The Cleveland Indians were looking for offense. They had allowed the second-fewest runs in the American League in 2015, but were 11th in runs scored and finished a disappointing 81-80. The holes were pretty obvious: Their third basemen ranked 29th in the majors in OPS, their center fielders 25th, their right fielders 26th, and their DHs were ranked 10th in the American League.
The solutions weren't exactly met with much enthusiasm. Forced to shop in the bargain-basement aisle, the Indians added the following free agents:
(1) Rajai Davis, 35, signed in December for a one-year, $5.25 million contract;
(2) Mike Napoli, 34, coming off the worst season of his career, was next, signing a one-year, $7 million deal in January;
(3) Juan Uribe, 37, signed in late February for $4 million;
(4) Marlon Byrd, 38, signed in late March for $1 million.
The Indians would stick with Lonnie Chisenhall in right field, given his excellent defense, although Byrd was brought in as a possible platoon partner. Napoli would allow Carlos Santana to spend more time at DH, Uribe would take over at third and Davis would factor in at center and left field (where Michael Brantley would begin the season on the DL after shoulder surgery). Still, the combined ages of the four players: 144. This was repair by Scotch tape and crusty super glue.
There was little chance all four signings would work out; there was a likelihood that none of the four would work out, given their ages. Still, the relative resources spent were minimal, just $17.25 million. The Indians weren't expecting major upgrades here, just improved depth.
Well, Byrd, who once said "you have to be an idiot to test positive" for PEDs, got caught using PEDs for the second time in his career and was handed a 162-game suspension in June. Uribe, batting .206 with a .259 OBP, was released in early August despite his reputation as a great clubhouse guy. He just wasn't producing enough to warrant a roster spot. Napoli and Davis have paid dividends, though, combining for 2.5 WAR. That production isn't going to win any awards, but it's better than the below-replacement level production the Indians received last year from the likes of Mike Aviles, Nick Swisher, Brandon Moss, Giovanny Urshela and Jerry Sands (combined WAR: minus-3.1).
Napoli and Davis aren't the only reasons the Indians are second in the AL in runs per game at 5.09, but they've certainly helped. Napoli has bashed 29 home runs and is tied for fifth in the AL in RBIs while Davis leads the AL with 32 steals and has produced a solid .751 OPS. The big surprise is the Indians' offense has done this with Brantley -- who is now sidelined for the season -- batting just 43 times and their catchers producing the worst numbers in the league. Chisenhall and Santana have bounced back with better years, plus Jose Ramirez (.311/.367/.453) has improved and rookie Tyler Naquin has hit .314/.378/.594 with 13 home runs in under 300 plate appearances. Check out the regulars in 2015 and 2016:
The recent additions of Abraham Almonte from his own PED suspension and Brandon Guyer via a trade with Tampa Bay has also given Terry Francona an interesting outfield arrangement: None of the five guys are playing regularly in one position. Chisenhall platoons with Almonte in right; Naquin platoons with Davis in center; Almonte, Guyer and Davis have been rotating in left field. It allows Francona not only to get the platoon advantage against the opposing starter, but allows him to maximize his options later in the game.
There's another key here: Santana, Ramirez, Almonte and Francisco Lindor are all switch-hitters, so it's basically impossible for opposing managers to get their preferred matchups. The Indians have hit with the platoon advantage 67 percent of the time, third in the AL behind only the Yankees and Mariners, well above the league average of 53 percent. That figure will only go up the rest of the way with Uribe and Byrd purged from the roster and the new additions.
Finally, the Indians have done a great job on the bases, with the second-most baserunning runs in the majors, behind only the Padres. They seem to specialize in short, athletic players: Ramirez and Almonte are listed at 5-foot-9; Davis at 5-10; Kipnis and Lindor at a generous 5-11. All five of those guys can run, and the Indians lead the AL in percentage of times taking the extra base -- such as second to home on a base hit -- at 47 percent. Baserunning remains an underrated facet of the game and is a good area for a small-market to attempt to exploit.
The Indians don't rely on one or two superstar hitters, but they do go eight deep and they're aggressive on the bases. The formula is working.