Bauer Blossoming Into Top Starter He Was Projected To Be

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It seems that Trevor Bauer may have grown up before our very eyes during the second half of last season.

The 26-year-old, who will be 27 on January 17, was a villain on the team during the season’s first three months as he got off to a rocky start. That, combined with his now infamous drone incident during the 2016 playoffs, had draw the ire of Tribe fans.

On July 16, Bauer was 7-8 with a 5.59 ERA. He had just allowed four earned runs and recorded just two outs in a forgettable start against the weak-hitting Oakland Athletics. Calls for Bauer to be demoted to the bullpen or sent to Triple-A Columbus were intensifying. Bauer was the last guy many fans wanted to see take the mound at that point.

Then Bauer began to turn things around. In 2015 and even more in 2016 Bauer had come into his own as a pretty solid end-of-the-rotation starter with double-digit wins in each of those seasons. He went above and beyond that during the final two and a half months of 2017.

Down the stretch of last season, Bauer was every bit as good as two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and Cy contender Carlos Carrasco. Over his final 14 outings of the season, Bauer was an impressive 10-1 with a sterling 2.54 ERA. It took his season total to 17-9 with a 4.19 ERA. The victory total was his career best, topping his 12 of 2016. The ERA was just a tick off of the 4.18 he posted in 2014 in 26 starts that year.

Bauer spent the final couple months pitching like the prodigy that he once was back when the Arizona Diamondbacks tabbed him with third overall pick of the 2011 amateur draft. He pitched like the guy the Indians clamored for when they sent off Shin-Soo Choo in a blockbuster December 11, 2012, trade that netted the Tribe Bauer and the recently departed Bryan Shaw.

The work Bauer did down the stretch of last season allowed manager Terry Francona to give Kluber an extra day of rest during the American League Division Series and to unflinchingly name Bauer his Game 1 starter. He was tremendous in that outing, not giving up a run in 6 2/3 frames. His rags-to-riches run of success only ended in Game 4 against the Yankees as he could not come through on short rest.

Still, Bauer clearly seemed to turn a corner last season, both as a pitcher and perhaps between his head. Sometimes as one of the “smartest men in the room” types, Bauer could get in his own way on the mound, and seemed to overthink things. It seemed he simply pitched and did it well during his late-season surge.

Now, as 2018 hits and the report date for pitcher and catchers to spring training draws ever nearer, the question is – can Bauer keep the good times rolling? Was his excellence over the final 14 games of 2017 a mirage or were they a breakout?

With Bauer’s age, signs do point to possible breakout rather than mirage. He may seem like a veteran on the surface, but that is because he was in the big leagues at such an early age and stage of his career. The age-27 or -28 season is often when a player will really start hitting his stride. Bauer’s age-26 season, in which he took huge steps forward, seems to put him right on that pace.

Bauer is not a 30-plus-year-old who all-of-a-sudden came on. He is a guy with a pedigree who was highly thought of as a kid coming out of the UCLA. It seems that he is just now putting it all together. On the plus side, he now has three straight seasons of eleven or more wins. That shows some level of consistency. He has continuously gotten better and has shown the ability to shine on a big stage and when the pressure is mounting. He is also as durable as a pitcher can be, never spending time on the disabled list.

With all of this in mind, it may be time for the Indians to do what could have been deemed unthinkable as recently as June and try to give Bauer a contract extension. He is under team control through the 2020 season. This offseason marked his first year of being arbitration eligible. Last year he made $3.55 million. That price tag is only going to go up (MLB Trade Rumors projects a figure around $7.7 million for next season).

It may take a little more to keep Bauer than it did when the Tribe locked up Carrasco before the 2015 season. That spring, the Tribe gave Carrasco four years and a guaranteed $22 million. He has option years in 2019 and 2020 at $9 million and $9.5 million. He was coming off a strong ending to a 2014 season that saw him struggle more in the first half than Bauer did in 2017. Bauer also has a longer track record as a quality starter than Carrasco had at that time.

