Going into the MLB Postseason, the case could be made that the Cleveland Indians were the team to beat. Winning an American League-best 102 games, and enduring a historic 22-game winning streak with a stellar rotation, productive lineup and lockdown bullpen, the Indians appeared poised to return to the World Series.
However, they instead proceeded to blow a 2-0 lead to the New York Yankees in the ALDS, ending their championship aspirations rather early. Could they now find themselves the losers of the MLB offseason?
In what’s been an incredibly quiet offseason, the Indians have a bit of a crisis on their hands. With right fielder Jay Bruce, first baseman Carlos Santana and relievers’ Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith (four key contributors to Terry Francona‘s ballclub) up for grabs on the free agent market, the powerhouse Indians could end up losing some key members of their lineup and a couple of valuable bullpen pieces.
Bruce’s arrival — in an August trade with the New York Mets — was a clear indication that the Indians were going for it all in 2017. The power hitting lefty bat came to Cleveland and hit seven home runs, while driving in 26 runs. Taking over in right field, Bruce provided Cleveland with a veteran presence at the plate and in the field. But the 30-year old outfielder may very well garner a lot of interest from other teams’ in free agency, which could force the Indians’ hand, especially when taking into account Santana’s free agency.
Much like Bruce, Santana will have a lot of teams inquiring on his services. In fact, according to FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman, the Indians’ first baseman has received interest from nearly a “dozen teams” — which shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Over the duration of his career, Santana has seen time behind the plate and, most recently, at first base. However, teams are likely more inclined to play Santana at the corner infield position based on the fact that he hasn’t caught a game since 2014. In that time, Santana has been very durable. Playing in 152+ games in each of the last five seasons, he has avoided the injury bug — an aspect of his game that helps his free agent value.
At the plate, Santana poses a power-hitting threat. Hitting 23 home runs last year, and 34 in 2016, as well as executing 37 doubles — which was third amongst first baseman in 2017 — Santana has established himself as one of the better power-hitting first baseman in MLB; that power bat and fortunate injury history will make him a sought-after product. The one knock on Santana’s production at the plate is his batting average.
A career .249 hitter, Santana has been productive, but mostly just in power spurts, though, his impact in the middle of the Indians’ order cannot be taken for granted. Losing both Bruce and Santana to free agency would be devastating for an Indians’ lineup that was sixth in runs scored (818), fifth in team batting average (.263) and second in on-base percentage (.339); they were simply one of the best units in baseball. And based on the overwhelming amount of interest in Santana, as well as the potential for Bruce to depart, that unit could be down two key contributors from 2017.
Losing Shaw and Smith would be a hit to Cleveland’s bullpen. While their pen is headlined by closer Cody Allen and the game’s best reliever, Andrew Miller, Shaw and Smith were key components to the Indians’ bullpen pitching to an MLB-best 2.89 ERA. Shaw did surrender 30 earned runs, but simultaneously recorded 73 punchouts and three saves. Smith, acquired midseason, was a productive arm out of the pen too. Pitching to a 0.87 WHIP, while recording 20 punchouts and not surrendering a single base on balls, Smith was an addition worthwhile for Cleveland. But in a league that’s becoming increasingly reliant on bullpen production, Shaw and Smith may very well have a lot of teams knocking on their doors. Shaw, for starters, has two “mystery teams” expressing interest in him, according to cleveland.com’s Paul Hoynes.
Bruce, Santana, Shaw and Smith were all important pieces to the Indians’ remarkable regular season success. And if the four, or even two out of the four of them are playing elsewhere next season, the Indians may find themselves in a heap of trouble.
The American League has four powerhouse teams at hand: the Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, Yankees and Indians.
The Astros, coming off their World Series championship, are only going to get better. With an electric lineup featuring the likes of AL MVP Jose Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa, and outfielders’ George Springer and Marwin Gonzalez, to name a few, as well as the two headed monster in their starting rotation of Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, the Astros will certainly be in the mix to defend their crown.
After wining the AL East for the second consecutive season, the Red Sox will be in the pennant race as well. With budding stars such as Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Xander Bogaerts in their lineup and Chris Sale taking the hill every fifth day, first-year manager Alex Cora has a team in place that can contend; they’re also in the mix for a potential trade involving Miami Marlins’ MVP right fielder Giancarlo Stanton.
The Yankees, who took the Astros to seven games in the ALCS, will also only get better. With a young, improving lineup featuring the likes of Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorius and even Greg Bird, as well as a rotation consisting of Luis Severino, Sonny Gray and Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees will, for sure, be competing to participate in the Fall Classic.
Cleveland has its hands full when it comes to competing in the American League next year. If they lose some of their core players to free agency and do little to replace them, the Indians could find themselves a leg back in the AL Pennant race. The Astros and Yankees are on the rise, while the Red Sox are changing faces and potentially adding more veteran pieces for the better.
Last year was the Indians best chance at winning the World Series, and they blew it. The game’s best righty, Corey Kluber, came up small when it mattered most, failing to get out of the 4th inning in both of his ALDS outings, their lineup was inconsistent, and they ultimately blew a 2-0 lead; it was all there for the Tribe.
Competition in the American League will be intense in 2018, and the years to come. If the Indians cannot retain or replace their current free agents, they could find themselves being the losers of the MLB offseason.