In the midst of an offseason defined by radio silence, the headlines (albeit few and far between) have largely been dominated by the following: Marlins’ new ownership executing the thankless task of cleaning up a Jeffrey Loria mess, the Yankees acquiring the NL MVP while remaining on track to avoid the luxury tax threshold, and the Angels sneakily becoming arguably the most improved franchise in baseball on both the major- and minor-league side. In a time where the top-half of the AL from 2017 seems likely to roll over as such into 2018, there is one perhaps unexpected team that should be particularly concerned. As what appears to be a long-term championship contention window opens in New York, Anaheim and Houston, it begs the question: is the opposite happening in Cleveland?
It looks like Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, neither of whom have celebrated their 25th birthday yet, are going to be cornerstones in the top half of the Indians’ lineup for many years to come. Beyond that, there are a bevy of questions, “which is strange after a 102-win season” (Art Howe, Moneyball). This offseason alone, the Indians have already lost one of their top offensive contributors from 2017, with Carlos Santana leaving to join the Phillies. His chosen replacement, Yonder Alonso, is hardly a proven power threat. Save for his 22 bombs in 100 games this year with the Athletics, he has 45 homers in 706 career games. His defense (for which Santana has been lauded at the position) has declined at each of the last three seasons. Before saying “defense is less important at first base”, it still is important, and it is still going to be felt more likely than not when he gets on the field. The slick leather of Santana’s glove and his 11 DRS over the last two seasons have been replaced with one who has been -12 in that span and is on a bunny hill downward.
The other four key offensive contributors were Austin Jackson, Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall. Jackson’s contract expired, and his numbers when healthy don’t seem to have the Tribe champing at the bit to re-up with the journeyman outfielder. Encarnacion is coming off his worst offensive season since 2011 and is on the verge of turning 35. He will make $12 million in his contract year in 2018, with his wRC+, SLG, batting average, strikeout percentage, and ISO steadily declining in each of his last three seasons.
In the case of Brantley, the Indians have a speedy left fielder who has not played 140+ games since 2014 (just 101 games in the last two seasons), and will turn 31 early in the upcoming season. In his nine years at the MLB level, Brantley’s career has been one defined by drastic peaks and valleys. His .277 average and .330 OBP in his first five seasons are impressive numbers, but his complete lack of power (26 homers and .382 SLG) in that span puts his OPS+ at a perfectly average mark of 100. Then, in the two years after, he posted legitimate star numbers: 35 homers, 38 steals in 40 attempts (95% success), 112 walks to 107 strikeouts, a 139 OPS+, and a .319/.382/.494/.876 batting line. Shoulder surgeries and leg injuries have kept him off the field since then, however, and the time he has played has looked more like the first half of his career (nine homers, a .776 OPS, 102 OPS+, 12 stolen bases and batting .292). Provided he can stay on the field for 140 games or more, there should be some league-average offense and defense out of that position from Brantley for 2018 and beyond.
Lonnie Chisenhall, having just turned 29, has seven years under his belt in the MLB. He has only posted 6.2 WAR in the last four seasons, though also only eclipsed a total of 140 games once, so while there is little if any track record of durability for him, there is reason to be optimistic should he ever make it through a full season. That being said, the optimism many were feeling this season when he started the season with a .305/.376/.578/.953 line in 63 games came into significant question, when he returned from yet another injury to post a miserable .224/.296/.306/.602 line and 56 WRC+ in his final 18 games. The latter was obviously a much smaller sample size, but whether or not these continued injuries are (or will soon be) catching up to him seems a logical question. He probably could maximize his value in a platoon role, as he is a .340/456/.511 hitter with a 164 wrC+ versus lefties.
On the pitching side, a good number of concerns exist as well. Already losing Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith this offseason and with Craig Breslow and Boone Logan potentially to join them soon, the following players are in their contract years: Andrew Miller, Josh Tomlin, Cody Allen, and Zach McAllister. Across those 10 pitchers, it seems like the blow to the rotation would be minimal in the most likely scenario. Not so fast. The lost Shaw was arguably the best Indians reliever this season whose name isn’t Andrew Miller. In addition to the standard stats, he was the best in the Indians’ bullpen at limiting solid contact (28.1% of the hitters who put the bat on the ball off him only made “soft contact” – “based on hang time, trajectory, and landing spot” according to Fangraphs). I’m not convinced that the four minor league contracts signed with Lisalverto Bonilla, Evan Marshall, Neil Ramirez, and Leonel Campos can make up for that loss alone. Factor in the loss of Joe Smith who, following his acquisition from Toronto, was among the best relievers in the final two months of the season, holding hitters to a .229 batting average and pitching to a post-trade WHIP of 0.87 and FIP of 1.68 in 21 appearances (18.1 IP). This bullpen stands to enter 2018 having lost a significant amount of luster, and more key cogs will come off the books shortly thereafter when Andrew Miller and Cody Allen become free agents.
Am I calling for the Indians to rebuild? No. Not yet, at very least. After all, it seems rash to say a team should blow it all up when their rotation remains among the best in the game and the batting order still has those aforementioned two budding superstars in the middle of it, not to mention youngsters like Tyler Naquin who looked solid offensively in his first full season in 2016. Highly-touted prospects like Francisco Mejia and Bobby Bradley could make an impact on the big-league club as soon as the end of this season, or sometime in 2019.
Lest we forget, the architect of this band of gunslingers, Mickey Callaway, has become the new King of Queens in accepting the managerial gig with the Mets. This is not a club that is in imminent need of a rebuild. That being said, when your greatest strength is at risk of becoming a weakness, its mastermind is no longer employed, your lineup has more questions than answers, and you play in one of the smallest markets in sports, some questions have to be asked? Are the Indians a lock to win the AL Central? Right now, I have to say no. I believe that the Minnesota Twins have at least an outside chance to steal the division crown this coming season. In addition, the White Sox, while not ready, have waves of talent on the upswing prepared to make an MLB impact in the next couple of seasons. The Tigers and Royals seeming like non-factors for the next couple years should help the Indians stay heavy in the mix for playoff spot, but their financial constraints may yet rear their ugly head in that span. For the Indians, there’s really not any one individual key player after those already mentioned who will be FA eligible in the next three seasons…and that’s part of the problem.
Their top five players this season were Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer, Ramirez and Lindor. Four of them (except for Jose Ramirez) will hit FA in either 2021 or 2022. Not necessarily an imminent problem, sure. But if they enter 2020 with the players already mentioned having come off the books, then all of a sudden the problem becomes more evident when the time left with all of those key young players under control becomes two or fewer seasons. A team with Cleveland’s limited resources simply cannot afford to retain all four of them especially not with Ramirez’s time coming up soon thereafter.
The Indians will enter the 2018 season as the prohibitive favorites in the AL Central. Barring everything going right for Minnesota, or a significant amount going wrong in Cleveland, they should come away with another division title, another opportunity to push for that coveted and elusive first title in seven decades. After that, however, the concern grows, and thenceforth crescendos which each passing season. The clock is ticking, and the window of contention appears slowly continuing to approach the sill. When will it happen?