On Wednesday, Jim Thome is expected to become one of the newest members of Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame and Museum. In his first year of eligibility, it is all but certain that Thome will join a select group …
It seems that Trevor Bauer may have grown up before our very eyes during the second half of last season.
The 26-year-old, who will be 27 on January 17, was a villain on the team during the season’s first three months as he got off to a rocky start. That, combined with his now infamous drone incident during the 2016 playoffs, had draw the ire of Tribe fans.
On July 16, Bauer was 7-8 with a 5.59 ERA. He had just allowed four earned runs and recorded just two outs in a forgettable start against the weak-hitting Oakland Athletics. Calls for Bauer to be demoted to the bullpen or sent to Triple-A Columbus were intensifying. Bauer was the last guy many fans wanted to see take the mound at that point.
What if you were told the Cleveland Indians could add a pair of former two-time All-Stars to their lineup? Add to that statement that neither player had anything to do with the Tribe’s epic 22-game winning streak this past summer, one that helped launch the club to the best record in the American League. Also, add to that that neither player was much of a factor in a disappointing five-game ALDS defeat at the hands of the New York Yankees. Now what if you were told that the Indians would have to give up nothing to add the All-Star veterans to a lineup that neither was really much of a part of in the second half of 2017?
You would probably happily take this scenario, just before asking how the Indians could add two quality pieces to their everyday lineup without giving anything up. That part is simple. The two players are Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley.
With Carlos Santana now gone to Philadelphia, Brantley and Kipnis serve as the Indians’ longest-tenured players. They probably serve as two of the biggest keys to Cleveland’s hopes of winning a third straight American League Central Division title and, more importantly, getting back to the World Series for the first time in two years and winning it for the first time in 70 years.
The Indians completed one of the offseason priorities this past week. With the signing of Yonder Alonso, Cleveland figured out who would replace departed free agent Carlos Santana at first base. Alonso may be a slight downgrade to the player who called Cleveland home for the last eight years, but he and his 28 home runs from a season ago will be a good addition to the Tribe’s batting order.
With that box checked on the Indians’ winter to-do list, there are still a couple more. The biggest area of concern may very well be sorting out the outfield, which is going to take some doing and could take a good deal of time this winter and on into the spring.
The Tribe has seven big league-caliber outfielders, all of whom are capable Major League baseball players. That does not even consider Jason Kipnis, who could be moved more regularly from second base to the outfield, nor does it consider free agent Jay Bruce whom the Indians could still ink to a contract before spring training rolls around.
When a baseball team loses a pair of late-inning relievers to free agency, as the Cleveland Indians did this past week, it is certainly cause for some concern and worry. However, it is nowhere near time for Tribe fans to start hitting the panic button when it comes to Cleveland’s bullpen and its prospects for remaining a team strength in 2018.
Watching Bryan Shaw sign with the Colorado Rockies and then Joe Smith ink a deal with the Houston Astros was definitely frustrating for the faithful followers of the Wahoo Warriors. The sky is not falling and the walls are not caving in, however, at the home bullpen at Progressive Field.
During the first half of the 2016 season, it seemed Danny Salazar was headed toward being an important fixture in the Cleveland Indians rotation for some years to come.
That first half, marred only by what seemed to be a minor forearm injury during the final weekend before the All-Star break, was one to behold for Salazar. He went into the break with a 10-3 record and 2.75 ERA. His breakout performance earned him a spot on the American League All-Star squad. He was a big reason the Indians were in first place and dreaming of big things ahead.
Those 2016 Indians did reach big things once play resumed after the Midsummer Classic. However, they did a lot of it without the All-Star hurler. By the time the team was playing in that year’s World Series, Salazar was reduced to a reliever, mostly in a spectator’s role.
Cleveland Indians starter Carlos Carrasco has always had ace-like and All-Star pitching ability. It was always figured that all he really needed was a full, healthy season for that to become apparent.
In 2017, Carrasco finally had a season in which he was healthy. The baseball world took notice as he emerged from the large shadow that is cast over the rest of the Tribe rotation by two-time Cy Young Award winner and staff ace Corey Kluber.
There are some great pitchers from before 1959 who will never be able to be judged in history by the number of Cy Young Awards they have won. That is the year the now-prestigious award came into being.
From that season, on, pitching icons have been defined by, and doors to baseball’s Hall of Fame have been opened, by winning that piece of hardware. Those who have won the trophy multiple times have earned a special place in pitching lore. If a hurler can distinguish himself among his peers over multiple seasons, he must truly be great.
Roger Clemens won baseball’s top pitching prize a record seven times. He would be enshrined in Cooperstown if not for getting entangled in the steroid mess that has stained the careers of may players from the 1990s and early 2000s. Randy Johnson won the Cy five times, while Greg Maddux and Steve Carlton earned it four times each. All three players are in the Hall of Fame. Pedro Martinez, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer and Sandy Koufax won the trophy three times – ditto on the Hall.
Once the Cleveland Indians best everyday player and MVP candidate, Michael Brantley has become one of the team’s biggest question marks over the last couple of offseasons.
One question surrounding Brantley was answered this offseason already. That happened last week when the Tribe picked up his $11.5 million team option for 2018. In doing that, it put to bed the question of whether or not the two-time All-Star and a former top-three MVP vote-getter would be back for a tenth season in Cleveland.
There are so many more questions, however, clouding the winter and early spring when it comes to the superstar left fielder. As was the case the last two offseasons, they involve an injured body part and recent surgery. Unlike past offseasons, the concern is not with an ailing shoulder. Instead it is with a problematic ankle.
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.
How much money are the Cleveland Indians willing to put toward their vaunted bullpen?
That is something Tribe fans may find out this offseason. Arguably the best relief corps in baseball, the team has two key free agents in Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith. The bullpen would definitely have a different feel to it without Shaw, but to what lengths should the Tribe actually go to keep a reliever who is not one of its top two pitchers?
Every offseason, every Major League Baseball team has tough decisions to make. Most teams – even the good ones – rarely start a new season with every player that they had the year before. Expiring contracts, contract options, and free agency are facts of life for all MLB clubs.
That is why this past season felt so special for the Cleveland Indians. Very few tough decisions had to be made last winter. The ones that were ended up being greeted with happy returns. Mike Napoli had to go, but the Indians upgraded with Edwin Encarnacion. Rajai Davis was not retained, even after his near-heroics in the 2016 World Series. Cleveland did not miss a beat without him. Those players represented the only difficult decisions that the Tribe’s deep thinkers needed to make last offseason.
It will not be so easy this winter.
Cleveland has more free agents and contract options to consider this time around. At the core of every decision the team makes this winter, may be the greatest debate of all – the question of Jay Bruce or Carlos Santana?