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5 keys that will be vital to Tribe's success

Francona expects 'good run of baseball' to continue in 2018
MLB.com @castrovince

CLEVELAND -- Because noise can influence narratives, the Tribe's media relations staff handed one-page printouts to all reporters attending manager Terry Francona's news conference on Friday, which preceded this weekend's Tribe Fest activities.

There in bold print were the selling points to serve as reminders -- for any observers distracted by the noise of a Giancarlo Stanton trade here or a Gerrit Cole swap there -- that the Indians, who have won more games than any American League club over the past five seasons, are still a pretty good ballclub.

CLEVELAND -- Because noise can influence narratives, the Tribe's media relations staff handed one-page printouts to all reporters attending manager Terry Francona's news conference on Friday, which preceded this weekend's Tribe Fest activities.

There in bold print were the selling points to serve as reminders -- for any observers distracted by the noise of a Giancarlo Stanton trade here or a Gerrit Cole swap there -- that the Indians, who have won more games than any American League club over the past five seasons, are still a pretty good ballclub.

"This has been a good run of baseball," Francona said, "and I don't see it going anywhere."

Video: Francona talks about Indians' offseason changes

That's an important message to convey in a offseason where more of the local focus has been on what the Indians have lost than what they have. Gone are the formerly underrated and now well-compensated likes of Carlos Santana and Bryan Shaw and 2017 in-season trade acquisitions Jay Bruce and Joe Smith. Beyond the signing of Yonder Alonso to replace Santana at first base, the Indians will count on internal depth and budget-conscious additions to replace the impact of those players, and that, understandably, makes fans anxious at a time when this team needs to maximize its window to end the game's longest active championship drought.

Though the stakes have seemingly been raised in the AL by this offseason's work, there's still a lot to like in Cleveland. Here are five keys -- beyond the obvious likes of Francisco Lindor, Corey Kluber, Jose Ramirez, Edwin Encarnacion, Andrew Miller, etc. -- for the Indians to maintain pace with baseball's elite and win a World Series crown 70 years in the making.

1. A healthy pitching staff
Well, duh. Show me a team that doesn't need this to contend. But for the Indians, it's a particularly pertinent topic.

Who used the fewest starters in baseball last season? The Indians, with seven. Who had the highest percentage of innings pitched by their starters? Cleveland, at 66 percent. Who lost a guy in free agency who averaged 72 relief innings a season over the past five years? The Indians, with Shaw's departure to Colorado. Whose World Series contention hopes would seemingly revolve in some measure around a reigning Cy Young Award winner who battled a back issue last year? The Tribe, with Kluber.

You get the idea. It can be hard in this game to maintain the level of reliability the Indians received from a pitching staff that, per FanGraphs, had the highest total Wins Above Replacement mark (31.7) in history last season. Some regression would appear inevitable. But the Indians have to reign in that regression. They're still on the hunt for right-handed relief help to help ease the burden on Cody Allen and Miller (whose pending free agencies put all the more onus on 2018).

Video: Castrovince breaks down the Indians' rotation

2. A winnable division
The Indians are in a moment in which three division opponents (White Sox, Tigers and Royals) are in some stage of rebuild. That leaves the Twins as the team most likely to give the Indians a run for their money. And while there's no doubt in the industry that the Twins still have money to spend on pitching in the weeks leading up to Opening Day, the Tribe, as it stands, is projected by FanGraphs to win the Central by 12 games.

Lord knows the projections have been wrong before, but Cleveland appears to have the easiest road to October of any clear contender in baseball.

3. Yonder and Yandy
The Indians signed Alonso to a two-year deal on the strength of a fly-ball rate that jumped from a career mark of 34.3 percent to a sudden '17 spike to 43.2 percent. The league made some adjustment to Alonso in the second half (.254/.354/.420) last season, but Cleveland is hoping the swing changes he made in Oakland can stick and stabilize.

They're hoping for similar changes for Yandy Diaz, who is, as one Tribe fan tweeted me, "the strongest man to never hit an MLB homer."

Video: Alonso discusses strength of Tribe's lineup

Diaz's biceps are so large that they ought to each count toward a roster spot, and his average exit velocity of 91.5 mph last season was, according to Statcast™, the seventh-highest in the game among those with at least 100 batted balls, just behind Stanton's 91.9 mark. The problem is that Diaz's average launch angle was nonexistent, which is why he was the master of the scorching ground ball to second base. If Diaz can take a page from the Alonso book, he's a breakout candidate.

Tweet from @castrovince: It's taken me this long to realize/appreciate that the @Indians are going to have 2018 lineups featuring a Yan, a Yonder and a Yandy.

4. Jason Kipnis ... one way or another
Kipnis would have been a free agent this offseason had he not signed an extension with the Indians prior to 2014. What once looked to be good value for the club deteriorated with Kipnis' injury-plagued season a year ago, in which he (temporarily, at least) lost his position at second base.

The Indians have tried to trade Kipnis, to no avail. If they are able to move Kipnis and the entirety of his contract, that's $13.67 million off the 2018 books that the team can use to upgrade the outfield and bullpen in what is still a crowded free-agent market, and employ their preferred defensive alignment with Ramirez at second. But if they can't move Kip, he at least rates as a bounceback candidate amid all the talk about his statistical regression.

"The best responses," Kipnis said Friday, "are between the lines."

Video: NYY@CLE Gm1: Statcast™ measures Kipnis' diving catch

5. Pleasant surprises
The Indians' outfield is dominated by left-handed bats coming off injury-plagued seasons (Michael Brantley, Bradley Zimmer, Lonnie Chisenhall), with the only right-handedness exception being Brandon Guyer, who -- yep, you guessed it -- is coming off an injury. As much as Lorenzo Cain would be the perfect free-agent fit here, that's just not expected to happen on Cleveland's budget. And so attention turns to non-roster invitee (and right-handed hitter) Melvin Upton Jr. (remember him?), who the Indians think could be a surprise contributor in the vein of what Austin Jackson brought to the ballclub last year.

"It wouldn't shock me if he comes in and hits the ground running," Francona said.

Be it Upton or Diaz or top prospect Francisco Mejia (a catcher who could wind up helping at third base) or somebody or something I've failed to mention here, a title run would likely require impact from unexpected sources. But ain't that always the case?

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcasts and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

Cleveland Indians