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After coming within one game of winning the world series against the Chicago Cubs in 2016, the Cleveland Indians transformed from a lovable, up and coming team to a club with championship aspirations before our eyes. As the season grew older the emergence of young superstar infielders Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, as well as continued dominance of the pitching staff led by starter Corey Kluber and closer Cody Allen, was encouraging enough to make management realize it was time to win… NOW. As a result, the front office elected to push their chips to the middle of the table, acquiring all-star reliever Andrew Miller as well as proven slugger Jay Bruce in return for key prospects to build around heading forward. Despite coming up just short of a world championship, the Indians seem set to make several runs at a championship in the near future.
Despite a dominant 2016 campaign, the 2017 and 2018 seasons were a disappointment to many. While running through the MLB’s weakest division, the AL Central, the Indians ended their seasons with a bitter taste after losing in the divisional round to the New York Yankees and Houston Astros in back to back years. While the Indians hadn’t seemed to capitalize on the momentum they had built during their 2016 run, the American League saw the re-emergence of perennial powerhouses. The Yankees paired young stars Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge while making the biggest offseason splash a year ago acquiring all-star outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. The Boston Red Sox also saw their organization skyrocket as outfielder Mookie Betts developed into an MVP caliber player while outfielder J.D. Martinez competed for a triple crown throughout the 2018 season. Despite the Tribe reaching October in the previous two seasons, the talent gap between them and the top of the American League was made very clear. As the Indians continued their “all in” mentality, giving up prospects along the way, the gap between them and the top never seemed to shrink putting the organization in a tough situation moving forward.
Earlier this offseason the Tribe elected not to extend qualifying offers to any of their mainstays, including outfielders Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall along with relievers Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, all but signaling the end to their tenure with the Cleveland organization. Earlier in the week, Chisenhall agreed to a one year deal with the Pirates. The move comes to no surprise as the often injured Chisenhall couldn’t produce when the Indians needed him the most. After Friday’s trade with the Washington Nationals, sending all-star catcher Yan Gomes to Washington in exchange for a pair of prospects, it seemed to create questions about their plans moving forward. As a small market team with players demanding large contracts in the near future, the Tribe seems to face two options: continue their “all in” mentality for one or two more years and risk losing players to free agency or get ahead of the curve and start rebuilding while players still have value.
Should the Indians elect to continue their AL Central dominance and compete for championships moving forward, it will come at a very steep price. The starting rotation should face no serious problems as Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and 2018 CY Young candidate Trevor Bauer are all under team control for at least the 2020 campaign. The infield should not be a concern neither as Lindor and Ramirez are still under control on team friendly deals at $9 million and $4 million respectively for the 2019 season. The Indians’ problems arise when it comes to their outfield. After pending free agent Michael Brantley made $12 million in 2018 it is expected the price will only rise for the one time MVP candidate meaning it is unlikely he will be in an Indians uniform come opening day. As currently constructed, this leaves a combination of Tyler Naquin, Bradley Zimmer, Leonys Martín, and Greg Allen to fill the three outfield spots. If the Indians are unable to sign Brantley, I don’t expect them to sign any outfield help too much more than what Brantley made last year. I would expect the club to continue their trend of “Moneyball” philosophy and sign an aging veteran to sure up some of their deficiencies as they did in previous years with Rajai Davis, Austin Jackson, and Melky Cabrera. If this is the route the front office takes, I still don’t think it is enough to win a pennant. The willingness of the Yankees and Red Sox to spend loads of cash on players along with their stellar farm system that seemingly every year produces one of the league’s best young superstars will simply overpower the Indians come October making the idea of a rebuild more attractive.
While the idea of a rebuild may disappoint many, it may be their best option moving forward. After rumblings this offseason of a potential trade of either Kluber, Carrasco or Bauer it seems as if the front office is at least considering the option. If they end up striking a deal for one of the three I think they should stay put for the rest of the offseason in regards to unloading talent. The Tribe should wait and let some of the 2019 season play out before making any moves. If the club gets off to the wrong foot and can’t pull away from the rest of the AL Central somewhere around mid-June, I think they should start selling and selling a lot. Sluggers Edwin Encarnacion and Yonder Alonso are set to be free agents at years end so the appeal of expiring contracts should not be too difficult to trade. Should this happen the Indians should also look at trading their remaining key pitchers. The demand for a star pitcher with 2-3 years of team control left would be very appealing to playoff contenders. In return, the Indians would be able to get prospects to build around for the future.
It seems it was just yesterday the Indians were so close to a powerhouse in the making, but the window might be closing faster than we all expected. Being a small market team takes more flexibility and creativity financially as well as making sure the team hits its stride all together in order to capitalize on the few chances you may have at a World Series title. This Cleveland organization seems to be stuck and with seemingly two ways they can go, it will be very interesting to see how it all plays out.