Postmortem for a Wasted 2019 Season for the Tribe

Sometimes you have to take a step back and wait a few days before assessing situations. In this case, I needed a little more than that (but certainly not three weeks…) to reflect on the ups and downs of the Cleveland Indians’ 2019 season. (I also wasn’t helped any by an unrelenting work schedule for the job that pays the bills.)

A year that was expected by many to be a cake walk to a fourth straight divisional title turned into anything but as the Tribe had to fight all the way down to the wire in pursuit of a playoff spot, a battle the team ultimately fell short of in a disappointing end to a 162-game grind. The team managed to win 93 games (which given the hurdles of the year seems all the more impressive), but its inability to beat up better on some lesser opponents coupled with a slew of injuries did little to aid its cause as the Indians finished eight games in back of the Minnesota Twins in the American League Central and three games behind the Tampa Bay Rays for the final AL Wild Card spot. The 93 wins tied the second-highest win total posted by an Indians club which failed to make the playoffs (see the 1921 Tribe club which went 94-60 in its title defense but finished four and a half in back of the New York Yankees in the AL).

There are plenty of fingers to point and in a lot of different directions, but at the end of the day, none of that finger-pointing matters. The Indians, like their fans, have been forced to watch October baseball on television.

I didn’t have the greatest feeling about the 2019 campaign dating back to the winter, when the team sat idly by after a discouraging three-game sweep against the Houston Astros in the American League Division Series last October. It extended the team’s losing streak in the playoffs to six straight, dating back to their epic collapse against the New York Yankees in the same round the year before.

Instead of trying to find ways to improve the roster to compete against what appeared to be far superior opponents like Houston and New York or even the pennant-winning Boston Red Sox in the junior circuit, cost-cutting became the nauseatingly big objective for the winter (what few may have known at the time was that the Indians were in line to lose a minority partner in John Sherman, whose later purchase of the Kansas City Royals from David Glass for a lofty $1 billion likely played a significant role in the Dolan family looking to cut money and trying to compete with what remained instead of throwing more money on the pile and finding ways to get notably better on the free agent market with an intriguing but pricey list of candidates available).

As the winter and spring passed by and players around the game inked new deals, the Indians made one real free agent signing of note, bringing back left-handed reliever Oliver Perez on a one-year, $2.5 million deal with a vesting option (one that indeed was achieved during the 2019 season). That should have been all of the writing on the wall for fans, who undoubtedly had a lot of excitement for the coming season, one in which the city would host its sixth All-Star Game.

Beginning weeks after the conclusion of the World Series, the Indians began making moves that appeared curious to outsiders. Yan Gomes, an All-Star for the first time in 2018, was shipped off after six seasons in town to Washington. The 30-year-old was still playing on a team-friendly rate, but was potentially entering the final year of his pact (with two team options remaining for 2020 and 2021) while his stock was likely at a career-high point. The Indians picked up Jefry Rodriguez, who helped fill the starting rotation void briefly until his own injury knocked him out for essentially the remainder of the year, and a pair of prospects in Daniel Johnson and Andruw Monasterio. The former’s strong year at Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus earned him a spot in the All-Star Futures Game and quickly moved him up the Tribe’s top prospect rankings. He could be a factor for the Tribe in the 2020 outfield picture.

Two weeks later, the Indians brought back Carlos Santana and added Jake Bauers in a move that saw Edwin Encarnacion head to Seattle and Yandy Diaz and minor leaguer Cole Sulser to Tampa. Encarnacion’s stay in Seattle was temporary as he returned to the playoffs after a trade to the Yankees, while Diaz and Sulser both logged time with the Rays (with Diaz posting career-best numbers and a spot on their postseason roster while Sulser was a late season waiver claim by Baltimore). With a pair of first basemen added to the mix, Yonder Alonso was jettisoned to the Chicago White Sox in a cash dump for a minor leaguer as the offense took another hit.

Minor league deals brought in guys like Tyler Clippard, Ryan Flaherty, Mike Freeman, James Hoyt, and Josh Smith, with Clippard and Freeman contributing the most over the course of the year after eventually receiving call-ups. Other similar minor league pacts on veterans like Matthew Joyce, Alex Wilson, Tim Federowicz, Asher Wojciechowski, Hanley Ramirez, Carlos Gonzalez, Brad Miller, and Cameron Maybin (all brought in after the calendar flipped to February) did not pan out, with most failing to make it through the spring. Joyce later found playing time in Atlanta and hit .295 in 129 games. Wojciechowski pitched in 17 games for a bad Baltimore team. Cargo played 45 games (30 in Cleveland, 15 with the Chicago Cubs), while Miller hit a dozen bombs for Philadelphia in 66 games and Maybin had eleven (plus one in the ALDS) in 82 games for the Yankees.

Other minor trades in the offseason resulted in the acquisitions of outfielder Jordan Luplow, catcher Kevin Plawecki, and reliever Nick Wittgren, among others. All three chipped in with regular playing time with the Indians.

