Repeat of Last Winter’s Spending Not Necessary For Tribe to Be 2018 Title Contenders
Craig Gifford | On 05, Nov 2017
Last year, the Cleveland Indians made one of the biggest free agent signings of the winter. The guaranteed $60 million for three years doled out to slugger Edwin Encarnacion was the richest contract handed out in club history.
So, as this winter’s hot stove season starts to heat up, what will the Indians do for an encore performance? Is there another splashy signing in the near future? The reality is there does not need to be and probably will not be.
For the Indians, this winter is and should be more about taking care of their own free agents than going outside the organization to bring in another big-time player.
While some Tribe fans may still be hurting and reeling from their team’s early playoff exit, Cleveland’s American League Division Series ouster at the hands of the Yankees was not due to a lack of talent. It was due more to key players either going into funks at the wrong time or being physically less than their normal capabilities.
Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are still two of the best players in the A.L., even though their bats went stone-cold for most of the five-game postseason series. Corey Kluber is still one of the best pitchers in the A.L. despite a balky back making him look hittable in two playoff showdowns with New York. Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Andrew Miller were not in peak form in October thanks to spending large chunks of time on the disabled list during the second half of the regular season. Encarnacion’s Game 2 ankle injury did not help matters.
Given health and the timing to be playing at their best on October 1, the Indians as constructed are still one of the top five teams in the game. They simply have some in-house matters to take care of over the next month or two.
The biggest is going to be deciding between Carlos Santana or Jay Bruce as the power-hitting free agent to re-sign. The Indians do not need to keep both Bruce and Santana and probably do not have the means to lock up both to long-term, lucrative contracts. However, they ought to be able to keep one of them. The favorite would seem to be Santana, who has been with Cleveland his entire Major League career, dating back to 2010. The Tribe also has a plethora of outfield options, should they let Bruce walk away. Replacing Santana’s bat and Gold Glove-caliber fielding at first base would be a much larger challenge and hole to fill.
While locking up one of those two is probably the biggest priority, the first was deciding on options to pick up. Josh Tomlin‘s was picked up on Friday, meaning the Indians will go into next season with seven MLB-ready starters. There will be no splashy moves on the starting pitching front, for sure.
The same holds true on the relief pitching front. Cleveland has a lot of money tied up in All-Star set up man/closer Miller and closer Cody Allen. The biggest decision in the ‘pen will be deciding whether to bring back free agents Bryan Shaw and/or Joe Smith. Both are not likely to be back, as both will command multi-millions of dollars. Shaw will be seeking multiple years and is sure to get it. The Indians have plenty of good relief options in Dan Otero, Zach McAllister, Nick Goody, and possibly a starter who is left out of the five-man rotation. It’s likely a veteran could be brought in on a team-friendly, one-year deal, but a big name is not very plausible.
Brantley’s $11 million option was also picked up. He should be ready to go by Opening Day or shortly after following ankle surgery a couple of weeks ago to take care of a nagging ankle issue that cost him most of this year’s final two months and made him largely ineffective at the plate in the playoffs.
With Brantley back, the Indians have a ton of quality outfield options even without Bruce. Lonnie Chisenhall, Bradley Zimmer, and Brandon Guyer will all be looking to bounce back from injuries that plagued their 2017 campaigns. Zimmer and Guyer both missed the postseason, while Chisenhall was not himself in the ALDS with minimal plate appearances following his September return to the active roster. Kipnis is also going to be an option in the 2018 outfield. He is likely to split time between the outfield and second base. Throw in Greg Allen as an emerging prospect and the outfield has plenty of depth without a big-time free agent move.
In the infiled, Ramirez can play both second and third base and play both very well. With Kipnis hurt in August and September, Ramirez flourished at second and found comfort there. Reports indicate he would prefer to stay there, which is why Kipnis could be pushed into more outfield duty. Giovanny Urshela is a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman, but his bat leaves something to be desired. The Indians can live with that due to so many other good hitters in the lineup. Lindor is obviously a great fielding shortstop with a strong offensive presence. Encarnacion can man first base, but is better off as a designated hitter at this point. That is why bringing back Santana is so important. He is heads and tails better at first than anyone else in the organization. Brantley could be an option to move there, but Cleveland would lose a lot without Santana.
Basically, the Indians should re-sign Santana, one of Shaw or Smith, and make a minor bullpen and bench move. The Indians do not need to make a big free agent splash like they did a season ago. Simply keeping the core in place and seasoning it with some smaller tweaks would keep Cleveland near the top of the MLB contenders list and the run-away favorite to win a third straight AL Central Division title.
Last year, Cleveland almost had to upgrade Mike Napoli with Encarnacion to remain a viable World Series contender. No such replacement is needed this winter. It can be quiet on the winter front while the team continues to make a lot of noise during the late spring, summer, and early fall.
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