Also before the 2015 season, the Indians locked up Kluber to a guaranteed five years and at least $38.5 million (with option years in 2020 and 2021 that can reach nearly a combined $36 million, depending on incentives being reached). That contract is becoming a steal as it was strong signing by the Tribe the spring after Kluber’s breakout season of 2014 when he won his first Cy Young award. Kluber, who seemingly came out of nowhere that season, took the comfort of guaranteed money in case he did not continue on a path of being one of the game’s top starters. We know how that worked out – pretty well for Cleveland.

A Bauer contract would probably have to be close to Kluber’s. It would probably need to be five years, buying his first two free agent years and in the $35-$40 million guaranteed range. Perhaps a team option year or two would be good as well.

Locking up Bauer would help ease the pain of possibly losing Carrasco after the 2020 campaign, though that is pretty far down the road to look right now.

Simply put, extending Bauer would guarantee three 17-or-more-game winners in one rotation for at least three more years and pair Bauer with Kluber for at least four more summers. By 2022, the Indians could be looking at Bauer as the ace of the staff as Kluber could be gone and/or starting to slow as he will be in his mid-30s by then.

Bauer has gown each of the past three seasons. From a pitcher with a great deal of potential to a guy who seems like he may finally be starting to hit that expectation, Bauer has blossomed right before the eyes of Cleveland fans. Signing him to a big contract would be taking a risk, but those risks have paid off many times for the Indians. This seems like a lower risk, higher reward deal, if the Indians can swing it.

The Tribe has made a habit of locking up its own players in past offseasons. Bauer should be on the short list, or at the top of any list, to be the next player Cleveland fully buys into.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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Pair of Old Hands Could Be Keys to Tribe’s 2018 Success

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What if you were told the Cleveland Indians could add a pair of former two-time All-Stars to their lineup? Add to that statement that neither player had anything to do with the Tribe’s epic 22-game winning streak this past summer, one that helped launch the club to the best record in the American League. Also, add to that that neither player was much of a factor in a disappointing five-game ALDS defeat at the hands of the New York Yankees. Now what if you were told that the Indians would have to give up nothing to add the All-Star veterans to a lineup that neither was really much of a part of in the second half of 2017?

You would probably happily take this scenario, just before asking how the Indians could add two quality pieces to their everyday lineup without giving anything up. That part is simple. The two players are Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley.

With Carlos Santana now gone to Philadelphia, Brantley and Kipnis serve as the Indians’ longest-tenured players. They probably serve as two of the biggest keys to Cleveland’s hopes of winning a third straight American League Central Division title and, more importantly, getting back to the World Series for the first time in two years and winning it for the first time in 70 years.

Both Kipnis and Brantley had different 2017 campaigns. Brantley was an All-Star for the second time in his career, following a strong first half that served notice that he had put his 2016 shoulder issues behind him. Instead, a bum ankle wiped out nearly all of his August and September and then made him a shell of himself as a designated hitter in the ALDS when thrust into the lineup daily after Edwin Encarnacion‘s own ankle injury. Brantley did not have the sweet swing Tribe fans have become accustomed to from Dr. Smooth during the postseason, which may have very well been because he was essentially in spring training form after being out of action nearly two months and getting three at bats in the Tribe’s final two regular season contests.

When Brantley was playing early in the season, he was playing at the All-Star and MVP-caliber level  he was at in 2014 and 2015. He was limited to just 90 games thanks to the second half ankle woes. However, he hit .299 with nine home runs and 52 RBI. When healthy, he was still one of Cleveland’s best offensive players.

As for Kipnis, his entire season was muddled by injuries. He began the year on the disabled list with an injured shoulder. He had a pair of other DL stints due to a bad hamstring. All told, he played 90 games. He never was quite right at the plate, hitting a career worst .232. He hit 12 bombs and collected 35 RBI. The power was still there when he was able to get into the lineup, but his overall hitting was off.

Neither Kipnis or Brantley played a single game during the best run of success in franchise history and the second-best winning streak in the history of the sport. The club did not miss a beat, thanks to MVP-caliber seasons from Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor to go with the usually mashing from Encarnacion. Santana and Jay Bruce, a pair of solid power hitters, were key parts of the Indians’ 2017 success. Santana is gone and Bruce is likely to follow out the free agent doors. That makes rebounds from Brantley and Kipnis almost imperative. With two key pieces from last year’s team gone, the return to full form of two key pieces of Tribe teams in years past would be a huge boon to the Indians.

