Hello again. In my last article, we looked at both the history and the current state of Cleveland’s big 3 sports teams. It is clear that the Cavaliers have fallen hard following Lebron James’s departure to Los Angeles and are in a state of total rebuild. And while the Cavaliers are at their lowest point in years, the Browns are in the ascendancy. Their fortunes are now higher than they’ve been in years due to the emergence of quarterback Baker Mayfield and a strong defensive unit. But the third major team in the CLE…that has been the subject of much debate over the past several months. With spring training just getting underway in Goodyear, Arizona, now is a good time to deliver my take on the Indians heading into the 2019 season.
The Indians’ 2018 season was honestly quite boring. That sounds odd to say given that the Indians were a good team that won 91 games and won the AL Central by 13 games. But while the Indians were the class of the Central Division, the other 3 playoff teams in the American League all won at least 100 games in 2018. This meant that from June onward, the Indians were guaranteed to make the postseason, but were extremely likely to get pounded in the divisional playoffs. This came to fruition as the Houston Astros swept the Tribe. While the Indians’ defeat this time wasn’t completely soul crushing like their divisional playoff choke job against the Yankees the previous year, it was perhaps an even bigger reality check that said the Indians were actually much further away from a title than they were in 2016 or 2017.
After the defeat, the Indians’ task was to figure out how to compete with Boston, New York, and Houston. They had to accomplish this goal while also doing their best to keep the team’s payroll within a reasonable level. That forced front office men Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff to make some very difficult decisions. The offseason began with an exodus of sorts. Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, and Michael Brantley headed for the exits, leaving holes in the Indians’ outfield and bullpen. Brantley’s departure was particularly eye-opening for two reasons, he did not even so much as receive a qualifying offer from the Indians, and he ended up signing with Houston. This means that should he have a solid campaign in 2019, Brantley will directly help one of the teams the Indians will have to beat out to reach the World Series.
Following the free agent departures, the trades began. The Indians dealt Yandy Diaz and Yan Gomes, and then made a really big splash by trading Edwin Encarnacion to Seattle in exchange for former Indian Carlos Santana. This trade was an interesting one in that it wasn’t really a salary dump persay, and showed a lack of confidence that Encarnacion could continue to live up to the big contract he signed with the Tribe after the 2016 season. And the loss of Gomes in particular could be a big one in terms of Gomes’ ability to call the game and his defensive ability.
Given all the departures, it would be very difficult to claim that the Indians are better now than they were in October 2018. But, if you look at the over/under for 2019 wins provided by the oddsmakers in Las Vegas casinos, their win projections aren’t too much different from the Indians’ actual total in 2018. Caesar’s Palace gives the Indians a projected 91.5 wins, while the Westgate Sports Book gives the Indians 90.5 wins. The Indians won 91 games in 2018. So what gives? Is the narrative in the local media about the Indians wanting to trim payroll at the expense of competitiveness wrong? The answer may lie in who the Indians have not traded as opposed to who they have traded or let go.
One thing that is still universally accepted about the Indians is that their starting pitching is among the league’s best. Much of the early offseason was fueled by speculation that the Tribe would trade one of their top starters, most likely Trevor Bauer or Corey Kluber. This never came to pass. If I’m completely honest, this speculation was probably an attempt to extort some other team out of half of their farm system. At this stage Bauer is back in the news, but because of his rules about dating and his feelings about how salary arbitration works. In other words, Bauer being Bauer. But back to the main point, the Indians’ starting rotation is still fully intact. Any of Kluber, Bauer, or Carlos Carrasco are good enough to conceivably win the Cy Young award. The Indians’ depth in this area is quite good as well, good enough to the point that Danny Salazar, one of their top pitchers from the World Series season of 2016, likely won’t even crack the rotation (as of today, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber are listed as 4th and 5th on the depth chart).
It would seem that the Indians’ prospective success in 2019 would depend on three key factors. First is injuries. That seems pretty typical for any sport, but in the case of the Tribe, any injuries to their batting lineup or bullpen could prove particularly damaging given the players lost in the offseason. And this is already a worry given that Francisco Lindor will likely miss opening day due to injury sustained in the offseason. With Brantley, Gomes, and Encarnacion gone, the Indians’ offense will be even more dependent now on Lindor and Jose Ramirez playing well in order to score runs, so a major injury to either player would be potentially devastating.
The second major key to the 2019 season is how new young players and returning key players from 2016 play. With the outfield being unquestionably the weakest part of the Indians’ roster on paper, the team will be banking on guys like Bradley Zimmer and Tyler Naquin recovering the form they had during the 2016 World Series campaign. Zimmer has been banged up for much of the past two seasons, while Naquin has suffered a downturn in production over the same period. Alternatively, the Indians could get lucky and see instant contributions from youngsters Jake Bauers and Jordan Luplow. The strategy employed by Chernoff and Antonetti in the outfield is a bit risky, but could pay off big if just one or two of these guys end up producing to their potential, especially Zimmer, whose play was nearly all-star caliber just a couple of years ago.
Lastly, the third key to the Indians’ season is the starting pitching staff’s ability to control games. Given that the bullpen dropped some big names, most notably Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, it’s going to be incumbent on the likes of Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer, etc to pitch fairly deep into games and get the ball to closer Brad Hand if possible. The 6th and 7th innings are arguably the soft underbelly; the fewer games that manager Terry Francona has to go to the bullpen prior to the 8th, the better. If the season plays out in this manner, with the Indians winning many games but losing some games due to loss of bullpen depth, it will be very interesting to see if, come the postseason, Francona employs more patience with regard to his starting pitchers, and he had a ridiculously quick hook in several postseason games in 2018, most notably in game 2 when Francona pulled Carlos Carrasco despite the fact that Cookie was pitching a shutout at the time. The strategy backfired and the Indians lost 3-1.
In the end, here’s my prediction. I expect that the Indians will win the AL Central again this season. I think that the front office’s plan of protecting their starting pitchers at any cost and considering their bullpen pitchers and outfielders to be more expendable is a good one. And when it comes to the postseason, while the Indians’ offense won’t scare teams like that of Houston, Boston, or New York, any team that has 3 starters of the quality of Kluber, Bauer, and Carrasco has a shot in any playoff series. Given the realities of economics in baseball and the disadvantages faced by teams in smaller markets due to the lack of a salary cap, this might be the Indians’ last realistic shot to win a title. With players like Trevor Bauer and Francisco Lindor about to hit free agency after 2019 and with manager Terry Francona likely getting close to retirement, the Indians will be very motivated to shock the MLB world in 2019. And remember this…whenever the Indians are expected to be great, they usually fall short. It’s the years where they aren’t expected to do much of anything that they often excel. Batter up.