On September 30th of last year, the 2018 Cleveland Indians wrapped up their regular season. It never really felt like the 2018 Indians hit their stride. The bullpen was historically horrific, the offense was inconsistent and the team never reeled off a long, galvanizing winning streak like they had during the past two seasons. Still, the Tribe had cruised to their third straight division title. The AL Central, which consists of three rebuilding teams (the Tigers, White Sox and Royals), one underachieving team (the Twins), and the Indians, never really stood a chance. Featuring six All-Stars, the Indians feasted on their weaker AL Central competition to the tune of a 49-27 record, while treading water against the rest of the league at 42-44.
The Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros and New York Yankees won 108, 103 and 100 games in 2018, respectively. But thanks to the playoff seeding rules, the New York Yankees still had to play their way in. They had to beat the Oakland A’s, who themselves had won 97 games, in a sudden-death Wild Card game, just for the right to play the top-seeded Red Sox in the Division Series. The Indians, on the other hand, snuck into the playoffs with a record of 91-71. By record alone, the Indians were easily the worst of the five AL playoff teams, but by virtue of being better than the rest of the trainwreck that was the AL Central, the Indians were guaranteed a spot in the Division Series against the number two seed, the Houston Astros. Despite the warning signs, Tribe fans hoped that the Indians would pull it together just in time for a magical postseason run.
It wasn’t to be. Barely a week after the regular season ended, the Indians were out of the playoffs, easily swept aside by the Astros without even playing a game in prime time (all three games against the Astros were during the day because the other Division Series matchup was the Red Sox vs. the Yankees). The Astros outscored the Indians 21-6 over those three games. But while it’s not much consolation to a team with such high aspirations, or to a fanbase so hungry for a championship, the games were closer than the lopsided final scores suggest. The three games against the Astros proved to be a microchasm of the whole season: winnable games, blown by the bullpen with little run support from the inconsistent offense.
But while the 2018 Indians were flawed, there was still plenty of reason to believe that with just a few shrewd free agent signings or trades, the Indians would again be among the league’s elite teams in 2019. While there’s been plenty of movement on the Indians roster this offseason, however, it’s been mostly departures: Michael Brantley, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen left via free agency, while Yan Gomes and Edwin Encarnación were traded. In their stead, the Indians brought back Carlos Santana and added Jake Bauers, as well as a couple minor league contract fliers.
It’s hard to believe this is the same front office that just two seasons ago boldly signed Edwin Encarnación to the biggest free agent contract in club history. This offseason felt passive, underwhelming, and even a bit self-destructive. It’s particularly frustrating because there’s so much about this team – like the rotation, or the left side of the infield – that’s so good, but there’s also a lot about this team that’s average or worse, and the front office’s response this offseason doesn’t seem to match the potential of this team.
Why, though? Some fans have inferred that the Indians are cutting costs; their payroll over the last few years was never going to be sustainable in the long-term, therefore it was time to scale back. There’s no arguing that the Indians are a small-market team and that they can’t operate a payroll on the level of the Yankees or Red Sox. But if there’s ever a time to cut costs, now isn’t it. The core of the Indians are young and in their prime, and the rotation is still among the best in baseball. Besides that, the 2019 All-Star Game is being held in Cleveland this summer. Doesn’t it make sense to put the best possible team on the field, for at least one more season?
I don’t think the Indians are cutting costs just for the sake of it. I think they took a good, hard look at the market. After failing to find any players that fit their budget, talent and experience requirements, they decided to start the season with what’s there now, leaving open the possibility of adding players during the season.
Unless about twenty of the top players in the American League experience simultaneous, season-long slumps this season, this Indians club, as currently constructed, won’t win a World Series. The front office knows that. But they also know that being in the AL Central gives the team a lot of time to wait for the market to present more viable opportunities to improve the roster, without locking the club into long-term financial commitments or sacrificing as much future talent. So with all that in mind, and knowing that this team could look totally different by Memorial Day, here’s a look at the 2019 Cleveland Indians.