When going at their best, Brantley and Kipnis are All-Stars who can both hit for decent power, have good speed, and can both hit for high averages.

Kipnis is just a year removed from his best season in 2016 when he was a huge factor in the Tribe’s run to the World Series. He had career high of 23 homers to go with 82 RBI while hitting .275. He hit a career-best .303 in his 2015 All-Star campaign. He stole 30 bases while collecting a career-high 84 RBI in his 2013 All-Star season. That year was just one off his watershed stolen base mark of 31 in 2012. Clearly he is a strong presence in the Tribe lineup when healthy.

As for Brantley, he did well when he played this past season, after missing all but 11 games of the 2016 campaign. His biggest years were 2014 and 2015. The first of those he was third in the American League MVP voting when he hit 20 dingers, drove in 97 runs, scored 94 runs, stole 23 bases, and hit .327 (all were career-best numbers). He followed that up with a strong 2015, when he had 15 bombs, 84 RBI, and hit .310 in 19 fewer games than the season before. It was the end of that season when he injured his shoulder, setting in motion what became a frustrating year-and-a-half of surgeries and questions about whether he could ever again be the same player.

Brantley proved he could put the shoulder issues behind him. Now he needs to prove he can put October’s ankle surgery behind him as he hopes to get back in time for the start of the 2018 season. There are no such concerns with Kipnis. He should be a full go by mid-February when a new baseball calendar kicks off with spring training.

The return to form of both Kipnis and Brantley would certainly boost the Tribe’s chances to have another great regular season and sustained playoff run. Imagine the two of them at their peaks in lineup with Lindor, Ramirez, Encarnacion and the newly acquisition Yonder Alonso. Throw in Yan Gomes or Roberto Perez at catcher and the makings are still there for a potent lineup even with the free agent departures this winter.

Kipnis and Brantley have been teammates with the Indians since 2011. They are the Indians’ longest-tenured players, having seen the lean times of 2011 and 2012, the good times under Terry Francona from 2013-2017, and the great times of an October to remember in 2016. There is still work to do for this team to finally get over that last hurdle and hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy after a fourth World Series victory. It seems almost right for those hopes to rest largely on two of the club’s veteran leaders.

Photo: Ron Schwane/Getty Images

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Indians Outfield Could See Changes Over the Winter Months

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The Indians completed one of the offseason priorities this past week. With the signing of Yonder Alonso, Cleveland figured out who would replace departed free agent Carlos Santana at first base. Alonso may be a slight downgrade to the player who called Cleveland home for the last eight years, but he and his 28 home runs from a season ago will be a good addition to the Tribe’s batting order.

With that box checked on the Indians’ winter to-do list, there are still a couple more. The biggest area of concern may very well be sorting out the outfield, which is going to take some doing and could take a good deal of time this winter and on into the spring.

The Tribe has seven big league-caliber outfielders, all of whom are capable Major League baseball players. That does not even consider Jason Kipnis, who could be moved more regularly from second base to the outfield, nor does it consider free agent Jay Bruce whom the Indians could still ink to a contract before spring training rolls around.

Two of those outfielders were highly considered as first base candidates before Alonso joined the Tribe. Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall were both regarded as in-house replacements, had the Indians decided not to add a first baseman from the free agent market. Now they are both back firmly in the jumbled outfield mix.

Brantley, when healthy, is an All-Star and MVP-caliber player. He rebounded from a 2016 season that was lost to a shoulder injury to be an All-Star this past summer. After the break, however, he had ankle issues that wiped out most of his August and September and made him a shell of himself in the five-game ALDS.

Brantley had ankle surgery after the Indians’ exit from the playoffs and is expected back by Opening Day. Given a return to health, and that the Tribe has its first baseman in tow, the outfield begins and ends with Brantley. He is a lock to play every day on the outfield grass and may be the lone regular outfielder in that category.

Chisenhall may be Cleveland’s second best outfield option. Like Brantley, he struggled through injuries much of last season. When healthy, the Chiz Kid has shown he can be a near-.300 hitter with decent pop. His issue is staying healthy and hitting lefties. The left-handed-hitting Chisenhall fares much better against righties and is better served in a platoon role.

