Somewhat lost in the growing disappointment and anger that has dotted the landscape of the hot stove season is the fact the 2018 Cleveland Indians are going to be quite good. The Tribe remains one of the handful of elite ballclubs in MLB, which is not expected to have a drastic shift despite nearly everyone on their potential free agent list signing elsewhere. Yonder Alonso and Melvin Upton are fun names to sprinkle onto a Spring Training invite list, but they do not excite a fanbase when trumpeted as the marquee additions.1
WFNY’s Mike Hattery explored the paradox the current Indians front office has between pushing in the chips for a World Series run in 2018 versus the long-term outlook over the next five to six seasons. The entire article is well worth the read with the problem statement summed up thusly:
Is it worth selling an increase in playoff odds from 2019-2023 for increased World Series odds in 2018 and 2019? Maybe. The problem is that for the Indians, the World Series odds increase in the short term would be narrow at best anywhere from 1-4%, still sitting between 10-15%. On the other hand, sitting at 10% odds for 3-5 more years increases the overall probability winning a World Series, though not in any specific year.
Fangraphs has also released their initial 2018 projections, which list the Tribe as a 93-win team with only the 2017 World Series participant Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers ahead of them. The same projections have a 12-game gap between the Indians and the second-place AL Central division Minnesota Twins with the Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, and Chicago White Sox each expected to land within the five worst teams in MLB. Making plans for a third-straight return trip to October baseball appears to be prudent.
There are many familiar names returning for the Tribe, which should help the casual fans get on board with the team.
The entire six-man starting corps returns featuring 2017 AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber and stalwart Carlos Carrasco. Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger should be entering the prime of their careers with Josh Tomlin the ever-dependable end-of-rotation guy. If Danny Salazar has even a modicum of health left in his elbow, then the Tribe should compete for the crown of best starting rotation in baseball.
Andrew Miller and Cody Allen still have a year left on their contracts, so the Indians have a huge head-start on a great bullpen. They’ll need Tyler Olson, Nick Goody, Dan Otero, and others to step up to fill the innings of the departed bullpen arms of Joe Smith and especially Bryan Shaw, but the Tribe’s bullpen should wind up as a Top 5 group in the AL if not still in all of MLB (depending on whether or not depth becomes an issue). The Tribe has been excellent at pulling positive contributions from most every reliever the past couple seasons, so it will be interesting to see if the Carl Willis staff can continue what was done under Mickey Callaway.
Some seem concerned about the other portion of the roster, but Fangraphs lists 10 position players with a fWAR of 1.0 or better2 — topping out with Francisco Lindor’s projected elite 6.0 fWAR.3 AL MVP finalist Jose Ramirez still wears the red, white, and blue. Edwin Encarnacion will still be smelling bats at Progressive Field. Jason Kipnis will be playing, somewhere. A healthy Michael Brantley4 replaces Jay Bruce. Yonder Alonso fills in some of the production from Carlos Santana.5 Melvin Upton could do his best Austin Jackson impression. Roberto Perez and Yan Gomes are both capable of producing from the catcher position.
There is youthful exuberance among the position players too, which could supplement the veterans well. Bradley Zimmer is at least speed and defense but could be more with some adjustments at the plate. Slight changes could make the gargantuan Yandy Diaz a household name. Greg Allen and Giovanny Urshela are supreme defenders– is 2018 the year when they contribute more with their bats? The Tribe probably knows what they have in Erik Gonzalez,6 but Francisco Mejia is a world of wonder.
However, feelings of short-term worries and long-term panic can be justified– to a degree. The outfield is decidedly tilted toward left-handed hitting, Santana is in Philadelphia, Callaway in New York, Kipnis is positionless, Brantley and Guyer are recovering from injuries. Having youth is great except, but not when it is also being depended upon for depth as the Indians will. 2018 might also serve as the final year of bullpen dominance if the team loses both Allen and Miller;7 not to mention the ticking clocks on several other players advancing through arbitration. Not to mention that, while October is driven by variance, several other AL contenders are doing what they can to reduce their variance and increase their odds such as the New York Yankees adding NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton to their outfield.
Still, remember the Indians first priority is winning what is shaping up to be a mediocre (at best) division with a close second priority being to enter the postseason healthy. Stacking the deck in a series with Kluber and Carrasco pitching their best, while Lindor, Ramirez, and Encarnacion provide the thrust to the offense will not make for an easy elimination. The Indians are entering their 70th season since the last World Series title in 1948, but this could be the year.
Only 36 days until pitcher’s and catchers report.