It was the best of years and the worst of years for the Cleveland Indians in 2016.
Ironically, it was how they dealt with the worst that made it the best, and despite the disappointment of losing Game 7 of the World Series, Cleveland looks toward the 2017 season with optimism.
Despite playing virtually the entire season without their best player, Michael Brantley, half their season without starting catcher Yan Gomes, and the entire postseason with basically just 2 1/2 starting pitchers, the Indians came within one extra-inning loss from winning their first world championship since 1948.
In assessing their needs for 2017, heart and spunk isn't on the list. That was driven home for manager Terry Francona, who had to navigate through the postseason without two of his top three starting pitchers. Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar were both injured in September.
After beating Toronto in five games in the American League Championship Series, Francona sat down with pitching coach Mickey Callaway and plotted their strategy for the World Series.
"Mickey and I and the guys talked about potential rotation scenarios, and one of them was with (Corey) Kluber going three (games) and the other guys going two," Francona said. "But Kluber was kind of the key to that because he needed to be able to do it. So we talked to him first and it was funny because he kind of started it. He said, 'Hey, before you say anything, I'm kind of going into this figuring I'm going (to start Games) 1, 4 and 7. So that kind of made it easy."
Kluber, Josh Tomlin and a wounded Trevor Bauer, who was hampered by a finger injury, were all the Indians had left as starters for the World Series, but they still made it to Game 7. All three will be back next year, as will Carrasco and Salazar. Indeed, the strength of the Indians remains that elite starting rotation, with all five pitchers under club control at least until 2020.
The biggest question mark for 2017 will be whether Brantley can make a final full recovery from the shoulder injury that limited him to just 11 games in 2016. Brantley had two surgeries on the shoulder and still had multiple setbacks in his rehab. He and Cleveland officials are hopeful that a full offseason of rehab will help him return to his pre-injury form, which would give the Indians an All-Star caliber hitter, who finished third in the MVP voting in 2014.
If Brantley can play left field again, it will be a big boost to an outfield that could use a jolt offensively. Rookie Tyler Naquin had a nice season in center field and Lonnie Chisenhall was steady in right, but the return of Brantley would give the Indians a productive middle-of-the-order hitter that would deepen the lineup.
That lineup included Carlos Santana and Mike Napoli, who each belted 34 home runs in 2016. But only Santana is certain to be back in 2017. The 35-year-old Napoli is a free agent who hit 34 homers with 101 RBIs, both career highs. It seems likely those numbers will lead to Napoli getting offers from other teams that the budget-conscious Indians may be reluctant to match.
Outfielders Rajai Davis and Coco Crisp are two other 30-something free agents - Davis is 35, Crisp 36 - who were solid contributors in 2016. Despite his age, Davis led the American League with 43 stolen bases, and hit a dramatic home run in Game 7 of the World Series. Crisp, a mid-season pickup from Oakland, had some big hits late in the regular season and in the postseason.
If Napoli leaves as a free agent, the Indians would be in the market for a similar type of first baseman/DH option. If spring training nears and Brantley's condition continues to be uncertain, the club may also pursue another outfielder.
Overall, the Indians will go into the offseason with no glaring holes on their roster. Virtually all of their key players from 2016 are under contract for 2017. The biggest issue for next year will be hoping that their starting rotation can stay healthy for the entire season, in which case they would be a strong candidate to reach the postseason for the second consecutive season. That would mark the first time since 1995-99, when they made it five years in a row.