Cleveland Indians 2018 Preview

Good day one and all! This post is about my Cleveland Indians. Spring training is still about a month away and Spring Training games after that. But as of the middle of January 2018 I am looking at my team…and I am concerned.

Last year the Indians had it on a low speed cruise control in a weak AL Central Division before winning almost a month’s worth of games in a row. That team peaked in mid-September (the postseason starts in October) before crashing and burning against the hated New York Yankees. In the postseason, the Tribe won the first game in shutout fashion and the fan base was nodding along that this was the year to get to the World Series and capture the title. Game two against the Yankees saw the Indians and Corey Kluber get brutalized early on but survive to steal the game. Tribe fans were even more convinced that this was destiny. Now for the put-away game…the Indians delivered a big thud. Perhaps if the right fielder was shorter or playing Lindor way more to pull the ball, Lindor’s shot off the end of the bat carries into the stands; the Indians eek out a  2-1 victory and October turns out differently. But beyond that un-happened moment, the Tribe never led the rest of that game or in the two games that followed. The mighty 100 plus win Indians team was done.

In the aftermath of that disappointment, the postseason played out and a new champion was again crowned (not from Cleveland, boo). With the official end of the baseball season, player contracts expired and the team lost some guys who had done some of the heavy lifting down the stretch. Bryan Shaw, Carlos Santana, Joe Smith and Jay Bruce (with an honorable mention to Austin Jackson) all left Cleveland holding the empty bag. Those guys wanted money…and the Tribe front office said, “we’re poor!”

This was a harsh reality that Tribe fans were able to avoid just one magical year ago when they signed Edwin Encarnacion on the avalanche of funds from a very deep postseason run in 2016. But with just three postseason games in 2017, the bank was not as supercharged as it needed to be. Thus these vital cogs to the 2017 season and a big part of the 2016 run were gone. Left in the wake of their departures are huge question marks on the infield, in the outfield and throughout their bullpen.

The front office that was savvy enough to land Terry Francona a few years ago now, was now a little bone-headed on some of the decisions of this offseason in my opinion. Let’s take a look at my team as I see it, shall we?

The starting rotation features two-time Cy Young award winner in Corey Kluber, along with fellow aces Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer. After that trio there is 27 year old Mike Clevinger, who is up and coming. The last spot in the rotation can be held by Josh Tomlin, Danny Salazar, Cody Anderson or Ryan Merritt. Honestly, the rotation is decently solid. But just ask anyone who follows baseball, an injury or multiple injuries can strike at any time and send that plan to ashes (see the San Francisco Giants 2016-2017). Handing out my first grade of the club for the rotation, I give these guys an A-/B+ overall.

Now, on to the back end! Based on reputation and stats, I see Cody Allen and Andrew Miller as two of the very best late inning arms in either league. Although powerful and having a great recent track record, I see a couple of red flags. Last year Miller was plagued by knee issues and Allen has been used nearly to death the last couple of years so the wear and tear may be catching up with them. Most likely this is that last year in a Tribe uniform for both of them based on potential free agent earnings in 2019 and beyond. Outside of those two there are plenty of question marks. Yes Dan Otero is solid but for some reason he was left off the playoff roster in favor of a guy who was injured and wildly inconsistent all year in 2018 (Danny Salazar). Zach McAllister is decent but not a knockout reliever and the other pieces in the bullpen are also solid but from year to year bullpen arms tend to have results that vary greatly. Grading the bullpen based on what is there right now and the high probability that Andrew Miller will once again feel some knee discomfort (don’t want to put that out there but let’s be realistic), I think the overall bullpen makeup and depth is about a C+. Because if you can’t get to the closer (with a lead), what does it matter?

Next up, I give you the catcher position for your consideration. The Indians have two major league caliber starting catchers, at least on calling games and defensively speaking. As hitters, both Gomes and Perez tend to strike out too much and hit for a pretty low average, but they manage the strike zone well and control the opposing running game with strong arms on the defensive side. In a perfect world you wouldn’t really ever have to worry about financials but the team’s budget is not maintained in a perfect world. Based on the team’s perceived ‘budget’, it seems a little like overkill to be paying what they do for their two catchers. Yan Gomes, the ‘starter’ makes just under $7,000,000 for 2018. His understudy, Roberto Perez, makes about $5,300,000 less. So with the team presently unable to pony up for their free agents, it would make sense to trade Yan Gomes to free up some spending room. This especially makes sense with highly touted hitting prospect Francisco Mejia waiting in the wings to be the backup if not the projected long term starter there. Based on this information I give the position a grade of B for talent and a D for the price tag here.