Paired with the free agent departures of Cody Allen and Andrew Miller from the bullpen and a pile of outfielders from the previous year (Michael Brantley, Melky Cabrera, Lonnie Chisenhall, and the aging Rajai Davis), the Indians appeared to have some concerns regarding roster construction. To pile on, spring injuries to Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis and an early April injury to Mike Clevinger helped slow the team down right out of the gate. Both infielders returned to the lineup over the course of the month of April while the team compiled a 16-12 record, but Clevinger remained on the shelf until June.

May went poorly as the team struggled against playoff hopefuls Oakland and Tampa. Corey Kluber was lost on the first game of the month after being struck by a line drive in a loss against Miami. Two walk-off defeats in Oakland early in the month dropped the team a season-high five games back, but losing six of their last seven against the A’s and Rays to cap an eleven-game homestand left the team below the .500 mark for the first time since April 3. Carlos Carrasco was blown out in a loss on May 30 against the White Sox and a week later, it was announced that he was leaving the team with a non-baseball medical condition that turned out to be chronic myeloid leukemia. The team was now down three-fifths of its starting rotation, an unanticipated recipe for disaster.

The pitching staff continued to take hits as the season rolled on, with Dan Otero and Rodriguez joining Carrasco, Clevinger, and Kluber on the injured list. Clevinger came back in the middle of June, but returned to the IL for another ten days after spraining his left ankle. Improved efforts at the plate from Jose Ramirez and Kipnis both were bright spots and helped catapult the club to a 17-9 June record, but the team was only able to pick up two and a half games on the surging first place Minnesota Twins.

The Tribe remained hot in July, going 18-6 while outscoring the opposition by nearly double (142-75) and trimming the divisional gap down to three with a pair of six-game winning streaks in the month. The team added and subtracted at the deadline, dealing Trevor Bauer to Cincinnati in a three-team trade that netted the club five players, including pending free agent outfielder Yasiel Puig from Cincinnati, San Diego slugger Franmil Reyes, two minor league pitchers, and an infield prospect. Other quieter deals brought in some potential relief and middle infield/utility depth for the future.

August saw the club move back to the top of the division, as the team was up a half game with a walk-off win over Boston on August 12, but losses in seven of the next nine to the Red Sox and both New York clubs dropped the club back three and a half behind the Twins. Injuries began to mount, as Danny Salazar, Tyler Olson, Luplow, and A.J. Cole slowly thinned the ranks, and the costly loss of Ramirez on August 24 with a broken right hamate bone seemed to demoralize the club. Less than a week later, Tyler Naquin tore his right ACL making an impressive catch, and Kipnis suffered the same injury as Ramirez in September to further weaken the Tribe’s lineup. With all the injury madness going on and little to no wiggle room left, closer Brad Hand contributed negatively to things as he forgot how to be effective in the second half, throwing another wrench into things for the club in close ball games.

September ended with a 14-12 record, but was highlighted by a season-worst five-game losing streak to close out the year as the Indians could not fend off Oakland and Tampa for the Wild Card spots.

There were glimmers of hope in the campaign, highlighted by the development of outfielder Oscar Mercado and the emergence of several quality starting pitching options for the future in Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale. Shane Bieber blossomed into a front-end of the rotation pitcher and was an All-Star for the first time, claiming the game’s MVP honors in front of the hometown Cleveland crowd in the middle of July. Clevinger, when healthy, was dominant and easily one of the top pitchers in the league.

Even with the constant barrage of injuries, the 2019 team put up 93 wins. A little health and better luck could have put the Tribe back into the postseason for a fourth straight season as they ended just on the outside of the playoff picture. The roster for 2020 is expected to mirror that of this year’s (hopefully sans the injuries), as from a free agent standpoint the team will only lose Puig and Kipnis on the offensive side of the ball and Clippard and Otero from the bullpen. Naquin will be sidelined for much of the year after his knee injury, but the team may be able to look internally to the return of Bradley Zimmer, who found playing time sparingly at the end of the year after dealing with injuries for much of the season, or a promotion of the minor leaguer Johnson. On the plus side, the team saw some solid play overall from younger players, who should only get better and better in the coming years.

There should be some hope looking ahead to next year, but the team cannot replicate its previous offseason inactivity again. The club’s midseason dealings may end up serving as the bulk of the moves again (as was the case with Hand the previous July), but the team managed to waste another year of an incredibly gifted and competitive nucleus of stars by gambling on the notion that everyone will stay healthy and continue to grow in their crafts. It seems unlikely that the Indians will add to their roster via any significant spending in free agency, but maybe another trade will help bolster the roster currently signed.

The 2019 season opened and closed in disappointing fashion, but there is some reason for optimism moving forward. The team needs to learn from the mistakes of this season and not just bank on a talented roster being able to breeze through the American League Central (which seemed to be the mindset the previous fall and winter). The Twins proved to be for real (even if they were promptly swept out of the playoffs by the Yankees) and will continue to be a threat in the division while the other teams in the Central rebuild and retool for future runs of their own. The Indians need to take advantage of their proverbial “window of opportunity” and contend now while best equipped to do so, or fans will be left wondering “what if?”.

Photo: Matt Marton/MLB Photos (via Getty Images)

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