The Cleveland Indians have won the American League Central with conviction in each of the last three seasons. With that said, their division is, undoubtedly, the worst five-team cluster in Major League Baseball.
It features a talented Indians ballclub, but a hot and cold team — in terms of wins and losses — in the Minnesota Twins, as well as the Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, and Kansas City Royals — who are all years away from competing for the playoffs. As a whole, the AL Central finished with the worst record as a division in MLB in 2018 (353-457).
But the Indians have put themselves in a position this offseason where the division is no longer a gimme in their favor. Furthermore, they’re closing their own championship window.
The Indians have been one of the most active teams on the trade market this offseason in terms of shipping off their own players, rather than adding to their core. They traded catcher Yan Gomes to the Washington Nationals; they sent first baseman/designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion to the Seattle Mariners while departing third baseman Yandy Diaz — who hit .312 in 109 at-bats in 2018 — and right-hander Cole Sulser to the Tampa Bay Rays in a three-team trade; they also traded first baseman Yonder Alonso to the White Sox. Heck, they supposedly dangled All-Star right-handers Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer in trade talks at the MLB Winter Meetings.
The Indians also lost long-time outfielder Michael Brantley to free agency, as he signed a two-year deal with the Houston Astros. Meanwhile, fellow outfielders Lonnie Chisenhall and Rajai Davis signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Mets while backend relievers Andrew Miller and Cody Allen remain on the open market.The @Indians still have something left in the tank, but with their puzzling offseason moves, they are effectively closing their own championship window. @RPStratakos has more.Click To Tweet
Now, the Indians did receive considerable compensation in the trades they made. For Gomes, they acquired right-hander Jefry Rodriguez, outfielder Daniel Johnson, and infielder Andruw Monasterio; in the three-team trade with the Mariners and Rays, the Indians were awarded first basemen Jake Bauers and Carlos Santana — who spent the first eight years of his MLB career with the Indians. For Alonso, they received outfielder Alex Call.
So, based on their busy offseason, what is the Indians’ short-term outlook? Well, they lost an All-Star catcher in Gomes who had continuity with their starting rotation and was one of the best offensive catchers in the sport. They removed power from the middle of their order by trading Encarnacion and Alonso, and lost one of the best contact hitters and outfielders in the sport in Brantley’s free agent departure.
Santana could make up for the loss of power in the middle of the Indians order. While he hit a discouraging .229 in 2018, the 32-year-old is a proven bat who endured an uncharacteristic year at the plate in 2018. Santana is a steady and durable switch-hitter who can be a key component to an offense. Plus, the Indians still have the likes of Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Jason Kipnis. Maybe Bauers plays his way into the starting lineup and Roberto Perez flourishes as the everyday catcher. At the same time, collectively, this lineup doesn’t pose the same threat it once did. Luckily for manager Terry Francona, it appears their starting rotation still can.
For the moment, Kluber and Bauer remain on the Indians roster, and the right-handers are two of the best pitchers in the sport. The Indians agreed to a three-year extension with Carlos Carrasco; Mike Clevinger had a superb 2018 campaign in what was his first 30-start season; Shane Bieber projects to be a permanent fixture in their starting rotation after making 19 starts in his rookie season. With all that said, the Indians bullpen is still a major area of concern that hasn’t been addressed.
Last season, the Indians pen finished 25th in MLB in ERA (4.60), 19th in opponent batting average (.253), and 29th in strikeouts (478) in just 463.2 innings — which was the fewest amount of innings thrown by a bullpen. Miller and Allen were an immense part of those struggles. Miller struggled to pitch with consistency and hit the disabled list multiple times, while Allen recorded a career-worst 4.70 ERA. But the Indians still have to bring in relievers to fill the void created by their potential departures. While some big names have already signed on the dotted line, the likes of Craig Kimbrel, David Robertson, Zach Britton, Kelvin Herrera, Joakim Soria, and Greg Holland, among others, are still without a home.
If the Indians go into 2019 with one, or two, of those relievers and perhaps make other signings for positional depth, they will win the AL Central in 2019 and would likely do so even without those upgrades. Lindor and Ramirez are one of the best star duos in the sport, the Indians lineup, as a whole, is respectable, and their starting pitching is electric. Last season, they went 49-27 against their divisional foes. But, at some point, the rest of the division will catch up to the Indians unless significant transactions to improve themselves are made.
Sure, the Twins won just 78 games in 2018, but they forecast to be a better ballclub in 2019. They no longer have to worry about whether they can re-sign Brian Dozier; they traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the MLB trade deadline, and a reunion in free agency between he and the Twins hasn’t been a recurring subject. The Twins no longer have to wonder how much longer Joe Mauer will play; he retired. In their places, the Twins added two intriguing infielders in Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron.
While he hit an underwhelming .233 in 2018, Schoop is one year removed from being an All-Star Game participant and will be hungry playing on a one-year deal. Cron is coming off an impressive season with the Rays where he totaled 30 home runs and 74 RBIs. Plus, the Twins potentially have the likes of Eddie Rosario, Miguel Sano, Max Kepler, Byron Buxton, and Tyler Austin in their starting lineup for 2019. Meanwhile, they have budding 24-year-old Jose Berrios, as well as reliable right-handers Kyle Gibson and Jake Odorizzi in their starting rotation.
Perhaps the Indians’ offseason is not a sign that they’re taking their division for granted, rather one that they can’t afford to pay all of their star players. Hey, they didn’t even offer Brantley a qualifying order which was worth $17.9 million, and had he declined the money, it would’ve given the organization a compensation pick. If the Indians are going to pursue the path it appears they’re embarking on — which is a soon-to-be rebuild around Lindor and Ramirez — it’s better to be all in and not go halfway. Kluber and/or Bauer could land the Indians a trade package of top prospects and Major League-ready players. If they traded the bulk of their veteran players — excluding Lindor and Ramirez — you could argue the Indians would still have a chance at winning the AL Central based on the other four teams being nearly as young in the Major Leagues as they would be.
On the other hand, say the Indians add some reliable backend relievers, but leave the rest of their roster as is: how do they stack up next to other powerhouse AL teams? The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees are deeper and more formidable than the Indians, and you could argue that despite the hits their starting rotation has taken this offseason, the Astros are better too. If the Oakland Athletics can establish a reliable starting rotation, they too could finish with a better record than the Indians in 2019.
The Indians’ turnover is so significant to the point where 44.4 percent of their 2018 starting lineup is gone, while their bullpen is no better than it was in 2018. This is a team that won just 91 games last season and was outscored 21-6 in an ALDS series loss to the Astros. One injury to a key everyday contributor, or starting pitcher, could put the AL Central in jeopardy for the Indians.
Today, tomorrow, and the next day, the Indians are the frontrunners to win the AL Central, but they’re a flawed team; they’re no longer a World Series threat. The Indians will likely win their division in 2019, but it won’t be in as convincing fashion as years past, nor is it going to invigorate fear into the AL. And one year from now, they could be looking at the Twins, or another team in the AL Central, neck and neck; the Indians are closing their own championship window.