CLEVELAND — The 2016 Cleveland Indians were good enough to win the franchise’s first American League pennant in 19 years and come agonizingly close to bringing the city its first World Series victory since 1948.
Given all the injuries the Indians endured and obstacles they had to overcome, it’s not outlandish to think they’ll return as an even better, more formidable team in 2017.
Cleveland’s front office has some significant decisions to make this offseason, for sure. First baseman Mike Napoli, who led the team with 34 homers and 101 RBIs and was so beloved that “Party at Napoli’s” T-shirts were a de rigeur fashion statement at Progressive Field, is eligible for free agency this winter. So is outfielder Rajai Davis, who led the American League with 43 stolen bases and hit a home run so momentous it made the stadium shake late Wednesday night.
But the nucleus of the team is intact, and the Indians’ track record should inspire faith that president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti, general manager Mike Chernoff and Cleveland’s front office group will make a lot of smart calls.
Recent history substantiates that the Indians are adept at squeezing every dollar out of a payroll that annually ranks in MLB’s bottom third. Since the start of 2013, the Indians have recorded an American League-leading 352 regular-season victories. That’s one more game than the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals have won in the same span, and more victories than the Detroit Tigers (343), New York Yankees (340), Boston Red Sox (339) and Toronto Blue Jays (339) have amassed with greater star power and more ample resources.
“We feel like our organization is really healthy right now,” Chernoff said. “We don’t feel like this is a one-year wonder in that way. It’s not a team where we’re losing six or seven of our starting players at the end of the year. It’s a team where we’re potentially losing a couple of key free agents, but a big part of the core is here for the long run.”
Several rival executives surveyed by ESPN.com point out that the Indians lack the star-studded array of young talent of their World Series rivals, the Cubs. It would be a challenge for any organization to assemble a young position player nucleus to match Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras.
But a spin through Cleveland’s 25-man roster reveals that most of the pieces are in place for the Indians to remain relevant for the next several years:
• A young, cornerstone franchise player. Check.
Francisco Lindor is a multi-talented, switch-hitting shortstop with the potential to be a perennial MVP candidate. He’ll begin next season at age 23, and the Indians have seen enough to know that a taste of success on the big stage won’t blunt his desire to be great. There were few more exciting moments in World Series Game 7 than the sight of Lindor ranging behind second base to take a hit from Dexter Fowler, then raising his arms and exhorting fans to get on their feet.
“Lindor is a stud,” an American League front-office man said. “He’s completely changed that franchise.”
• Controllable young position players behind him. Check.
Jose Ramirez, 24, logged an impressive .312/.363/.462 slash line while splitting his time between left field and third base this season. All he does is rake. And former first-round pick Tyler Naquin is a good bet to finish third in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting behind Detroit’s Michael Fulmer and the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez (in whichever order they appear). Naquin will just need to get past the disappointment of a memorably bad night in World Series Game 6.
• Controllable veteran players who double as team leaders. Check.
Outfielder Michael Brantley, in the prime of his career at age 29, appeared in a mere 11 games before going down for the year with a shoulder injury in May. The man known as “Dr. Smooth” is signed for $7.5 million in 2017, and the Indians have an $11 million club option in 2018.
Jason Kipnis is in the middle of a six-year, $52.5 million contract that runs three more years and could extend through 2020 if the Indians exercise a final option year. Since Kipnis became a regular in 2012, he ranks seventh among MLB second basemen in hits (771), home runs (69) and doubles (167) and and is sixth in RBIs (335). He’s 29 years old and coming off one of his best seasons.
• A bona fide ace. Check.
Corey Kluber went through a lot to establish himself as one of MLB’s elite starters. Because of that, the Indians were able to sign him to a relatively club-friendly deal that pays him annual salaries of $7.5 million, $10.5 million and $13 million over the next three seasons. The Indians also have club options of $13.5 million and $14 million in 2020 and 2021. If Kluber stays with the team for the duration, he’ll be 35 in the final year of his deal.
• Depth behind the ace. Check.
Since the start of the 2014 season, Danny Salazar ranks sixth among MLB starters (minimum 400 innings pitched) with a ratio of 9.91 strikeouts per nine innings. Carlos Carrasco is seventh in that span at 9.81.
Carrasco has two years left on a four-year, $22 million contract, and Indians have club options for 2019 and 2020. Salazar and Trevor Bauer, who went 12-8 with a 4.26 ERA in 190 innings, are both eligible for free agency after the 2020 season.
• An established closer. Check.
Cody Allen, who has been solid since taking over as Indians closer in 2014, took his game to another level in October — with a 24-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13⅔ scoreless innings. He has two years of arbitration left before he hits the open market.
• A monster trade chip. Check.
Indians fans might storm the Progressive Field gates if the team trades postseason icon Andrew Miller, but it’s a possibility that Antonetti and Chernoff might at least have to entertain in the offseason. Miller was amazing in October, but a $9 million per year setup man is a luxury for a small-to-mid-market team, and Miller wouldn’t be able to survive physically if manager Terry Francona tried to use him this way over a 162-game regular season.
Chernoff declined to address the team’s specific thought process with Miller. But it’s worth noting that the Indians acquired Kluber, Carlos Santana, Brantley and Carrasco in trades when they were selling off veterans Jake Westbrook, Casey Blake, CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, respectively.
“In years when we’re not competitive, we have to make some of those painful trades,” Chernoff said. “We have to be opportunistic when we can.”
If the Indians decide to make Miller available, he’s certain to generate plenty of interest.
“There are so many teams looking for closers, his trade value is through the roof,” a baseball insider said. “You have the Dodgers, Nationals, Giants, Rangers and, ironically, the Cubs. I think those teams will all be calling about Mr. Miller.”
• A great manager. Check.
Along with burnishing his Hall of Fame credentials, Francona has enhanced his reputation as a manager beloved by his players. That never hurts when Antonetti and Chernoff are trying to sell Cleveland as a potential destination to free agents.
• Two ancillary factors also contribute to the bright outlook in Cleveland.
The Indians’ farm system is in good shape even though they sent former No. 1 draft picks Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield to New York in the Miller deal. The Indians have enough legit bats (Bradley Zimmer, Francisco Mejia, Bobby Bradley, Will Benson, Nolan Jones) and arms (Brady Aiken, Triston McKenzie) in the pipeline that they rank on the cusp of the top 10 systems in baseball — if not higher.
The AL Central is also in a state of flux at the moment. Minnesota is coming off a 59-win season and in rebuild mode behind a new leadership regime headed by former Indians executive Derek Falvey. The Chicago White Sox have been a disappointment and recently replaced manager Robin Ventura with Rick Renteria. The Detroit Tigers have an aging nucleus, the fourth-highest payroll in baseball at $172 million and a weak farm system. And while the Kansas City Royals deserve lots of respect for winning back-to-back pennants in 2014 and 2015, the Glass family appears to be in retrenchment mode and another rebuild could be on the way.
“It’s a division that’s winnable, and they have pieces in place that can help them win,” a National League front-office man said of the Indians. “They have some elements that should enable them to be good. Best-team-in-baseball good? I think that’s to be determined.”
Pieces are all in place for Indians to be even better in 2017 – ESPN