In August of 2016, the Indians seemingly traded for the best possible right field platoon partner in Brandon Guyer. Guyer, a right-handed hitter who is better against southpaws, formed a formidable right field combination for the stretch run of that 2016 campaign and into the playoffs. You may be sensing a theme here, but Guyer’s 2017 season was also riddled with injuries. He missed a lot of the second half.

This past year’s rookies Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen could well have a place in the Tribe outfield in 2018. Zimmer spent a lot of time with Indians this past season until, you guessed it, an injury, in this case a broken hand, caused him to miss much of September and to be declared out for the postseason. Zimmer flashed good speed and a great glove, but has work to do to be a good Major League hitter. He was not a disaster at the plate in 2017, but he may need to do more work to get his bat more into big league shape.

Allen was not supposed to be on the MLB roster this past year, but the injury bug put him there. His defense and speed landed him a spot on Terry Francona‘s postseason roster. Allen is almost definitely ticketed for Triple-A Columbus. He played in just five games with the Tribe, jumping from Double-A Akron to Cleveland when rosters expanded in August. He was only on the postseason roster because Zimmer and Guyer were out, Brantley and Chisenhall were rebounding from injuries, and Abraham Almonte and Tyler Naquin had fallen out of favor with the Indians.

Almonte and Naquin round out the seven players on the Tribe roster with ample outfield experience who have played on the big league roster. Naquin was third in the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year voting. However, he did much of his good work in the first half of that season before a horrible second half slump. He could not get his bat going in April this past year and was in the minors and also spent time on the disabled list.

Almonte has been an okay hitter, decent defender, and has a fair amount of speed. When everyone is healthy for the Indians, Almonte probably is an odd man out.

Among the seven Tribe outfielders, Brantley, Zimmer, and Chisenhall probably make up the best possible trio, in terms of hitting and defense. It also leaves something to be desired. While Zimmer and Chisenhall are nice players, they are not necessarily guys who are going to make a big difference on a ball club with designs on a third straight division championship and hopes to finally bring a World Series title to Cleveland for the first time since 1948.

That is where the waters get really muddy. If the Indians are going to upgrade the roster, as they should, it would probably be in the outfield. Zimmer, who could be really good in a couple years, and Chisenhall would be excellent options as role players coming off the bench as the Tribe’s fourth and fifth outfield options, with Chisenhall serving in a utility role as a part-time first baseman.

Enter Kipnis. Much like many of the other players mentioned above, Kipnis had a down 2017 season due largely to injuries. In August and September, when the team was really starting to gel, Kipnis was out and his second base job was taken by Jose Ramirez. Ramirez, who has also proven to be a very good third baseman, seemed to take a shine to second base. He is better defensively there than Kipnis. With Ramirez at second and Francisco Lindor at shortstop, Cleveland’s up-the-middle defense was as good as any in the game in the latter stages of last season.

Kipnis was moved to the outfield for the ALDS. He has had bad moments but also showed he could be a fine outfielder with some work. When healthy, Kipnis is an excellent hitter and an All-Star. The Indians have been mostly noncommittal as to what Kip’s role will be this coming year. Part of that is likely due to rumors that Kipnis’ name has been bandied about in trade talks. He is one of a few players the Indians could center a package around in a deal and get some upgrades in the outfield or bullpen in return.

If Kipnis is still an Indian come April, the guess is he will be back at second with Ramirez at third. Kipnis could always play outfield part time to allow J-Ram to have time at second.

Still, the Indians could use a upgrade in the outfield. Bringing back Bruce is still an option, but right now, he is out of their price range. However, Edwin Encarnacion was out of the Tribe’s price range at the start of last year’s offseason and we know what happened. The market dried out a bit on him and his price tag came down to a more manageable amount for the Indians. The same could happen with Bruce who is reportedly seeking five years around $17 million per. The years and probably dollars would need to come down to get into Cleveland’s range. Three years and $45 million may be about right for a power hitter with an average glove who will be 31 on April 3. However, doing so would extend the Indians’ payroll into even higher territories than its current all-time highs.