Let’s start with the easy part. While the Indians were reported to have listened to offers for Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, the rotation has experienced zero turnover since the end of last season, and for good reason. One through five, this rotation is historically great. Here’s just one stat that shows this: Kluber, Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber accumulated 21.8 wins above replacement (WAR) last season. How good is that? The Indians as a team ranked sixth in baseball in pitcher WAR – behind only Boston, Houston, Philadelphia, Washington and Colorado – with a total of 22.1 WAR. In other words, these five guys accounted for all but 0.3 WAR on the Indians pitching staff, and by themselves, ranked sixth in the majors. This says a lot about how bad the Indians' bullpen was (it was really bad), but the fact that these five guys alone earned more wins above replacement than all but five other teams in baseball says a lot more about them.
Already a two-time Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber has little left to prove in this league. It’ll be up to Terry Francona and the Indians' pitching coaches to keep his workload under control so he’s ready for the playoffs. As for Trevor Bauer, he’ll be trying to prove that last season, his career best, wasn’t a fluke. Carrasco and Clevinger both have the stuff to be bona fide aces; for them, it’s just about performing at that level consistently. And as for Shane Bieber, who got an extended look in the majors last season, it’ll be about building on last year’s success; he’s the Indians' ace of the future.
|vs. RHP||vs. LHP|
|1||SS Francisco Lindor||SS Francisco Lindor|
|2||2B Jason Kipnis||1B Carlos Santana|
|3||3B José Ramírez||3B José Ramírez|
|4||1B/DH Carlos Santana||DH Hanley Ramírez|
|5||DH/1B Jake Bauers||RF Tyler Naquin|
|6||RF Tyler Naquin||C Roberto Pérez|
|7||LF Leonys Martín||2B Jason Kipnis|
|8||CF Bradley Zimmer||CF Greg Allen|
|9||C Roberto Pérez||LF Leonys Martín|
Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis and José Ramírez are a pretty solid top three of the batting order against right-handers, and I have a hunch that Kipnis is due for a bit of a rebound. After those three, Carlos Santana returns to the lineup in the cleanup spot, followed by newcomer Jake Bauers. I’m not really sure what to expect out of Bauers, but the Indians are hoping he can provide a little pop with more consistency than he showed last season. Tyler Naquin follows in the six spot. After a stellar rookie campaign, a down year in 2017 and a promising but injury-shortened season in 2018, he’ll be hoping to stay healthy and produce consistently. The same goes for Leonys Martín and Bradley Zimmer, who both had their seasons shortened by injury last year. And finally, after trading starting catcher Yan Gomes to the Nationals this offseason, Roberto Pérez will round out the order. The Indians are counting on Pérez to hit better now that he’ll get more plate appearances.
Against left-handers, the lineup is a lot more shaky. It’s for that reason that I’m predicting Hanley Ramírez will make the team out of spring training and be the starting DH against lefties at least. The Indians are hoping for Ramírez to produce like Mike Napoli in 2016 or Jason Giambi in 2013. Roberto Pérez is a little higher in the order against lefties because he hits them slightly better, and I like that he breaks up a cluster of left-handed batters. A left-handed starter also offers a chance for switch-hitter Greg Allen to get regular playing time.
But neither of these lineups is able to disguise the fact that the 2019 Indians are worse on paper than their 2018 counterpart. The Indians will sorely miss Michael Brantley, their most consistent hitter over the last nine seasons, who left for free agency. They’ll miss Edwin Encarnación, who was on the decline but was still a dangerous hitter. They may also miss Yan Gomes, who had a career year at the plate but was traded to the Nationals. In order to maintain their offensive output, the Indians will be relying on Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez to put up All-Star caliber seasons again. They’ll need Jason Kipnis to return to form, and they’ll need Carlos Santana to avoid any prolonged slumps. They’ll need Bradley Zimmer, Leonys Martín, Greg Allen and Tyler Naquin to stay healthy all year and for at least one of them to put up a career year. And finally, they’ll need some sort of offensive output from Roberto Pérez. Good defense and working effectively with the pitching staff can cover a multitude of sins at the plate, but he has to put up more competitive at-bats this season.
