In sports, we often hear after a promising team is eliminated from postseason contention that Team X has the “tools to compete for the future.” We all know what that means, but “the future” is an entirely abstract concept. Maybe a team will pull their sleeves up and contend for a World Series over the coming seasons, or maybe their star players will slow down, their front office will falter, and the franchise will slumber.
Unfortunately, “the future” is inherently arbitrary.
The Cleveland Indians exemplify this notion each and every game. Dominant starting pitching, a masterful bullpen, and young position players give Cleveland a chance to challenge for American League pennants immediately, and to the perception of many, in the near future. However, after 162 grueling games and a playoff format that rewards just eight out of 30 teams (26% of Major League Baseball) with a World Series shot, Cleveland cannot — and definitely should not — be waiting for potential chances in “the future.”
“The future” is right now. With Wednesday’s Game 5 loss to the New York Yankees at Progressive Field by a score of 5-2, the Indians coughed up a 2-0 series lead and fell out of the race for the World Series. Their “future” is being wiped out quickly, and the prime of the Indians is being wasted. Cleveland management still reads the situation as, “we have a bright future,” so to speak. This is that, or what it was supposed to be, in the present day.
Just five years ago, Cleveland as a baseball city was in a massive hole. Their 68-94 record, between two managers — Manny Acta and Sandy Alomar — was second to last in MLB. No Indians player hit 20 home runs or had 80 runs batted in, or even hit a .300 batting average. They were awful, but they kept their collective head up, and nailed down future Hall-of-Fame manager Terry Francona to run the Tribe’s bench. They were waiting for the future. They had two super prospects in Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, a steady and legendary manager, and a formidable pitching rotation coming to fruition. The future came fast for Cleveland, with four straight winning seasons under Francona, a Cy Young Award winner in Corey Kluber, and an improbable run to the 2016 World Series.
The Indians, despite being a run away from winning their first title, did not panic after falling to the Chicago Cubs in Game 7 of the 2016 Fall Classic. Their players were even quoted saying they would gladly board a bus to Arizona for spring training just to keep playing ball. Their hopes for the present were their hopes for the future five years ago; exuberant and euphoric. Writing this is hard because you and I both know where this is gonna end up. The Indians don’t deserve it, their fans don’t deserve it, and baseball is a better game with lovable underdogs succeeding. But, I digress.
This season, the Indians solidified themselves as perhaps the best team in baseball with their 102-win 2017 campaign, highlighted by a historic 22-game regular season winning streak; in and around that duration, the Indians also won 27 out of 28 games. All-Stars Lindor and Ramirez had emerged as two of the best infielders in the game, and Kluber was well on his way to another Cy Young. They were unstoppable, wonderful to watch, and genuinely exciting for the game. But then, it was postseason time.
This does not begin as sad as it ends. The Indians, behind strong starts from Trevor Bauer and Kluber, pull ahead 2-0 in the American League Divisional Series against the Yankees, only to watch their hopes get completely decimated. In Game 5, healthy Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall were each demoted to a role as benchwarmers, as starters Edwin Encarnacion, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and Ramirez went hitless in the biggest game of the season. It was a total flop, and there is no way to sugarcoat it for Cleveland fans. The sliver lining, to many, is “the future.” The “we have the tools to compete” kind of narratives give Cleveland fans a false hope and a shimmer of brightness on the darkest day in recent franchise history. But maybe that should be reevaluated as a whole.
Kipnis, Brantley, Encarnacion, and Santana are all 30 or older, with a farm system of position players ranked in the bottom-half of MLB by Bleacher Report. Cleveland’s best player according to WAR is Corey Kluber, the likely Cy Young winner in 2017. He’s also 31 years old, having just capped off his fourth consecutive 200-inning season. Surely Kluber, who has defined logic and pitching norms in his prime, is entering the segment of his career where Father Time will cast a shadow over him. Josh Tomlin and Carlos Carrasco, additional rotation arms, are also into their 30s. While the Lindor/Ramirez combination gives them a centerpiece to build around in coming years, it’s not likely that Cleveland will have a better World Series shot than that of this season.
What helps Cleveland is that at least two teams in the American League Central, the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox, are in full rebuild mode, with the Kansas City Royals slated to join them. They will have a prolonged era of excellence and playoff berths, but with the Houston Astros and the entirety of the AL East looking upward, it’s hard to say that Cleveland will be perennial Fall Classic contenders. The fans are disappointed, and they should be.
The superteam of Cleveland lost a completely winnable ALDS to New York, whose best position players — Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez — from a statistical standpoint were nonexistent. A year in which the Indians were penciled in as AL champs was tossed down the drain by a 38-year-old pitcher named C.C. Sabathia at home on Wednesday night. If I resided in Ohio, I would be irate. The Indians, dating back to 2016’s World Series, have now dropped six series-clinching games in a row.
There is no future. There is only the present. Cleveland costing themselves World Series hopes by shooting themselves in the foot will not pay off with some magical, arbitrary “future.” They needed to win now, and maybe after the ALDS, they won’t have a better shot.