The Cleveland Indians treated the 2018-19 Major League Baseball offseason as though they could act with impunity, believing that regardless of their activity on the market — or lack thereof — the American League Central Division crown was theirs to be had. Judging off the previous three seasons, maybe they were right to feel this way.
The Indians had won three consecutive division titles, dominating in a subclass widely regarded as MLB’s weakest of six divisions, without much of a test. By eight games in 2016, 17 games in 2017, and 13 games in 2018, Cleveland would cakewalk to division triumph while the remaining four teams in the division entered organizational teardown and rebuilding phases.
But their complacency as an organization has come back to bite them. In choosing to lay low and shed salary in the offseason, rather than restocking a competitive core, the Indians have not only been caught by the Minnesota Twins in the division race, but also passed and completely destroyed by their primary division competitors.
The Twins have been the biggest surprise and perhaps the best story of the first-third of the 2019 MLB campaign, posting a 40-20 record with a slew of veteran contributors acquired in an active offseason. Driven by the hunger to compete for a division crown after a disappointing 2018 season, the Twins went out and got Nelson Cruz, Marwin Gonzalez, C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, Martin Perez, and Blake Parker while also solidifying a young and growing core of valuable players like Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco, who both received contract extensions.For laying low and doing nothing during the offseason, the @Indians are paying the ultimate price: falling out of AL pennant contention. @TomDorsa evaluates. Click To Tweet
As Minnesota is being rewarded for showing a commitment to spending and competing, the Indians are paying the price for prioritizing affordability and financial flexibility over winning. At 31-30, Cleveland sits nine and a half games behind the Twins and just two games up on the mediocre, retooling Chicago White Sox. There are several factors contributing to the demise of the Tribe, like the struggles of Jose Ramirez (.who owns a .207 batting average with only four home runs) and their underperforming starting rotation, but nothing has doomed Cleveland more than an inactive offseason.
The Indians made just one major-league signing, bringing in veteran relief pitcher Oliver Perez on a one-year, $2.5 million deal. In the midst, they orchestrated a few trades with big names involved such as acquiring Carlos Santana and Jake Bauers in a three-team deal with the Seattle Mariners and Tampa Bay Rays, but even then you can argue that they lost more than they gained (Sluggers Yandy Diaz and Edwin Encarnacion, as well as pitching prospect Cole Sulser went outward).
The team also said goodbye to Andrew Miller, Michael Brantley, Cody Allen, Josh Donaldson, and Lonnie Chisenhall through free agency, in addition to sending Yonder Alonso and Yan Gomes out via trades. A team with legitimate offseason aspirations would normally bulk up and show their star free agents the money to keep their main contributors around. The Indians did the opposite.
They shopped ace starting pitchers Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer in the offseason, trying to find a suitor willing to take on their price tags to further lower team payroll. This was a team with dire outfield needs, unreliable hitters outside of AL Most Valuable Player Award candidates Ramirez and Francisco Lindor and one that leaned heavily on a star-studded rotation, and yet their goal last offseason was to shift away from anything that made them pennant contenders. All from an organization that hasn’t won a World Series in over 70 years.
The numbers show that the fans have taken exception to the front office’s misdirected and miscalculated moves. Average attendance at Progressive Field has dropped from 24,083 per game in 2018 to 17,576 in 2019, proving that there is financially negative impact on treating team payroll — rather than team success — as the number-one priority as a club.
Last winter, other World Series contenders ponied up and looked ahead to October with offseason moves. The Los Angeles Dodgers responded to their second consecutive World Series defeat by adding A.J. Pollock and Joe Kelly, trading for Russell Martin, and extending Clayton Kershaw. The Houston Astros netted the aforementioned Brantley, as well as Robinson Chirinos and Aledmys Diaz while signing Justin Verlander, Alex Bregman, and Ryan Pressly to contract extensions.
The Indians dug themselves a deep hole by doing next to nothing in the offseason, and how they could climb themselves out of it and carry on is beyond the knowledge of anyone at this point. With the Twins blowing them out of the water, and only the Wild Card position in reach as of now, there’s little Cleveland can do but hope to catch fire, or regret a horrid offseason.