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The Indians endured the heartbreak of another early exit from the postseason in 2018, and they’re likely to suffer the mass exodus of nearly a dozen free agents. That, combined with several impending player salary increases, a shortage of top prospects, and the looming return to relevance of some rebuilding AL Central teams, poses some difficult questions about the Tribe’s contention window. They’ll enter the offseason foraging for creative (and budget-conscious) ways to address them.
- Edwin Encarnacion, 1B/DH: $25MM through 2019 (includes $5MM buyout on 2020 club option)
- Corey Kluber, SP: $19MM through 2019 (includes $2MM in buyouts on 2020, 2021 club options)
- Jason Kipnis, 2B/OF: $17MM through 2019 (includes $2.5MM buyout on 2020 club option)
- Carlos Carrasco, SP: $10,412,500 through 2019 (includes $662.5K buyout on 2020 club option)
- Yonder Alonso, 1B: $9MM through 2019 (includes $1MM buyout on 2020 vesting/club option)
- Brad Hand, RP: $14.5MM through 2020 (includes $1MM buyout on 2021 club option)
- Yan Gomes, C: $9MM through 2019 (includes $2MM in buyouts on 2020, 2021 club options)
- Jose Ramirez, 2B/3B: $21MM through 2021 (includes $2MM option on 2022 club option)
- Roberto Perez, C: $6.9MM through 2020 (includes $900K in buyouts on 2020, 2021 club options)
- Dan Otero, RP: $1.4MM through 2019 (includes $100K buyout on 2020 club option)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
While the Indians have enjoyed a sustained run of dominance over the rest of the American League Central for the past three seasons, they’ve fallen short of a championship each year, and every time in a fashion more disappointing than the last. Three consecutive losses have bumped them from the playoffs all three times, and they’re now facing yet another club record payroll (north of $145MM) in a market too small in size to support such a figure.
Worse yet, that payroll estimate comes in spite of the very likely departures of several players who’ve been key contributors during the Tribe’s run of success, including Brantley, Allen, Miller and Chisenhall. The subtraction of those contracts from the books are more than negated by gargantuan expected arbitration raises for Bauer and Lindor, in combination with 10 players who are contractually guaranteed raises on their 2018 salaries. Put more simply, Cleveland is set to subtract talent while adding payroll.
It’s not as though there’s significant cavalry on its way from the farm, either. Four of the club’s five top prospects are still playing at Class A or below, and their highest-ranked outfield prospect (their biggest area of need) in the upper minors is Oscar Mercado, who sits at #15 on MLB Pipeline’s Indians prospect rankings. Only #1-ranked Triston McKenzie appears primed to make an impact in 2019, and the Tribe’s rotation already has five locks in the form of Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber.
That’s perhaps a large part of the reason the Tribe is reportedly willing to listen to offers on Kluber and Carrasco this winter, in addition to some other pricey veterans. The logic behind it makes plenty of sense: if the Indians can deal from a strength by trading one of their top starters for a cheap, controllable outfielder who can help now, they’d receive some salary relief while improving their outlook further down the road, and all without greatly diminishing the strength of their 2019 ballclub. After all, McKenzie’s ceiling is nothing to scoff at, and without much divisional competition to worry about (again) in 2019, the club might be less concerned with its regular season starting five than it is with its postseason starting four. And one could certainly argue that there’s no better time to reap a generous return for a premium starting pitcher, given the number of pitching-needy contenders and relative dearth of alternatives on the trade market and in free agency.
Of course, with Kluber being a two-time Cy Young winner and one of the main faces of the franchise, it might be hard for fans to stomach losing him in an effort driven in part by a desire to shed salary. Meanwhile, trading Carrasco for even a player owed the league minimum would save the club less than eight figures next season, so while such a move could still help to fill a hole elsewhere on the roster, it wouldn’t go as far in the way of shedding financial obligations. These factors, along with the immense value each pitcher is expected to deliver on his contract in 2019 (and beyond), make it far from a sure thing that either will end up in a different uniform before Opening Day. Rather, the notion of the Tribe trading one of their top two arms should be seen only as one potential card in their hand as they work to solve a complicated roster puzzle headed into next year.
