The 2019 Major League Baseball season is in the books and the Washington Nationals are first time World Series Champions, taking home an improbable title after entering the playoffs as a Wild Card contestant before later taking four road games from the Houston Astros in the Fall Classic.
What may have been a surprising MLB season to some ended much the same way as a very veteran and older club in the Nationals knocked off the playoff-tested Astros, which had just won the title in 2017. The Nationals had to fight their way through the entire playoff bracket, entering as the top Wild Card club in the senior circuit before squeezing by the Milwaukee Brewers late in the play-in game. They defeated the reigning pennant winners in the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first round before sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series. Despite taking a 2-0 series lead over the Astros by winning their first two World Series games ever, the Nationals went home and lost all three games in Washington, DC, before winning their fourth and fifth elimination games of the postseason back on the road in Texas.
While our focus at Did The Tribe Win Last Night is more specifically on the Cleveland Indians, there is no denying that the events around the league have a significant impact on what transpires in the Cleveland front office, the Indians clubhouse, and the Tribe’s performance on the field and in the dugout. The team can do everything it can on the diamond, as may have been the case this season, but other factors, such as a lack of front office spending or what seemed like a never-ending list of names cycling onto the injured list, have a big effect on overall success. But regardless of how much a team can control its own destiny, it also has to be cognizant of what is transpiring around it.
The Indians slept on the Minnesota Twins, and it came back to cost them.
The Twins were swept by the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series, which was not necessarily a surprise. Minnesota has had no luck with the Bronx Bombers over the years, but the team was better than previous incarnations and still could not surpass its recent rival. The Yankees were ultimately ousted by the Astros, which had taken care of the Tampa Bay Rays earlier in the ALDS.
Most of the teams in the playoff bracket were not surprises. In the junior circuit, the Yankees, Astros, and Oakland Athletics returned from the previous year. The Indians were replaced by the Twins in the AL Central, while the Boston Red Sox (the 2018 champions) crashed back to earth as the Yankees claimed the top spot in the AL East. Few saw the Red Sox’s collapse coming, nor did many anticipate the Indians’ rough season coming, but neither team was very active in the previous offseason and both paid the price for resting on their laurels.
The Nationals, which went 82-80 in 2018 and improved to 93-69 in 2019 (the same record as the Indians), proved that offseason activity can be important. The team subtracted arguably its biggest star in Bryce Harper (as he fled town to Philadelphia for a few more years and some extra pocket change with the Phillies) in the offseason, but they added a pair of starting pitchers in Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez and addressed the catching position by signing Kurt Suzuki and trading for Cleveland’s Yan Gomes. They signed valuable veterans like Matt Adams and Brian Dozier prior to the season (who both parked 20 bombs over the fence), Gerardo Parra in early May, and Fernando Rodney in the first week of June. They were active at the trade deadline trying to shore up the team’s greatest area of weakness – the bullpen – by trading for Daniel Hudson, Roenis Elias, and Hunter Strickland. The August addition of Asdrubal Cabrera, another former Tribesman, helped fully balance out the lineup, as he hit .323 with 40 RBI in 38 games down the stretch.
Washington utilized a similar roster construction to that in Cleveland – a roster with young players emerging or in their prime (Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon to name a couple) and a dominating starting rotation (with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg leading the way). After a down year and a finish just over the .500 mark, the team added in free agency, made beneficial trades, and now celebrates a deep run of October baseball with its first Commissioner’s Trophy.
The Astros, which had an even stronger base to build around from the previous season, added former Indian Michael Brantley to its already productive outfield, Robinson Chirinos behind the plate, and Wade Miley as a serviceable option in the rotation during the offseason. They followed up with a flurry of moves as the trade deadline, adding catcher Martin Maldonado and pitchers Zack Greinke, Joe Biagini, and Aaron Sanchez. The team finished with the top record in baseball, but somehow could not get a home win to save its season in its battle with the Nationals.
Regardless, both pennant winners were active, in the offseason and during the season, to make their rosters better.
The Indians, to their credit, were active last fall and winter, but it was mainly via cash subtractions. The team did not make a significant free agent signing, other than to bring back left-hander Oliver Perez for the bullpen. They subtracted Gomes and Edwin Encarnacion (among others) in trades, but did bring back Carlos Santana along with several other minor contributors and potential pieces for the future. The July trade of Trevor Bauer to Cincinnati in a three-way swap marked subtraction from an area of strength while freeing up future funds to deal with the rapidly rising arbitration contract of Francisco Lindor and others. The moves made did not make up for the talent leaving (Brantley, Encarnacion, and Gomes from the offense as well as Cody Allen and Andrew Miller from the bullpen), nor did it detract from the three-game sweep doled out by the Astros against the Indians in the 2018 ALDS.
The Indians are trying to be creative and rebuild on the fly without having to tear the organization down to the screws like other reconstruction projects in Baltimore, Detroit, Kansas City, and Seattle in the AL. The talent is there and there is some more coming in the farm system, but whether or not it is enough to remain competitive for a long stretch remains to be seen. The Tribe has a top flight starting rotation, even with the removal of Bauer, the regression/injury to Corey Kluber, and the health concerns of Carlos Carrasco. Starting arms have developed faster than anticipated and appear to be capable of handling steady MLB work loads. Jose Ramirez seemed to find himself in the middle of the year before his hamate bone injury. Lindor is a top player at his position and in the game as a whole. The prospective loss of Lindor, whether via free agency following 2021 or before that in a prospect-rich trade, hurts some of the long-term hopes for the team, but there still appears to be a strong base in which to build upon, similar to how Washington survived the loss of its star Harper (who, to be fair, has not put up Lindor-like numbers over the last few years).
The real front office work begins now for the Indians. The free agency period opens on Monday, but the likelihood of the Indians being active at that point while looking to add some of the top free agent position players into the mix (namely Washington’s Rendon, Cleveland’s biggest free agent departure Yasiel Puig, St. Louis outfielder Marcell Ozuna, one-time Indian Josh Donaldson, Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius, ex-Tiger and Cub Nick Castellanos, former Royal and Brewer Mike Moustakas, or potentially Boston DH J.D. Martinez) seems extremely unlikely (although Moustakas may be a quiet sleeper for another short-term deal). The team’s July trade for Puig, Franmil Reyes, and others may end up being Cleveland’s “big offseason move” (as was the case last year regarding the bullpen acquisitions of Brad Hand and Adam Cimber midseason), but that remains to be seen. The Tribe needs to identify its areas of weakness (notably the outfield, bullpen, and infield vacancy at either second or third base) and determine which deficits can be patched internally and which ones are worth throwing funds at.
The road to the 2020 World Series begins in less than a week. The Indians’ chances of ending their brief postseason drought may very much waver on what the team does over the course of the next three to four months.
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