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Indians taking shape as contenders in AL

Tribe is healthy and beginning after slow start to 2017 season
MLB.com @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- Yes, these are the Indians the way they were drawn up. While the 10-8 record doesn't blow you away, it projects to 90 wins over 162 games, and it's only been in the last week that the reigning American League champions have hit their stride.

When the Indians headed home to Cleveland on Sunday night, after a 6-2 loss to the White Sox that could be written off as a throw-away day, they were in a lot better shape than they were the last time they left Chicago. That was after Game 5 of the World Series.

View Full Game Coverage

CHICAGO -- Yes, these are the Indians the way they were drawn up. While the 10-8 record doesn't blow you away, it projects to 90 wins over 162 games, and it's only been in the last week that the reigning American League champions have hit their stride.

When the Indians headed home to Cleveland on Sunday night, after a 6-2 loss to the White Sox that could be written off as a throw-away day, they were in a lot better shape than they were the last time they left Chicago. That was after Game 5 of the World Series.

View Full Game Coverage

This time, the Indians return to Progressive Field to face the Astros in a series that will shape early-season power rankings, as opposed to the excitement of last October and Game 6. The disappointment of losing to the Cubs isn't going away any time soon, although a championship this season would turn it into another step on the journey, not the end of a road.

For Cleveland's sake, here's hoping the Tribe can remain at full strength.

Attrition is going to take a toll on every team this season, the Tribe included. But the team that president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff have put together, at least early in 2017, is better than the one that came within one run of snapping the Indians' World Series drought, which dates back to 1948.

Video: CLE@CWS: Lindor cracks a solo homer to left field

This is my opinion, not manager Terry Francona's. He knows nothing stays the same for long in baseball.

"I think it's always fluid,'' said Francona, who is in his fifth season as Cleveland's manager. "That's the one thing in baseball. You don't get too carried away with what you did. That's the best word I can use: fluid. You play hopefully good, and you move on. If you don't play good, you move on.''

The Indians did a lot of moving on last fall, and they did it in under difficult circumstance.

It was impressive they were able to sweep the Red Sox and roll past the Blue Jays to reach the World Series, and even more impressive that they jumped to a 3-1 lead over the Cubs. They were winning without two of their top three starting pitchers, as well as left fielder Michael Brantley and catcher Yan Gomes. Mike Napoli was also banged up and ineffective throughout the postseason.

It's a testament to the talent of players like Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, Jose Ramirez, Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller that the Tribe almost overcame the Cubs' powerhouse. The Indians talked throughout Spring Training how getting to the 10th inning of Game 7 has inspired them to finish the job this season.

Many made them the preseason favorite to repeat as AL champions, in part because they committed $60 million to land slugger Edwin Encarnacion as a replacement for Napoli inthe middle of the lineup.

They were also expected to get Brantley back from two rounds of shoulder surgeries, Gomes back from a separated shoulder and have their rotation of Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin back intact.

Check. Check. And check.

Video: CLE@CWS: Carrasco fans eight over eight scoreless

Kipnis spent Spring Training battling a sore shoulder. He was on the disabled list on Opening Day, but he was activated on Friday, giving Francona his full hand of cards for the first time since Brantley was shut down for good late in the 2015 season.

"We've gotten Kipnis back,'' he said. "We've got to get him some at-bats. Brantley's looking like he's back. So that's good.''

Brantley certainly looks like he's back, hitting .310 with three homers and a .902 OPS on the season after Sunday's game.

Video: CLE@CWS: Brantley smacks a two-run homer to right

Along with Encarnacion and Ramirez, Kipnis and Brantley are the perfect hitters to put around Lindor, who has become one of the AL's most dangerous bats. He deposited a Derek Holland curveball into the left-field bullpen on Sunday and finished the day hitting .315 with five homers and a .990 OPS.

"He's a tough out,'' Holland said. "He's been having an unbelievable season so far. He's definitely fun to watch. He's an All-Star.''

While Salazar wasn't sharp against the White Sox, he went five innings. That marked the ninth consecutive game that an Indians starter worked five-plus. The team had won five in a row before Sunday, including Kluber's three-hit shutout on Friday.

Video: CLE@CWS: Kluber fans nine in three-hit shutout

Because Carrasco and Salazar were both sidelined late last season, Francona used starting pitchers on short rest in four of the seven games against the Cubs, including two such starts for Kluber. That played a huge role in the Cubs' ending their 108-year drought.

For now, all systems are go on Cleveland's push to get a second shot at lasting glory.

"We like our team,'' Francona said. "Nothing's given to you. We've got to go and play, see how good we can get.''

The Indians are starting off in a good place.

Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com.

Cleveland Indians