If not Bruce, there are plenty of options out there on the market, which is why Bruce’s asking price could come down as the market to break the bank on an outfielder could dry up. ESPN ranks Bruce as the fourth best available outfielder right now. Ahead of him are Lorenzo Cain, J.D. Martinez, and Carlos Gomez. Howie Kendrick is an intriguing name on the market, who would come cheaper. So would Austin Jackson, who revived his career playing in a part-time, platoon role with the Indians this past year.

Clearly there is a lot to sift through for the Tribe’s deep thinkers. There are a lot of outfielders currently on the roster with a lot of big league experience. Only Brantley offers much real hope as a big-time player. With Brantley, of course, it is always a case of whether or not he can stay healthy.

With so many question marks and so many average outfielders currently on the roster, a team that desperately hopes to finish the job it started in Francona’s first year as manager in 2013 and came agonizingly close to finishing in 2016 almost must add an upgrade to the outfield. Whether that involves trading Kipnis or perhaps Danny Salazar or it involves patiently waiting out the free agent market for prices on good players to drop remains to be seen.

It would be shocking if the Indians do not add to the current crop of outfield options. Believe it or not, more outfielders could help clear up the picture, so long as they are real upgrades over what is already here.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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Indians Bullpen Took Free Agent Hits, But Hardly Crumbling

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When a baseball team loses a pair of late-inning relievers to free agency, as the Cleveland Indians did this past week, it is certainly cause for some concern and worry. However, it is nowhere near time for Tribe fans to start hitting the panic button when it comes to Cleveland’s bullpen and its prospects for remaining a team strength in 2018.

Watching Bryan Shaw sign with the Colorado Rockies and then Joe Smith ink a deal with the Houston Astros was definitely frustrating for the faithful followers of the Wahoo Warriors. The sky is not falling and the walls are not caving in, however, at the home bullpen at Progressive Field.

Of the two, Shaw was undoubtedly the biggest loss for the Tribe. Shaw has been one of Terry Francona‘s must trusted relievers since the pitcher and manager both came aboard the Indians’ ship in 2013. In five seasons with Cleveland, Shaw made more appearances than any other reliever in game during that time. While he had a tendency to frustrate Indians fans with late-game meltdowns, including Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, Shaw typically got the job done and was one of the better setup men in all of baseball during his half decade with the Tribe.

Smith, on the other hand, was a new old friend who came back to Cleveland after more than three seasons away this past July. Smith was a trusted bullpen arm for the Indians from 2009-2013. His last season of his first go-round with the Tribe coincided with Francona’s first campaign guiding the Indians. Smith signed a rich contract with the Angels after the 2013 season ended. He came back to the Tribe in a deadline deal with the Blue Jays this past summer.

Both Shaw, who is 30, and Smith, who will be 34 on Opening Day, have had long, steady careers as relievers. However, neither is a devastating blow to Cleveland’s 2018 outlook.

Shaw actually was declining the last few years. Maybe there really was something to the growing fan angst and anxiety when he took the mound in his last couple of seasons with Cleveland. His best season donning the Wahoo Red, White, and Blue was his second one in 2014. He had a 2.59 ERA in 80 appearances. That was a career-high in games pitched and only his 2011 rookie season with a 2.54 ERA in Arizona has been better.

Since Shaw’s second Indians summer, it has been downhill, though not unsightly. His ERA dipped to a still respectable 2.95 in 2015. It was 3.24 in 2016 and 3.52 in 2017. That steady increase in runs allowed on the mound had to give Cleveland management something to ponder over the past week or two when the idea of losing the workhorse reliever became a real possibility. It is quite possible that his workload of 70 or more outings for five straight years may be wearing on him. The three years and $27 million he received is quite the price tag for a pitcher whose best years are probably behind him.

The same goes for Smith. It was a bit shocking that he received two years and $15 million from the Astros. Usually a pitcher nearing his mid-30s with mixed results recently will not get more than one year. Like Shaw, Smith’s best years are pretty much in the past. He has not been an elite-level reliever since his 1.81 ERA in 76 games during the 2014 campaign. Since then, he has been over 3.00 for three consecutive years. in his 21 game with the Tribe during the final two months of 2017, he was at 3.44.

What the Indians lost were two workhorses who had their share of tough outings. Most of the time each was good, but neither was unhittable.

