CLEVELAND — For the third straight year, the Cleveland Indians were forced to watch as their postseason opponent celebrated in Cleveland.
The Houston Astros topped the Indians 11-3 on Monday, completing a three-game sweep in their American League Division Series. It’s the second straight year Cleveland has been eliminated in the opening round, and the first time the Indians have been swept since the 1954 World Series.
It’s a tough pill to swallow for this particular group, one that was just one win (and maybe one rain delay) away from taking home the Commissioner’s Trophy in 2016.
And on April 1, 2019, when the Indians take the field for their home opener against the Chicago White Sox, the team will likely look very different.
“I just told the guys, we’ve got a number of guys that are free agents,” manager Terry Francona said after the sweep. “You know there’s going to be some turnover, and it’s a real special group to all of us. So that’s a hard one, when you’re saying goodbye before you’re ready to.”
Following the loss to the Astros, veteran Jason Kipnis sat in a corner of the Indians clubhouse alongside Michael Brantley and Josh Tomlin. Tomlin is the longest-tenured Indian (picked up in the 2006 draft), while Brantley was acquired from Milwaukee in 2008 in the CC Sabathia trade and Kipnis was drafted by the Tribe in 2009.
Kipnis is locked up through 2019, but the trade rumors that swirled around him last off-season could persist this winter. Both Tomlin and Brantley could be gone next year in free agency. So could Cody Allen, the club’s all-time leading saves leader.
Andrew Miller, Josh Donaldson, Rajai Davis, Lonnie Chisenhall, Melky Cabrera, and Oliver Perez are also free agents this off-season.
The entire Indians starting rotation of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, and Shane Bieber remains under team control and should be back next year. Also back will be 2018 All-Stars Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, and Yan Gomes along with Edwin Encarnacion, Brad Hand, Adam Cimber, Yonder Alonso, Yandy Diaz, Tyler Naquin, and Roberto Perez.
Both Lindor and Bauer are eligible for arbitration and will see likely significant pay raises, meaning they will command large chunks of the savings left in the wake of any exiting free agents.
In 2016, Brantley played in just 11 games because of shoulder surgery and missed the entire postseason run to the World Series. In 2017, he played in the ALDS but underwent ankle surgery after the season ended. Despite all that, the Indians exercised his option for the 2018 season, a move that paid off as Brantley appeared in 143 games and made the All-Star team.
“This has been an honor,” Brantley said when asked about the possibility of it being his last game in Cleveland. “It’s been an honor to wear that uniform, it’s been an honor, every player I’ve played with in this organization, for all the help everybody gave me, it was always appreciated. It will never be forgotten.
“I’ve got a lot of thinking to do. I’ve got my family to talk to. I’ve got these guys in this room to still talk to. Then, we’ll go from there. You never know what’s going to happen in the off-season.”
This season, Miller and Allen both struggled immensely, Miller with various injuries, Allen with pitching around traffic. The inconsistency from both was a large part of the reason why the bullpen remained a question mark for most of this season and through all three postseason games.
“I was not good,” Allen said. “I was not good and I feel bad for the guys who were extremely good this year and carried us to this point because I did not help in getting us past a very, very good team in Houston. We knew we were going to have to play our best baseball and we didn’t, and I didn’t.”
If Monday was Allen’s last game in Cleveland, he said he believes the club will still be in good shape no matter who remains in the spring.
“This organization’s done a pretty good job of putting some pretty good teams on the field without making the big free-agent splashes,” he said. “This organization’s going to be just fine with or without whoever the guys are that are free agents.”
For most of 2018, it felt like the Indians were always a few pieces away from being true contenders, whether it was in the bullpen, in the outfield, or from key guys slumping at the plate.
In 2019, the club will look very different. But considering it felt like this team never put together all the pieces in 2018, that’s where so much of the disappointment comes from in this postseason loss.
“We never felt like we tapped our full potential, maybe because we didn’t have to,” Miller said. “If we were in a pennant race, fighting in games in September, maybe that helps us. I don’t know. Unfortunately, there’s no way to go back and get a do-over and set things up the way you want. You have to show up when the games start.”