CLEVELAND, Ohio — The media can be fooled. Fans can be fooled, but it’s hard to fool a ballplayer when the question is about talent.
So the answer is yes, the 2019 Indians are going to be a different team than the one that ended the 2018 season with 91 wins and a third straight AL Central title. How could they not be after Edwin Encarnacion, Yan Gomes, Yandy Diaz, Yonder Alonso and Erik Gonzalez were traded and Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, Andrew Miller, Rajai Davis and Josh Donaldson signed elsewhere as free agents?
The list of departed Indians does not include free agents Cody Allen, Brandon Guyer, Josh Tomlin, Melky Cabrera, Oliver Perez and Adam Rosales, who are still looking for homes.
So there is no question the 2019 Indians are going to be different than last year’s club, but are they going to be better or at least just as good?
“I wouldn’t say that,” said catcher Roberto Perez, who moves into a starting role following the trade of Gomes. “All I can say is that we’re going to get there. We lost some pieces like Encarnacion and Brantley. Those players are special and they fit here well, but we’re going to concentrate on what we have here now and see what happens.”
Asked if the Indians can win the World Series in 2019, Perez said, “Yes, I believe in my team 100 percent.”
This is Perez’s 11th season in the organization. Considering the experience and talent the Indians have lost this winter, he qualifies as an elder statesman. His tenure has given him a chance to see how the front office has put together winning rosters for the last six seasons.
“Of course, I’m very confident in the front office,” said Perez. “I believe in my team. Each person here knows what they can do. I think our strength is here … it’s the (starting) pitching. We’re going to be the underdogs. I think we all know that. But we’re ready for the challenge.”
When asked if he really believed the Indians were going to be underdogs in a division they’ve dominated for three years, he said, “Not really. The other teams have done great jobs this offseason, the White Sox and Minnesota. But in 2016, nobody thought that we were going to be in the World Series. We’ve just got to prove people wrong.”
Reliever Dan Otero is entering his fourth season with the Indians. He said last year the Indians dwelt too much on the players they’d lost to free agency – specifically Bryan Shaw. This winter it’s Miller and Allen.
“I don’t want the narrative to always be about the people we lost,” said Otero. “I felt like last year I thought there was a lot of that with Shaw leaving. ‘How are we going to replace him’ and maybe we weren’t focused on who we had here.
“I kind of want to get away from talking about the guys who aren’t here and talk about the guys who are here. We have some new blood here. Guys trying to make a name for themselves. Whether it’s Neil Ramirez coming back again. Jon Edwards coming back after a good year. Nick Goody coming off an injury. There are guys here we need to count on and hold accountable. As much as those guys meant to us in the past, we do need to look at the guys we have here. They’re at different places and hopefully they do well except when they play us.”
Over the last six years the Indians have won more games than any team in the AL. The roster didn’t turn over that much until the last two seasons. But as players keep performing well and gain more service time in the big leagues, their salaries increase as free agency draws nearer. That means change for a team such as the Indians.
With change, comes opportunity.
“It’s an opportunity to make your name,” said Mike Clevinger, when asked about this winter’s roster turnover. “When I was coming up here, I took it as there was an awful lot of good arms in front of me. I told myself if I can crack this rotation, it’s going to be a pretty big thing for myself.
“We’re a winning ball team. We’ve been winning for years. If you can crack this lineup (as a position player), it’s obviously a feat for yourself and your personal endeavors.”
With the trades and free agents departures of Gomes, Gonzalez, Encarnacion, Chisenhall, Brantley and Alonso, the Indians have lost 307 runs, 90 homers and 270 RBI.
“The good part of being here the last couple of years,” said Clevinger, “was seeing how this front office replenishes the holes in the lineup. So now it’s not the anxiety of not knowing your lineup. I know they’re going to be putting some good bats in there. We’ve won the AL Central three years in a row. Why not keep it going?”
Pitchers and catchers report to Goodyear, Ariz., for the start of spring training on Feb. 12. GM Mike Chernoff told the Tribe Fest audience on Saturday that they will keep trying to improve the team right through the start of camp and beyond. There have been rumors all winter that one way to do that would be to trade one of their top two starting pitchers, Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer.
“I’d really be sad to see Klubes or Trev leave because they’ve been such great mentors to learn from,” said Adam Plutko. “Seeing them leave would be a real bummer on my end.”
But in an offseason where there has been change in every other part of the roster, a move with the rotation would not be a surprise.