Indians in need of considerable re-haul to compete in 2019

Free agent dollars will be hard to come by again

Alex Hooper
October 08, 2018 - 7:50 pm
Oct 8, 2018; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians watch the game in the ninth inning against the Houston Astros during game three of the 2018 ALDS playoff baseball series at Progressive Field.

© David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

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Cleveland, OH (92.3 The Fan) – In the 3rd inning of Game 3, Cleveland Indians Manager Terry Francona played for one run in a tie game, instead of the big inning. They got the run, but barely anything more.

So seemed to be the ethos of the 2018 American League Central champs. Both that title, and the approach that they took to earn it, will be all Indians fans have to remember the team by.

Already playing up against financial constraints, Team President Chris Antonetti and General Manager Mike Chernoff did not swing for the fences on a market that saw the Miami Marlins offloading the likes of defending NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton, and upcoming NL MVP Christian Yelich.

The front office did what they could with what they were given, but the team who took the field was dismissed quickly by one that was far better.

Francona and his bunch will still be positioned to win their fourth consecutive AL Central title in 2019, no matter what happens in the off-season. The decision making about how they will pursue it may take a little more thought following a systematic dismantling by the Houston Astros, and six straight playoff losses.

Is the team better off repairing holes, capitalizing on a weak division and playing the odds in a random post-season? Or will a serious reallocation of resources be needed to capitalize on a core of two Cy Young candidates and two MVP candidates?

Original core holdovers Michael Brantley, Josh Tomlin and Cody Allen will hit the market as free agents, joining key 2016 sparkplug Andrew Miller. Those and others will free up around $46.46 million in free agent money, but with Francisco Lindor set to hit arbitration for the first time, and Trevor Bauer set for a big raise, that capitol will be soaked up quickly.

After expected arbitration increases for the current arb-eligible roster, this writer estimates the Indians will have about $10-12 million left in free agency. That amount is unlikely to retain any of their three marquee free agents in Brantley, Allen and Miller, and the team will be tasked with replacing the entire trio in some capacity. They will also likely look to stay under their current record payroll for any mid-season additions.

In order for the roster to be truly upgraded from its 2018 form, Antonetti and company would likely be tasked with dealing one of its bigger salaries for wiggle room.

For a team to take on the near $22 million owed to Edwin Encarnacion, who would turn 36 and contributes next to nothing defensively, the Indians would probably need to attach a prospect with some clout.

The next name on that potential list of outgoing salaries would be Jason Kipnis, set to make $14.67 million after two consecutive disappointing seasons. The 31-year-old admitted he would not be shocked if he were moved, understanding the task at hand for the front office.

“Fortunately that’s not part of my job description,” Kipnis said. “There will be questions a lot of the guys in the front office have to answer. I’ll be waiting to see if my name gets called, just like last offseason.”

A mid-season trade the likes of acquiring Josh Donaldson as a lottery ticket would not be enough to upgrade the roster, as it was not even enough to push the current roster to the next step.

In the infield, the Indians are set up the middle with Lindor and José Ramírez, but have questions at the corners. Yonder Alonso is under contract for 2019, but was relegated to a platoon situation in the post-season. Yandy Díaz seems plenty capable of playing third, though Francona seems reluctant to put him there long term.

Should Kipnis not be moved, the infield would remain largely unchanged, while Díaz would still platoon at first. Returning Ramírez to third base seems unlikely after two straight moves to second base in the second half, but it may be all that is sensible fiscally.

The outfield is immensely in flux with Brantley hitting free agency, trade deadline acquisition Leonys Martín’s health a question mark, Bradley Zimmer’s mid-season return date, Melky Cabrera’s expiring contract, and Brandon Guyer’s $3 million club option.

Luckily, the Indians will return their entire starting rotation without a pay increase outside of Bauer, and their familiar catching situation will remain intact for one more year.

With the expected departure of both Miller and Allen, Brad Hand would be the lone high-leverage holdover in the bullpen, and his salary will jump over $5 million as his extension kicks in. Adam Cimber, Dan Otero and Tyler Olson will remain, among others, but that is not a bullpen capable of matching up with the Astros and New York Yankees of the world.

The 2018 off-season will not be like 2016, where the Indians can take one swing on a final piece, or 2017 where they improved from within. The 2019 Indians will need a considerable rehaul to compete.

Unless they hand out hardware for four consecutive division titles.