The Cleveland Indians lost a lot this winter, to be sure.
Long-time Indian, middle-of-the-order hitter and recently-turned-Gold-Glove-caliber-first-baseman Carlos Santana was the biggest loss. The Indians will miss his 25 homer, 85 RBI potential in the middle of the lineup, pairing with Edwin Encarnacion.
Almost as much, the team will miss workhorse reliever Bryan Shaw. He was a reliable innings-eater. In recent seasons, he became the subject of scorn from some fans. Part of that was he gave up the game-winning runs in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. However, he never missed games with injuries and had success in the late innings a lot more often than not. He was an important third cog in the pen behind Cody Allen and Andrew Miller.
Power-hitting outfielder Jay Bruce and veteran reliever Joe Smith will be missed, but were trade-deadline additions – Smith in July, Bruce in August – who were viewed as rentals and complements to a roster that already was championship-caliber.
On a lesser scale, 2017 minor league free agent and diamond in the rough addition Austin Jackson will also be missed, but should be easily replaceable.
Those five players being gone do not help Cleveland’s cause when it comes to winning a third straight American League Central Division championship and getting back to the Fall Classic after a disappointing 2017 ALDS exit. Losing that quartet does not help the club’s effort in ending its World Series championship drought, last won by the Tribe in 1948.
However, starting pitcher and 2017, 17-game winner Trevor Bauer put it best on Wednesday, when pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. It is time to stop focusing on the players who are gone and realizing the talented roster the Indians still do have.
Yes, a lot of talent departed the Tribe’s roster in the fall and winter. However, there is still the talent on the squad for the Tribe to realistically think that a baseball championship parade could be held in downtown Cleveland for the first time in 70 years.
Santana may be gone, but the everyday lineup is far from bare. Encarncion is an elite power hitter. Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez were All-Stars a season ago. Lindor hit 33 homers, while J-Ram mashed 29. Both are .300-caliber hitters. Michael Brantley, if he can put his ankle issues behind him, was a second-time All-Star in 2017. Jason Kipnis is a two-time All-Star, looking to bounce back from an injury-plagued 2017 campaign. Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez are two of the better defending catchers in the game.
Yonder Alonso was this winter’s biggest free agent signing. The 2017 All-Star first baseman replaces Santana. The only question regarding Alonso is whether his breakout campaign a season ago was an aberration or if he really can be a guy who hits 25-30 home runs. If he can replicate his 28 bombs of last season, the Tribe offense is in great shape. There is plenty of star talent up and down the lineup.
Even without Shaw and Smith, the Indians boast one of the best bullpens in baseball. Miller, the 2016 ALCS MVP, is one of the best relievers in the sport. He was an All-Star last season and was headed for a great year until injuries derailed his second half. Allen is not lumped in among the elite, but is one of the safest bets when it comes to closers finishing out a game. There are nights that he may make fans want to run and get a Tums or two, but there are maybe a handful of ninth-inning specialists who have gotten the job done any better since Allen became the Tribe’s closer in 2014. Dan Otero, Zach McAllister, Nick Goody and Tyler Olson give depth, experience, and talent to the relief corps. There may only be one or two openings to battle for this spring. Most teams would like to have such a small number of questions about their bullpen in mid-February.
Even with the talent in batting order and relief pitching, the gem is still the rotation. That unit, arguably baseball’s best and certainly one of the game’s top three starting fives, lost nothing this offseason. Danny Salazar is likely to miss the start of the spring season with more shoulder inflammation. Even losing a former All-Star for a stretch during camp is barely cause to make one blink about the status of Cleveland’s rotation.
The success of the Tribe’s starters clearly begins with Corey Kluber. He became a two-time Cy Young Award winner, adding to his 2014 trophy, last season. He’s among the game’s best starters and probably the best in AL. While Kluber clearly is the Tribe’s ace and No. 1 starter, it hardly ends there.
Carlos Carrasco won 18 games, tying Kluber for AL lead. Bauer won 17 games himself. Carrasco was an All-Star snub and finished fifth in the AL Cy voting. Bauer had about as good as a second half as any starting pitcher in the game. Carrasco finally had a mostly healthy season last year, while Bauer took the next steps in his progression. Both should continue to combine with Kluber to form about as good a starting pitching trio as you will find in Major League Baseball.
The final two spots in the rotation will be filled by two of Salazar, Mike Clevinger (a 12-game winner with a 3.11 ERA in 2017), veteran Josh Tomlin, and Ryan Merritt (who has made several spot starts, including the unforgettable ALCS winner against Toronto in 2016, over the last couple of years). Merritt is out of options and likely would not pass waivers to go back to Triple-A Columbus. Of course, those who do not claim spots in the rotation could factor in the ‘pen.
That is seven quality starters for the pitching-rich Indians to lean on. Most teams are scratching to find good 3-5 starters. The Indians are trying to figure out how to tell several good starters that they are not going to open the season in the rotation, either sent to relief work, moved to Columbus, or relocated from the organization altogether.
While this was a tough winter on the free agent front for the Indians, Bauer is correct. What is still on the roster is worth shouting louder about than those who are no longer a part of it. It is time for the focus to shift from a down winter to a 2018 season that still has plenty of signs pointing up. The national media still views Cleveland as a top-5 baseball team as spring training starts and the season is just around the corner. They deserve that consideration as the roster, even with its losses, should still rack up plenty of wins on the field, which is where it really matters most.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer