“Chasing down a dream until it disappeared”
So now the season is over, and the reflection on an 85-win season will arouse all kinds of conversation.
The optimists will assert that 2014 was pretty encouraging, on the whole, because what business did the Tribe have being in the playoff conversation in the season’s final week, in a season in which they spent almost half their payroll on the collective dead weight of Nick Swisher, Justin Masterson, Asdrubal Cabrera and John Axford (collective WAR: minus-0.5)? By year’s end, the solidification of the rotation was enough to make them think 2015 looks promising, especially as the Tigers age and the Royals’ staying power is an open question.
These people are right.
The pessimists will say the Tribe took a step back in the standings and won’t do anything of significance with the offense or the defense this winter, because the Swisher contract and the positional conundrum he presents means there are really no empty lineup spots or, for that matter, enticing free agents who are going to dramatically improve the bottom line.
These people are right, too.
(I should add here that some optimists and some pessimists alike will throw around the phrase “big bat,” whatever that even means in this run-deprived day and age, and they will draw conclusions that if only the Indians could add a “big bat,” they’d have better attendance figures. These people have no idea what the heck they’re talking about.)
The Indians are a solid team in a league that doesn’t ask dramatically more than that. MLB has increasingly gravitated toward that NFL feel where the existence of truly great teams is very much in doubt. If you can guarantee me today that the Indians will keep all five of these starters (Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and T.J. House) healthy next season and that none of them will implode statistically, then, yes, I’d guess this will once again be a contender for one of the American League’s five postseason spots next season. I believe that strongly in Terry Francona’s ability to piece things together and eke the most out of whatever lineup and bullpen concoction he has on his hands. But how strong and realistic a contender will ultimately depend on whether this club can improve largely from within offensively and defensively.
But you can’t guarantee me that, and I’m not asking you to. All I’m asking you to do is follow along here as we preview the offseason by means of reviewing the regular season. And perhaps optimists and pessimists alike will come together in their conclusions about this club.
EXCRUCIATING END-OF-SEASON MINUTIAE…
• Those of us who write about baseball for a living just had our annual end-of-season load-out with Chris Antonetti and Francona, and, even though it took place a couple days earlier than it did a year ago, Antonetti sounded more content going into this offseason than he did last year, when the free-agent candidacies of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir (to say nothing of the pending free agency of Masterson) was hanging over his head. “In the moment, we’re disappointed, because this time last year, we still had games in front of us,” Antonetti said. “But as we transition to the offseason, we have basically the entirety of our roster in place for next year. There’s no complacency. We want to improve on that. But that’s a great source of strength going into the offseason.”
• All right, so where, exactly, do the Indians improve? The simple fact is that much of that improvement is going to have to be internal. That means health and production for Swisher, and God only knows if a 34-year-old coming off dual knee surgeries can provide that. What we do know is that Swisher has been dispatched from first base by Carlos Santana, so he’s a man without a position. He’ll be three years removed from his most recent season as a primary outfielder. A
nd because he’s simply stopped hitting lefties (.481 OPS in 117 plate appearances this season) EDIT: As reader Nick points out, Swisher had a .918 OPS against lefties just a year ago, so let’s not completely rule out this possibility. I just don’t know that you can actively plan on it, it’s not like he’s a right-field platoon fit with David Murphy (though the Indians would be wise to look for one, as Ryan Raburn isn’t looking like the answer there anymore). As of now, it looks like the Indians have a designated bro on their hands, and they’ll be paying at least another $30 million over the next two seasons for the privilege.
• That right there is reason enough not to entertain any dreams of a Victor Martinez return, to the extent that any of you did so anyway. Amazing that Vic, at this stage of his career, stands to be arguably the best bat available in the open market, but I don’t think the Tigers will let him reach that point anyway. I do think he’ll end his career with the Indians at some point, somehow, because that’s something he wants to do. But it’s not going to be with a long-term contract signed with Cleveland. It’s more likely to be the Jim Thome-type waiver claim at some point down the road.
• Anyway, back to the 2015 offense. The outfield doesn’t have much wiggle room. Michael Brantley will be coming off an MVP-type season, obviously, while Michael Bourn’s contract is probably unmovable, unless you trade it for a similarly sunk cost. Francona said he wants to see Bourn arrive to camp not only healthy but confident in the condition of his hamstring so that he can be “a disrupter” and “more arrogant” on the basepaths. Bourn, of course, will be 32 next season, and every year he’ll find it a little more challenging to change games with his speed. The Indians need more from him. What more can be said?