Imagine you’re on a warm beach on a sunny day. You’re sitting under a large shady palm tree, as its leaves are lazily rustled by a warm breeze. Next to you is a delicious beverage of your choice and an old-fashioned radio. (There are obviously no smartphones in paradise.) Although there’s a little static, the Indians game is coming through pretty clear. The Indians are up 8-0, it’s the top of the ninth, and Corey Kluber, at only 87 pitches, is one strike away from his seventh consecutive complete game. “Corey Kluber is ready,” play-by-play man Tom Hamilton says. You take another sip of your beverage. “He winds, he delivers…"
That feeling you’re experiencing, that feeling of bliss, peace and serenity? That’s the feeling of not having to worry about the bullpen. It’s never quite stress-free. Even in 2016 and 2017, the Indians' bullpens had their share of scares and blow-ups. But if those seasons were calm seas with the occasional five-foot swells, last season often felt like being in the middle of the ocean in a hurricane. For this season, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that this group of relievers is bound to cause a few heart palpitations here and there. The good news is that it can’t possibly be as bad as last season. (Right?)
Brad Hand will start 2019 as the Indians' closer and relief ace. Adam Cimber also showed some promise last season, but failed to miss bats as often in Cleveland as he did in San Diego. Lefties Tyler Olson and Oliver Perez were also effective at times last season, especially Perez. As for everyone else? We’ll see. Everyone in that list has been good before, whether it was last season or a previous season. The Indians must be hoping at least a few of them figure out how to bounce back.
The Indians will absolutely miss Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, who also left via free agency – heck, they’re still missing Bryan Shaw and he left before 2018. But I don’t question the Indians' bullpen strategy as much as I question the strategy with position players. Bullpens are hard to predict from year to year, so the most surefire way to avoid a bad bullpen is to avoid having to rely on it so frequently. The Indians' rotation plays the biggest part here, but it also falls to the offense and defense to score some extra runs here and prevent some extra runs there.
Danny Salazar and Cody Anderson are on this list as well, but with asterisks because it’s not certain how effective they’ll be, if the Indians will try to use them out of the bullpen, or even if they’ll stay healthy. But if just one of those guys finds a groove in the bullpen, the Indians will consider it found money.
* denotes the Wild Card winners.
2018: Red Sox, Yankees*, Rays, Blue Jays, Orioles
2019: Yankees, Red Sox*, Rays, Blue Jays, Orioles
I’m predicting the Yankees will win the division over their rivals, the Red Sox, who will still get to defend their World Series championship by grabbing the first Wild Card slot. Really, this division could go either way. The Red Sox and Yankees might be the two best teams in baseball. This is unfortunate for the Rays, who are a pretty good team themselves but will struggle for air in a crowded division.
2018: Indians, Twins, Tigers, White Sox, Royals
2019: Indians, Twins, Tigers, White Sox, Royals
All in all, the Indians are decidedly worse at the start of 2019 than they were at any time during 2018. Fortunately, the Indians are in a division where the other four teams are projected by FanGraphs to finish a combined 70 games under .500. So the Indians' strategy, which Hamilton character Aaron Burr might sum up as “wait for it”, has plenty of leeway. The Twins are the most competitive team in the division behind the Indians, but their pitching hasn’t quite yet matched their offense. The White Sox, after failing to land marquee free agents Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, won’t score a lot of runs and don’t yet have the pitching to keep them competitive.
2018: Astros, Athletics*, Mariners, Angels, Rangers
2019: Astros, Athletics*, Angels, Mariners, Rangers
The Astros are the third of baseball’s superteams, and adding Michael Brantley will only help to deepen their already stacked roster. Most people probably don’t realize how good the Athletics were last year, and they’ll continue to beat up on the rest of the division and repeat as the second Wild Card.
