This offseason will arguably be the most crucial one of the Cleveland Indians’ competitive window to date. As it stands, the Tribe are set to lose a very large chunk of the roster to free agency, as relievers Oliver Perez, Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, and Josh Tomlin and outfielders Leonys Martin, Rajai Davis, Melky Cabrera, Brandon Guyer, Michael Brantley, and Lonnie Chisenhall are all about two months from hitting the open market. Obviously, the Indians front office has some difficult decisions to make, but luckily for the fans in Cleveland, they seem to have completed most of the heavy lifting for the bullpen with last month’s acquisition of Adam Cimber and Brad Hand.
The outfield, which has been a position of need for the entire 2018 season, is set to become even more depleted, which will obviously pose questions. Regarding in-house options, Greg Allen will still be around to handle center field for the most part, while Tyler Naquin has been serviceable when healthy despite high BABIP marks, and Yandy Diaz, a personal favorite of mine, has been taking reps in left field, as third base, his natural position is occupied by Jose Ramirez. Furthermore, Bradley Zimmer, who has been injured for the majority of the season, should be ready to go by the time 2019 rolls around. With this in mind, the Tribe is looking at Allen, Zimmer, and Diaz handling the lion’s share of starts in the outfield with Naquin serving as an oft-used fourth outfielder. While there’s obvious potential in this set-up, none of these guys are slam dunks. Allen, while solid defensively, hasn’t ever been able to consistently produce with the bat, while Diaz seems likely to contribute offensively but brings defensive question marks. Naquin has always struggled with plate discipline and has ridden a high BABIP for a while, meaning the bottom could fall out at any minute, and while Zimmer seems like the type of guy who is destined to break out once he gets consistent playing time, baseball is a cruel game, and prospects can’t necessarily be counted on until they are actually producing.
The dilemma here comes down to deciding whether to trust any of those younger players with extended playing time with the alternative of spending money on a more proven option. For me, it comes down to the fact that the AL Central is, for lack of a better term, awful. While the White Sox could conceivably be ready to go by next year, I would peg them as a 2020 competitor. The Twins are in disarray and the Royals and Tigers are still in the early stages of their rebuilds. Essentially, this means that there is no need for the Indians to spend big to make improvements when they should be comfortably able to take the AL-Central for one more season. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t add any reinforcements.
The way I see it, there are two methods that can be used to pick up some depth. The first place is the free agent market. While many fans are probably clamoring for the Tribe to snag Bryce Harper or A.J. Pollock, I would consider either of those guys too expensive based on market size and the team’s current situation. I think Jon Jay would be a very good fit, as would departing free agents Cabrera and Martin. None of these guys should cost the Indians much, but can offer some stable production as a starter who can play four days a week, taking some pressure off of the younger guys, while bringing stability. While I would at least consider Andrew McCutchen and Adam Jones, I have a feeling that both players will earn contracts that pay them more than they will be worth for at least three seasons. Secondly, the non-tender market could shape up to consist of a considerable amount of upside, with Domingo Santana and Aaron Altherr looking to be very likely roster casualties who could simply use a change of scenery. Both of those guys are still young and had considerable success at the major league level just last season.
Assuming the Indians sign one free agent, say Santana, and go into 2019 with in-house options, they would be looking at an outfield consisting of Zimmer in center, Santana in right, and Diaz in left. Allen and Naquin would compete in for the fourth outfielder job in camp, while Erik Gonzalez could serve as an emergency option. At the end of the day, Diaz is now 27 years old and has never been given a legitimate chance despite the fact that he has earned it. The Indians could also give Diaz a break from fielding in games against left-handed pitchers, as Edwin Encarnacion has struggled in that department recently and Diaz has found success. In this situation, Allen or Naquin could fill in in left field. Furthermore, the Indians have Jason Kipnis who could slide to left and put Gonzalez at second in this circumstance.
While many Indians fans may not be thrilled to hear this outlook, allow me to elaborate a bit further. If the Indians went and signed Harper, that contract, which would probably be in the neighborhood of eight to ten years, upwards of $300 million, would become a major hindrance for a small market team. Even if Harper performed well, the Indians, being a small market team, wouldn’t have the money to pay other pieces, and as we see with the Angels, it takes more than one or even five great players to win ballgames. This blueprint, if you will, gives the Indians some stability, and some potential longevity, as the players slotted to start will be under team control for four to six years beyond 2019 if they work out. If, for some reason, these players struggle, it’s not like the remainder of the American League Central will be overpowering, and the Indians have some nice prospects who can be traded without much consequence. While I wouldn’t trade high upside guys like potential ace Triston McKenzie or third baseman Nolan Jones, I would certainly consider dealing most of the rookie ballers with high upside or even upper level guys like Bobby Bradley, Will Benson, and Yu-Cheng Chang. At the deadline, evaluate who becomes sellers and try to pick off a controllable player. As pure speculation, the Mets have Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo who may not be available during the offseason, but could be on the table after three months of delusion-clearing losses.