The worry is real. The issue for small-market teams attempting to compete with the financial Goliaths being built in New York and Los Angeles is that every small mistake is magnified due to the gargantuan task of keeping up with those clubs. For the Cleveland Indians, too many small issues will close the contention window after the 2018 season rather than allow it to stay propped open through 2020, which is through where most of the rotation has their current contracts. The Indians front office has done well over the past couple of years, but even well-run ballclubs make wrong turns. The particular ones the Tribe has made over the past month has left some worry about future ramifications.
This past postseason demonstrated how little things can add up to poor results. Seemingly innocuous moves such as not trusting Greg Allen or Yandy Diaz for the ALDS wound up costing the Tribe when Edwin Encarnacion’s injury left a hobbled Michael Brantley as the designated hitter. A man whom the Tribe knew would likely need offseason surgery on his ankle. Jason Kipnis sat second in the lineup even against left-handed pitching, which he has struggled with his entire career. Carlos Carrasco watched helplessly as he only pitched in one game despite being an AL Cy Young candidate. Corey Kluber’s arm slot was lowered bringing about whispers if he is injured or fatigued. Each of these, plus many more even smaller in-game moves, ended the Tribe’s season earlier than had been hoped.
The recent successes of the Tribe has brought about more teams attempting to mimic the small market success of the Tribe through copying the processes. What better way than to hire those from within? Past offseasons have seen many from the front office be hired away by other teams. This offseason, the coaching staff has been pillaged. Mickey Callaway, the pitching coach, received his managerial opportunity for the New York Mets. Matt Quatraro, the assistant hitting coach, will ply his trade without the assistant tag for the Kevin Cash led Tampa Bay Rays.1
Unfortunately, the Indians decided to not promote from within for Callaway’s position. Jason Bere, the bullpen coach, had been known to have helped Callaway in all of the preparations of the scouting reports a great deal. He is a well-respected coach who has been with the team for the 12 years- the last three in his current position. Given the amazing success of Tribe pitchers in that timeframe, he was due an opportunity of his own. He also has been with the team to see their transformation through adopting the advanced pitching techniques and usage of analytics. Paul Hoynes of cleveland.com has reported that Bere will be searching for his earned opportunity as a pitching coach for another team in 2018.
Carl Willis, the newly hired pitching coach, has seen success in his many years. However, despite coaching four AL Cy Young Award winners, he has never seen the success quite like the last few years of the Indians. There is a question of how much coaching matters as awards are often won by the elite players being elite. Coaches do a great amount of preparation and give guidance to the staff, but they cannot overcome a lack of talent. The hope is Willis can continue the rotation and bullpen along the path that has been forged. The worry is that those who did the forging will no longer be with the team.
There are other worries about decisions forthcoming. WFNY spends an inordinate amount of time attempting to provide the pertinent baseball information that demonstrates how the Cleveland area teams can best make use of their assets or give an indication of how the peripheral data shows either an expected rise or drop in future performance. But, what about decisions that can be rationalized or spun in ways that make some logical sense despite being foolhardy? Risks being minimized in conversation, while still being ever present.
We must ensure a proper understanding of what can go wrong might help us understand the paths to avoid. Think of it as a simple decision tree gone wrong. Each branch can have either an adverse or positive effect on future decisions too, so even though the decision might even seem OK in isolation, the overall effect on other decisions could be harmful.
A bad decision tree choice would be to opt-in on Michael Brantley’s contract for $12 million.2 The most common expected rationalizations would be: veteran leadership, high upside of the 2014 or 2015 seasons, and possibly even notes on the insurance protection on his current deal. Perhaps someone mentions the possibility of playing some first base. There is, of course, truth to each of these. Brantley does have a veteran presence in the clubhouse, he did have great value in 2014 and 2015 to the Tribe, and it is suspected his current contract is partially covered by insurance should he not be able to return to the field.
Those rationalizations though serve to attempt to minimize the risks during conversation that are just as real. There would be an $11 million subtraction from the 2018 roster budget, which could affect retaining first baseman Carlos Santana or obtaining a quality replacement for him or Jay Bruce. Brantley is also spending his third straight offseason rehabilitating from a major surgery. If Brantley does convert to first base, then it might take a season or two of hard work to learn the position- as it did Santana. There is a price point where it might make sense for the Indians to have Brantley on their roster, but opting in on the contract is not it.
Another option contract has an easier initial decision, but a worry-filled longer term one. Will the front office opt-in on Josh Tomlin’s paltry $3 million deal, but trade him before Spring Training? There will be teams clamoring for the innings-eating Tomlin at such an inexpensive rate, but the Indians have their own rotation injury concerns to first mitigate. Kluber’s aformentioned arm slot, Danny Salazar’s constant arm issues, and the normal rate of starting pitcher injuries state Tomlin is more valuable on the roster than off. If the team navigates Spring Training to find themselves with six healthy starting pitchers but only five available places on the 25-man roster, they should trust there will still be teams clamoring.
Yet another worry is what the Indians will do with Jason Kipnis for 2018. Is Jose Ramirez entrenched at second base? Is Yandy Diaz ready for an everyday spot in MLB? If so, where does Jason Kipnis play? Bradley Zimmer will be back at full strength and Greg Allen appeared ready to push for a MLB position, so center field should no longer be an option. Pushing him to first base has the same issues as it does for Brantley- and Francona’s over-reliance on him in the lineup adds to it. The most logical remaining moves would be to push him to left field3 or trade him. It is not the best look when J-Ram’s agent pushes for the latter.
The final big worry is what the team will do with their bullpen without Bryan Shaw- should he not return. Well, the biggest worry is what happens to the bullpen without Andrew Miller and Cody Allen after the 2018 season, but there is still another year before that becomes an issue. For now, the front office is tasked with replacing 75 innings of medium-to-high leverage innings a year in a way that will entice Francona to not just lean entirely on Miller and Allen in their walk years. The issue seems small, but having the elite arms healthy in the backend of the bullpen next October could determine the difference between advancing or having another contention year fall short.
The crazy thing about all the worries and issues and bad decisions that could be made over the upcoming offseason is the Indians will likely still be favored to win the AL Central Division and would still then enter the MLB postseason with a rotation of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, and Trevor Bauer with Andrew Miller and Cody Allen in the bullpen. Given the multitude of position player stars (Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Edwin Encarnacion, etc.), the team could even still wind up winning a World Series. The path to get there though would be much more fraught with peril than need be. And the window of contention could close after next season. It’d be nice to have some confidence built back up the team can avoid such things in the meantime.