To that end, what the Indians still have in their bullpen is as good as any team’s corps of relievers in all of Major League Baseball.

Cody Allen remains one of the game’s better closers. He is one of Francona’s most-trusted relievers, having pitched for the Tribe skipper since 2013, just like Shaw. Then, of course, there is Andrew Miller. Miller was a 2017 All-Star before injuries derailed the second half of his season. When healthy, Miller is arguably the best reliever in baseball. He was the MVP of the 2016 ALCS for the Tribe, a rare honor for a relief pitcher to earn. He was just that good all through that postseason run and is that good in general. He is a true superstar and a great setup guy to Allen, able to step into the ninth inning role when needed. He can pitch multiple innings and pitch at any point in a game. With most teams, he would be the closer. Having Allen and Miller is as good a 1-2 bullpen punch as there can be in the sport.

After those two relief stars is where losing Shaw and Smith could be felt. Both Shaw and Smith were trusted enough by Francona to use in the latter stages of a game if he felt one of his top two guys needed a night off. Shaw, especially, pitched the ninth inning every now and then. The moment never seemed too big, at least for him.

Now it will be up to some of the other Tribe relievers and maybe even a starter or two to step up and fill those late-inning voids. It’s not as if the Indians do not have good options. Cleveland’s bullpen was actually loaded last year.

Zach McAllister and Dan Otero have been fixtures in the Indians ‘pen the past couple years. McAllister, a converted former Tribe starter, had a 2.61 ERA, while Otero, in his second season with the Indians, was at 2.85. Both had very good seasons.

Nick Goody, scooped up last winter from the Yankees, shined brightly in his second full MLB season. He posted a 2.80 ERA in 56 games and the future seems bright for the 26-year-old. If anyone could fill the old Shaw role, it could actually be Goody.

Then there’s Tyler Olson. A spring training invitee last year after the Indians signed him midway through 2016, he spend most of the first half of 2017 at Triple-A Columbus. A bit of late bloomer, Olson was technically a rookie in 2017 at the age of 27. He’d spent parts of two other seasons in the Majors but not long enough to shed rookie status. Olson filled in for Miller when he was hurt and the Indians wanted a lefty in the bullpen. Olson actually pitched like he was Miller. In 30 games, covering 20 frames, the southpaw did not allow a single run. While the Indians kept Goody, McAllister, and Otero off their 2017 postseason roster in favor of putting starters into relief roles, Olson was on the team for the ALDS. He opened a lot of eyes in a short time.

The Indians are going into 2018 with what is currently a group of six relievers that are locks or near-locks to be in the bullpen on Opening Day. That really only leaves room for one or two more arms in the ‘pen. Francona likes to carry eight relievers on the roster, while the norm is seven.

Cleveland does not need to make splashy move in the ‘pen. A low-key veteran signing or two is all that is really needed (and may have already happened with the offseason additions of Jeff Beliveau, Leonel CamposEvan Marshall, Alexi Ogando, and Neil Ramirez). Even with the losses of Shaw and Smith, there are still plenty of good pitchers Francona can turn to after his starter has left the hill.

Will Shaw and Smith be missed? They certainly will. Are their losses going to destroy a bullpen that still has two elite-level hurlers and four that are in the range of good to very good? Hardly. Even with the loss of two veteran innings-eaters, the bullpen cupboard is not bare for Francona. He may not get to see the friendly face of Shaw on a near every other game basis, but he should still like what he sees in any reliever that he may call for in Shaw’s old sixth or seventh inning role.

Photo: Ron Schwane/Getty Images

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Move to Bullpen Could Benefit Salazar, Indians

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During the first half of the 2016 season, it seemed Danny Salazar was headed toward being an important fixture in the Cleveland Indians rotation for some years to come.

That first half, marred only by what seemed to be a minor forearm injury during the final weekend before the All-Star break, was one to behold for Salazar. He went into the break with a 10-3 record and 2.75 ERA. His breakout performance earned him a spot on the American League All-Star squad. He was a big reason the Indians were in first place and dreaming of big things ahead.

Those 2016 Indians did reach big things once play resumed after the Midsummer Classic. However, they did a lot of it without the All-Star hurler. By the time the team was playing in that year’s World Series, Salazar was reduced to a reliever, mostly in a spectator’s role.