• As I said, maybe you find a more suitable platoon partner for Murphy, or maybe you find a way to upgrade right field altogether. The Indians do feel their farm system has improved enough to make them a player in the trade market. But what assets can be expected to be available at a time when teams are scrambling for offense any way they can get it? The lesson from the Yoenis Cespedes trade (and, for that matter, Houston’s J.D. Martinez snafu) has to be taken into account by teams this winter.
• I certainly don’t see an infield shakeup. You’ve got Santana, who, with a 127 OPS+, had as impactful a season as you can have as a .231 hitter, at first. At some point, you might entertain the idea of moving Jason Kipnis back to the outfield, but that point won’t be this winter. You’ve just got to hope and pray he comes to camp healthy and in shape and ready to distance himself from all that transpired this summer. You’ve got Jose Ramirez at short, with Frankie Lindor knocking on the door. And although he turned in perhaps the most remarkable of season splits (.915 OPS in the first half, .591 in the second) and his defensive aplomb is in doubt, Lonnie Chisenhall still appears to be the Indians’ guy at third. “I think Lonnie did more than we could have asked,” Antonetti said. “There was some inconsistency along the way to get there, but if you would have asked us to sign up for what we saw this year, we’d say absolutely… Lonnie’s development as a teammate, the way he improved as a baserunner, how important the little things were to him and how hard he worked on those things was one of the developmental highlights of the year for us.”
• Toss in the $3.5 million option the Indians are probably going to exercise on Mike Aviles, and the infield looks set. And Yan Gomes is obviously locked in behind the plate. Francona made the point (and it’s a good one) that with an OPS nearly 100 points higher than that of Salvador Perez and 51 caught stealings to Perez’s 50 (in 72 fewer games) over the last two years, Gomes is the best catcher in the American League.
• The Indians scored 3.71 runs per game in the second half. They were the worst team in baseball defensively. These are two trends that need to change, clearly. The defense was a bit better in the second half, and much of that is attributable to better range at short. But with Chisenhall at third and Kipnis at second, don’t expect the Indians to suddenly, dramatically elevate themselves from a defensive standpoint. They desperately need both of those guys (and Swisher) to outhit their limited defensive contributions.
• I expect the Indians to add another starter (or starters) before they add the so-called “big bat,” and this will be the usual search for undervalued assets that we’ve come to expect out of this club. They could always deal from their obvious area of strength in the rotation, but, more likely, they’ll line up depth options for the inevitable attrition that will occur from what currently looks like a spectacular starting staff under long-term contractual control. Don’t kid yourself. It’s not entirely smooth sailing from here, especially as Salazar and Bauer are far from finished products and the sample size on House is so small. Just view the rotation as a position of strength, a bearer of upside and an area that will be all the better if Antonetti can find some pieces to be at the ready if/when it springs a leak.
• I freely admit I don’t know how to assess a bullpen outlook, especially four and a half months before Spring Training starts. The Indians will probably put together an effective bullpen, and it will have (at least) eight guys and Francona will use them like crazy. That’s all you really need to know at this point.
• Two final thoughts on awards, now that the BBWAA members have handed in their ballots: Put me in the pessimistic realm, but I just don’t know that Kluber will have enough support to overtake Felix Hernandez in the Cy Young. As I wrote in my awards piece for Sports on Earth, he’d have my vote, if the BBWAA granted us MLB.com kids such a privilege, and he’d have it largely based on his sparkling second half (1.73 ERA, even with that erroneous hit given to Miguel Cabrera on Labor Day). But Felix finished strong Sunday after his Toronto flub last week, won the ERA title, and I just think that ridiculous stretch of 17 straight starts allowing two runs or less is what’s going to stick in voters’ minds. If I’m wrong, I’ll be surprised. Pleasantly surprised, but surprised all the same.
• I’ll also be surprised if Brantley finishes in the top three of the AL MVP voting. I had him at No. 4, for whatever that’s worth (not much), but not because I don’t think there’s an argument for him as high as No. 2 (I’d give the award to Trout, as most reasonable-minded individuals would). I really can’t say enough good things about Dr. Smooth. It’s just too bad a season such as his and Kluber’s won’t be celebrated on the October stage.