With two areas realistically to analyze, I will flip a coin. Infield wins. We will go there first and then finish with the outfield. At first base the team subtracted Carlos Santana and replaced him with Yonder Alonso and probably Edwin Encarnarcion on the platoon side. On the days Edwin plays first base, it will probably be a push offensively with what Santana did but it will most likely be a downgrade defensively for every day regardless of who plays there. With the recent announcement stating that Jason Kipnis will not be traded or made an outfielder permanently, the position downgraded offensively and defensively from having Jose Ramirez play there. Ramirez played second base with more range, a quicker double play turn and his offensive upside was on par with that of Kipnis from his second year in the league. As Kipnis has aged he has shown that he cannot stay healthy and his speed-related attributes have fallen off substantially from earlier in his career. Luckily at the shortstop position is Francisco Lindor and he will be there for at least the next 3-4 years until he becomes a free agent. He can field, hit and run. The only issue he has is trying to hit too many homeruns and then he tends to slump at the plate. And finally back at third base, the team will once again use Jose Ramirez over the options of Yandy Diaz or Giovanny Urshela or utility man Erik Gonzalez. This is a good thing for third base and a bad thing for second base. The defense on left side is rock solid and the right side may be hard to watch. With all this information in mind, I think the infield grades out at a B- with the deficiencies of first and second base bringing down a stellar tandem in Ramirez-Lindor.

Obviously in the dugout the Indians have a future Hall Of Famer in Terry Francona so his A+ is well deserved and we can move on to the current outfield ‘mix’. Based on talent and logical projections, I would see Michael Brantley in left field, Bradley Zimmer in center and Lonnie Chisenhall in right. The problem with these talents is injuries. Last year each of these players lost chunks of time (and games) to the disabled list. Another issue is that they are all left handed hitters who do very little as far as offensive output against left handed pitchers. Those metrics necessitate using the likes of Brandon Guyer and Abraham Almonte which are decent spot starters but not everyday players. If you start doing the math: two catchers, five infielders-DH’s, 11 or 12 pitchers and the five outfielders mentioned already, that really leaves 1-2 spots for another outfielder or utility bench player. Based on the small sample of games from Greg Allen and 2016 success of Tyler Naquin, how do you bubble gum this roster together? Overall I give the outfield of current options a C+ but with heavy reservations based on recent injury histories for five of the guys.

Luckily, the division as a whole has some ongoing turmoil. But as recent history would indicate (see the Houston Astros) a bad team can quickly turn into a contender and a threat. The Twins scraped into the wildcard play-in game last year. The Kansas City Royals are not that many years removed from back to back World Series appearances. Those two teams I think can rebound this year to be competitive. As for Detroit and Chicago, I see them more being a story in the second half of 2019 and beyond if their rebuilding prospects come along quickly.

Judging this team based on the manager and the core players still with the team, barring several crippling injuries to those, the Indians should win the division by 4-5 games. But beyond that I don’t think they scare anybody especially on the heels of what the Yankees were able to do last year.

It’s always easy to sit on the outside and dictate what you think is wrong and how to fix it so with that hat on here goes: Find trade partners to take Jason Kipnis, Josh Tomlin, Yan Gomes and Andrew Miller. This will save the club $30 million dollars or so (depending on if they had to eat part of the salaries). This will give the team some flexibility to sign some free agents to fill the holes mentioned. I would rather see the team sign a legit third baseman, leave Ramirez at second base and bring in an established everyday outfielder (who bats right handed). Put Danny Salazar into a seventh or eighth inning bullpen role. Plug Ryan Merritt into that fifth starter spot for a while and see how it goes. Plus let’s see what the kids in the minors can do in spring training. Just some thoughts for you to maybe consider. Go Tribe!

If Mel Allen were still alive today I would ask him to say, “We’ll see you next time on This Week in Baseball.”

Have a great week and send me feedback if you would like!

Peace.

<<01-17-2018>>

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