The second half of Salazar’s 2016 campaign became something of a disaster. The arm injury lingered, partly in his head and partly physical according to some reports. Salazar battled ineffectiveness and a crisis of confidence. He was eventually shut down in September and missed the ALDS and ALCS altogether. He returned in time to pitch on a minimal basis in that Fall Classic.

As the 2017 season got underway, one of the biggest question marks was Salazar. Could he be the guy who was an All-Star and first-half Cy Young candidate in 2016 or would he be the guy who fell off the rails to close the 2016 campaign?

It turned out to be somewhere in the middle. Salazar’s 2017 season was filled with ups and downs and multiple trips to the bullpen. He showed flashes of his potential greatness, but would then be slowed by off and on shoulder issues. For the season, he was 5-6 with a 4.28 ERA. He had stretches in which he was superb and stretches in which watching him was maddening.

The 27-year-old struck out an eye-popping 12.67 batters per nine innings, but he also walked 3.3 hitters per nine frames. When all was going well, he was mostly limiting the walks, keeping himself out of trouble with base runners, and keeping his pitch count down.

April and May were roller coaster rides. He was up and down and rarely in between. He was sent to the bullpen, but it was brief due to other starters getting injured. He had an okay 4.34 ERA in April and then a ghastly 6.94 ERA in May.

After the debacle that was the season’s second month, the Indians moved Salazar to the bullpen. He made two relief appearances before succumbing to a shoulder injury. He went on the disabled list and followed that stint with some time in the minors. The time on the farm was to get Salazar’s arm feeling sound and also to try to boost his confidence that seemed to have been shot during the second half of 2016.

He came back in late July and had his best stretch of pitching in a long time. In his first five starts after being activated, Salazar gave up five earned runs total. He gave up two in one game and one or less in the other four. His ERA went from 5.40 to 3.92. He was entering the discussion to be the Tribe’s third or fourth starter in the postseason even though Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger were both pitching great in July and August.

Then disaster struck again. Salazar had a horrible start on August 20, giving up six runs in four and two-thirds innings and was again shut down because of his shoulder. He had another bad start when he came back in September. The Indians ended the year with him as a reliever and spare starter. He showed enough in four late-season games to earn a spot on the postseason roster as a reliever as the Indians planned to use him as a “weapon” along with fellow starter-turned-reliever Clevinger. Due to Cleveland’s early playoff ouster, Salazar as a weapon and a reliever were never on full display in October.

Perhaps the Tribe should give the idea more time. Salazar as a reliever could be the way to go as the club looks toward 2018.

Cleveland is loaded with great starting pitching. Two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber leads an impressive rotation that also includes Cy Young Candidate Carlos Carrasco, who finsihed fourth in this year’s voting. Bauer, a 17-game winner this past year, is as a good a No. 3 starter as there is in the game. The Indians can feel comfortable with Clevinger, Josh Tomlin, and Ryan Merritt rounding out the bottom two spots of the rotation.

Salazar probably slots in as the fourth starter at this point, which is why his skills could be better used in relief. It appears there will be at least one major job opening in the ‘pen, if not more, on next season’s staff.

Right-handed setup man Bryan Shaw is likely to find greener pastures via free agency. Trade deadline acquisition Joe Smith is a free agent and could also be elsewhere come April. That leaves closer Cody Allen and All-Star lefty Andrew Miller in the bullpen followed by question marks. The rest of the relievers on hand are more middle-relievers than late-inning relievers.

Salazar has the pure stuff to be a very good late-inning reliever or even a closer. He is great in stretches, but seems to falter when over-pitched. It may be that his arm and shoulder injuries the past couple of years have made throwing 100 pitches per outing a burden. He could be better off pitching one or two frames at a time.

With the high strike out rate, Salazar has the stuff to make batters swing and miss. His style of pitching can be painful if done over and over. A strkeout artist can thrive in ninth inning or in a tight spot, coming on in relieve with runners on base.

There are rumors floating about that Salazar could be traded this offseason. If the Indians are going to improve an offense that may lose Jay Bruce and Carlos Santana, it may have to be through trade and Salazar is a prime candidate when it comes to that.

