For many Tribe fans, the 2017 season will be looked upon with the same marketing tagline that the 2012 season had at its outset.
What if Corey Kluber was healthy in the postseason and not dealing with injury? What if the rotation was not negatively impacted again by inconsistent and injury-riddled performances from Danny Salazar? What if Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis did not lose gigantic chunks of the campaign on the disabled list while looking to be shells of their former All-Star selves when meaningful October baseball arrived? What if the Indians had not wasted the last seasons in a Cleveland uniform of Carlos Santana and Bryan Shaw? What if Bradley Zimmer did not get stepped on by Baltimore’s Chris Davis to prematurely end his rookie debut while putting the outfield into further disarray? What if Edwin Encarnacion did not jam and roll his ankle retreating to second base in the first inning of the second game of the postseason? What if the Indians did not blow a 2-0 lead to the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series after clinching home field advantage throughout the AL bracket of the playoffs?
Instead of defending their AL pennant from 2016 and making another long run through the postseason, as many had hoped and others had predicted prior to the season, the Indians fell on their collective faces when the stakes were the highest, costing the team a year of contention during its most recent “window of opportunity”. Sure, the AL Central essentially looks like the city of Cleveland during the summer – with orange construction barrels strewn about every corner – while the majority of the division is in some state of rebuild. The rest of the league, however, has spent its offseason working to get stronger, so while the path through the Central might require little fight for the Tribe, the beasts of the AL East and the best of the AL West have done little back-stepping this winter with a chance to improve.
Shaw – Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
The Indians, meanwhile, have subtracted the big bats of Santana and Jay Bruce from the lineup and the arms of Shaw and Joe Smith from the productive and underrated bullpen.
The Indians, backed by an AL record 22-game winning streak in August and September, finished the season with the second-most wins (102) and fourth-best winning percentage (.630) in 117 years of junior circuit baseball on the north coast. But just as was the case for the Golden State Warriors’ NBA record 73-game win season in the 2015-16 season, records do not always equate to championships. So while the Indians looked poised for postseason dreams, the reality was a nightmare and disappointment.
The AL Central was a back-and-forth race throughout the season. The Chicago White Sox sold off early, dealing Chris Sale in the offseason before dumping everything of substantial value that they could at and before the trade deadline. The Detroit Tigers waited to see if they could pull one more rabbit out of their ball caps, but instead followed with both a midseason and offseason purge of several big names from the Motor City, including skipper Brad Ausmus. Things in Kansas City have gone almost exactly as expected, as the team held on to all of its chips and tried for one more postseason push, but now will suffer through a rebuild without assets that could have been acquired for the expiring contracts of the likes of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and several other contributors to the club’s back-to-back World Series appearances just a few years ago. The Minnesota Twins were a wild card, a team that exceeded most’s expectations and snuck into the AL Wild Card play-in game before giving the Yankees a scare. Young and hungry, they would be expected to be right back in the mix in 2018.
And then there is the Tribe, left to ponder what went wrong in 2017 while debating if the existing components of the present roster are enough to legitimately contend in the AL playoff picture for 2018. Yonder Alonso becomes the team’s big offseason addition, following in the footsteps of another first baseman-type from a year ago in Encarnacion, albeit on a shorter and cheaper commitment after a breakout season split between Oakland and Seattle. The coaching staff has been shuffled up, with Mickey Callaway, Matt Quatraro, and Jason Bere gone for new opportunities. There are holes abound, as the outfield looks thin and the hot corner has to deal with lagging production of cooler bats that failed to produce reliable results from both sides of the game. The starting rotation should be great again, especially with the return of Carlos Carrasco in the second spot after finishing fourth in the AL Cy Young voting behind two-time winner Kluber. Trevor Bauer will be able to build upon a season when he reached the expectations set forth for him when he was a first round draft pick by Arizona in 2011, while the rest of the rotation would be presumably durable with Salazar, Josh Tomlin, Mike Clevinger, and even Ryan Merritt in play for the final two spots on the staff. The bullpen will be remodeled, with Shaw, Smith, and Boone Logan all gone from the roster. The front office has brought in what feels like a dozen reclamation projects to contend for openings in the bullpen bunch, with the “losers” of the rotation battle likely also factoring heavily into the relief corps’ makeup, but it will all amount to a heavy workload for Cody Allen and Andrew Miller in what could be their final years in Indians jerseys.
While Santana and Shaw had become punching bags for the fans throughout their stays in Cleveland, their absences will be felt. The offense will have to pick up the slack that Santana (.259/.363/.455 with 37 doubles, 23 homers, and 79 RBI), Austin Jackson (.318/.387/.482 in 85 games), and Bruce (nine doubles, seven homers, and 26 RBI in 43 games), but the Indians do return their second third-place finisher in the AL MVP voting in the last four years in Jose Ramirez. The utility man, who became an All-Star third baseman and later the everyday second baseman, proved that his offensive contributions in 2016 were no fluke with an MLB-leading 56 doubles, 29 homers, and 83 RBI while slashing .318/.374/.583. Francisco Lindor will still pair with him, either up the middle or as the left side of the infield tandem, and will bring his bats that burst out with an unexpected 33-homer, 44-double, 89-RBI power display in 2017. After a slow start, even Encarnacion’s numbers evened out, as the 34-year-old big bopper hit 38 bombs and drove in a team-leading 107 runs.
Kluber took home the Cy and led the AL in more than a handful of pitching statistics, despite missing a month of action early in the season. Carrasco came on and lived up to his top of the rotation billing, tying Kluber for the league’s lead with 18 wins while topping the 200-strikeout mark for the second time in his career. Bauer stabilized the middle of the rotation and made more than a few batters look foolish at the plate with the assortment of filth in his arsenal. Allen continued to be one of the more underappreciated closers in the game, saving 30 of 34 games with a 2.94 ERA, while a magnifying glass was needed to find Miller’s ERA (1.44) and WHIP (0.83). Late season knee problems did slow down one of the more effective relief arms in the game. Shaw earned four wins and three saves while getting holds in another 26 contests, all while making an MLB-high 79 appearances on the mound (his fifth straight season with 70 or more trips to the rubber).
The pieces were in place, the expectations were high, but a slew of questions curtailed and derailed what could have been a season to remember in Cleveland. It will still be remembered now by Tribe fans, but for all of the wrong reasons as the season slipped away in disappointing fashion.
As the calendar prepares to flip over for a new year, the core of the Cleveland Indians is still largely together, but all these questions remain. After wondering “What if?” in the past and once again this season, the question becomes “Now what?”. For the city that is always waiting for the next year, that next year is upon us as the Indians celebrate 80 years since their last world title.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images