2018: Braves, Nationals, Phillies, Mets, Marlins
2019: Phillies, Braves*, Nationals, Mets, Marlins
Adding former National Bryce Harper, not to mention Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura, to an already loaded lineup will put the Phillies over the top. The Braves, already good but still getting better, will win the first Wild Card slot. The Nationals, reeling from losing their franchise superstar, will struggle, and might be sellers at the trade deadline.
2018: Brewers, Cubs*, Cardinals, Pirates, Reds
2019: Cubs, Cardinals*, Brewers, Pirates, Reds
The Cardinals made the most moves this offseason, but it’s tough to imagine them staying healthy all season. Still, I expect them to claim the second Wild Card spot just behind the division-winning Cubs. The Brewers will be in the fight for the division and Wild Card until the last week of the season, but will fall just short.
2018: Dodgers, Rockies*, Diamondbacks, Giants, Padres
2019: Rockies, Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Diamondbacks
I think this is the year that the Dodgers pitching staff finally collapses and the Rockies will take advantage to win the division. The Giants will welcome back Madison Baumgartner, but will struggle to score enough runs to compete in this division. The Padres will be really scary in a few years… but not quite yet.
ALDS: Red Sox over Indians, Yankees over Astros
ALCS: Yankees over Red Sox
NLDS: Cardinals over Phillies, Cubs over Rockies
NLCS: Cubs over Cardinals
World Series: Yankees over Cubs, in 5
Here’s what the Indians' front office has realized. It’s the era of the superteam, particularly in the American League. While the Yankees and Red Sox especially, and the Astros to a lesser extent, have all added a few pieces via free agency, these superteams weren’t built in an offseason, or by signing a bunch of All-Stars. They were built over multiple seasons via the draft and longsighted trades. The Indians have realized they’re more than a trade or two away from a superteam. Rather than cashing in some prospects for merely a chance at winning a World Series, the Indians are looking for ways to become a juggernaut.
Think about what happened in 2016. There were no superteams in the AL that season. So when the Indians were among the best teams in the league around the trade deadline, the front office saw that as a path to the World Series. Then they went all in and acquired Andrew Miller, and almost added Jonathan Lucroy for good measure. The Indians cruised to the World Series over an aging Red Sox team and a one-tool Blue Jays team, and darn near stole a title from the Cubs, the only superteam in the majors. That offseason, the Indians gambled big again and signed Edwin Encarnación because it wasn’t yet obvious how close the Yankees and Astros were.
But in both 2017 and 2018, the Indians ran into a superteam in the first round of the playoffs. It’s tough to fault the Indians for loading up for a long run in the 2017 postseason; they entered the playoffs that season with the league’s best record. But as we found out last season, you can’t beat a superteam by just adding a couple of arms in the bullpen. The Tribe traded superstar prospect Francisco Mejia for Brad Hand and Adam Cimber, and they’re both good pitchers who will play an important part of the Indians' bullpen this season. But knowing how the 2018 Indians season ended, I think most Tribe fans would rather have that trade back.
The approach the Indians took this offseason is certainly a departure. While it’s tough for me to see the Indians competing with the superteams in the American League this season, it’ll absolutely be worth it – and completely within the realm of possibility – if the Indians are able to emerge as a superteam in a couple of years. It’ll take drastic changes for the Indians to truly compete for a World Series. In the meantime, they’ll be waiting, hunting and hoping for an opportunity.
Even if the team that takes the field on Opening Day is the same team that takes the field for Game 1 of the Division Series, it’s way more fun to enter the playoffs as heavy underdogs than it is for the season to be over before Labor Day. Baseball isn’t played on paper, it’s played on a field. If there’s any chance, that chance is way better than no chance at all.
Happy baseball season. Go Tribe.
Thanks to Sara Sawczuk for reading a draft of this post, and also for listening patiently whenever I try to talk about WAR.