The biggest gap in that puzzle, as we touched upon earlier, lies in the outfield. Brantley, who’s been a mainstay since his MLB debut in 2009, is set to test free agency for the first time in his career; reports say he’s almost certainly not returning to Cleveland. Cabrera, Davis and Guyer, likewise, are vulnerable to being signed by rival teams at this juncture. Martin, for whom they traded prior to the 2018 non-waiver deadline, is expected to make a full recovery from a life-threatening bacterial infection in time for opening day, but outside of him — assuming he is indeed able to get back to full health — the club’s options are extraordinarily fallible. Kipnis hasn’t had a productive offensive season since 2016. Greg Allen has played below replacement level thus far in 330 career plate appearances. Naquin’s career is full of ups and downs and there’s no telling whether he’ll completely rebound from his recent hip surgery. Former top prospect Bradley Zimmer limped offensively in 2018 and won’t return for quite some time due to a shoulder injury he suffered in Triple-A.
Outside of trading a starting pitcher, the Tribe would appear to have few ways to address their outfield need. They already swung a minor trade with the Pirates that netted them major-leaguer Jordan Luplow, though he’s more of a lottery ticket than an established, reliable piece. One possible avenue would be to cash in prospect capital for a talented corner outfield option; certainly MLB Pipeline’s #84 prospect Nolan Jones could get a conversation started for some solid targets. And with monetary funds largely tapped out as things stand at present, they’re highly unlikely to afford a reliable solution on the free agent market.
Then again, that financial outlook could easily change if the club is able to find a taker for some of their more expensive veterans. Encarnacion and Kipnis, for example, are both on the wrong side of the aging curve. The two combined for just 3.2 fWAR in 2018 but are owed a massive sum of $36.5MM for their services next season. Certainly neither player would be viewed as having any sort of surplus value on his respective salary — quite the contrary — and that’s without even considering the $7.5MM in total buyouts on the pair’s contract options for 2020. Still, either could provide a method of shedding salary if the right team were to show interest. Encarnacion has plenty of pop left in his bat, and could be a fit for a handful of American League clubs. Young OBP machine Yandy Diaz could perhaps step in and fill the DH opening should the parrot fly out of Cleveland. Kipnis, meanwhile, could theoretically be replaced with the addition or promotion of an infielder or outfielder, so there are plenty of options to fill his shoes. Certainly plenty of teams would be interested in bringing a league-average middle infielder into the fold.
Of course, the Tribe’s questions marks are not limited to the outfield. Perhaps an even more pressing issue is the club’s bullpen, which finished in the AL’s bottom three in ERA, FIP and fWAR, and has been ravaged by the free agent departures of Allen, Miller and Perez. Of the group set to return, only Hand finished 2018 with an ERA below 4.00. It’s worth mentioning that Salazar is somewhat of a wild card, but overall the outlook is bleak.
It’s unclear what viable options the club has in the way of improving its relief corps to the level necessary to compete with other powerhouse teams, but the “throw a bunch of spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks” method employed by the club in 2018 was a pronounced failure and hopefully won’t be employed again next season. The in-house group is likely to see some positive regression, of course, but creative methods of bringing in reinforcements are likely to be high on the club’s priority list.
While there are certainly plenty of issues to address for 2019, the long-term outlook brings an entirely different cornucopia of questions. While the Indians have a wide variety of high-end young talent locked up for the near future (Lindor, Ramirez, Clevinger and Hand all come to mind), those players will continue to get significantly more expensive over the next three seasons. During that time, their already-expensive veterans are more likely to decline than they are to repeat their recent performances, and unlike in years past they’ve got very few promising players under team control beyond the next three seasons. The AL Central won’t be a cakewalk forever; teams like the White Sox and Tigers are already past the initial teardown phases of their respective rebuilds and figure to be on the upswing in the coming seasons. All of a sudden, the Tribe is facing some very real longevity concerns, and it’s not unthinkable that they could make some creative moves this offseason as a means of addressing them.
Of course, even if they made next to no major moves from this point through spring training, they’re a contender in every sense of the word. Their rotation remains one of the best in baseball, and they have two of the game’s best young position-player talents in Lindor and Ramirez. The path to a fourth consecutive AL Central Championship doesn’t have much in the way of serious obstructions, so any and all acquisitions the Indians make this winter will simply culminate in slight statistical improvements upon their postseason odds. While they aren’t likely to enter next October as favorites, they’ll have a chance, and as we saw with the 2016 club, sometimes an outside shot can carry a team a long way.
The recently (and unofficially) extended Mike Chernoff has a wide variety of issues to address this offseason, but he’s also got a wide variety of options at his disposal and a relatively low floor as far as overall competitive makeup. There will be some suspense as far as who might stay or go, however, and that very aspect of the club’s offseason outlook means that there will be several interesting storylines to follow. Tribe fans will certainly have an entertaining winter ahead of them in that regard.