choice, Shane Robinson and Robbie Grossman – Davis is likely the only one who is competent enough with a bat to even be trusted to apply pine tar without making a mess of himself.

In fact, that’s the sense you get from this team when it comes to bringing in outside talent—they just don’t want them to mess up what they have. Whether it’s an approach that is borne out of necessity due to the front office’s unwillingness to spend, or they truly believe that the team that won 32 of its last 53 games to finish last season can carry the mojo over into 2016, this is the team they’re rolling with.

A pitching staff this supremely talented and a young, athletic defense that should keep getting better with experience should cause you to proceed with caution if you choose to write them off.

And with almost exactly a month before spring training starts, the possibility of inking reasonably priced unsigned free agents, such as Austin Jackson and Dexter Fowler, may increase ever so slightly each day.

But make no mistake: Kipnis, Brantley, Gomes, Santana and Lindor are the names that will be called upon time after time to carry the load this season.

Like it or not, this is your team.
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