If Salazar is not moved to another team, the Indians should strongly consider moving him to the bullpen. Allen and Miller are both free agents after the 2018 season, barring a long term deal for either. If Salazar can become a strong reliever, he could eventually slide into the closer’s role or a setup role, should the Indians find themselves needing to fill one of those spots in a couple years.

Less than two years ago, it seemed Salazar had a bright future as a great starting pitcher. Now the spotlight could be better shined on his swing-and-a-miss arm as a reliever.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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Cy Young Voting Shows Carrasco Became Ace-Like Starter in 2017

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Cleveland Indians starter Carlos Carrasco has always had ace-like and All-Star pitching ability. It was always figured that all he really needed was a full, healthy season for that to become apparent.

In 2017, Carrasco finally had a season in which he was healthy. The baseball world took notice as he emerged from the large shadow that is cast over the rest of the Tribe rotation by two-time Cy Young Award winner and staff ace Corey Kluber.

The 30-year-old Carrasco was widely considered one of the biggest snubs from this past year’s Midsummer Classic. That was the first sign that baseball people outside of Cleveland were beginning to notice Cookie’s immense talents.

The latest sign that Major League Baseball has started to view Carrasco as almost a starting pitcher No. 1-A to Kluber’s clear-cut No. 1 status was this year’s Cy Young vote. A week before Kluber was announced as a newly minted two-time recipient of the prestigious honor, everyone knew who the top three vote-getters were in each league for baseball’s top pitching price.

In the American League, Kluber, Chris Sale, and Luis Severino were named the Top 3 in Cy Young voting, done annually by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. When the award was handed out nearly two weeks ago, the full results were revealed. Somewhat unexpectedly, Carrasco finished fourth in the A.L. voting, behind Severino and ahead of Justin Verlander, a former Cy winner and league MVP.

In reality, the only reason Carrasco finishing fourth in the balloting was surprising was all of the focus that had been placed on Kluber. It was widely suspected, starting in August, that the Klubot would be a finalist for the award and by late September was largely considered the odds-on-favorite. So much focus, at least in Cleveland, was put on Kluber becoming the first Indians to win the award twice that Carrasco was overlooked. For the first time, Cookie was somewhat forgotten locally, but was very much remembered nationally.

Carrasco was very deserving of his first career Top-5 finish in the Cy Young vote. In 32 starts, he tied for the Major League lead with 18 wins, against just six losses. He also was sixth in the A.L. with a sterling 3.29 ERA.

Carrasco certainly had the numbers in 2017 of a Cy Young candidate. If not for Kluber being so much further and farther away from almost every other pitcher in the league, it is likely Carrasco may have gotten more votes. As it is, he seems to have stepped out of Kluber’s shadow and is starting to shine a little brighter on the national stage.

That kind of recognition has been a long time coming for Carrasco, who has taken a bumpy road to get to this point.

Carrasco was part of the 2009 Cliff Lee trade to the Phillies. Indians fans were angry at the trade, in general, and were less than accepting of the players received from Philadelphia at first. Carrasco was something of an unknown commodity, at the time and was not the centerpiece of the deal for Cleveland. That was Jason Knapp, since long-gone from baseball thanks to injuries.

Carrasco spent the early part of his Tribe career, which began in 2010, battling his own injuries, ineffectiveness, and immaturity. He missed a year with Tommy John surgery, was suspended for throwing at batters’ heads, and always seemed to be unlucky, getting struck and injured by line drives in both 2015 and 2016.

The latter two injuries were most unfortunate. Along with just be unlucky by twice having comebackers get him, Carrasco was just coming into his own those two seasons. From 2010 through early 2014, some wondered if Carrasco would have the ability to fulfill his promise on the mound and pitch to the potential that his right arm seemed to flash. A banishment to the bullpen in mid-2014 seemed to correct Carrasco’s issues and, by the end of that season, he was pitching well and consistently back as a starter.

The 2015 liner got him in the face and spoiled the first half of his season. In 2016, it was September when he got struck in his pitching hand. That one ended his season, causing him to miss the postseason and his team’s run to the World Series. Indians fans will always wonder what may have happened in those playoffs with a healthy Cookie capably manning the No. 2 starter role.

Carrasco entered 2017 embedded as the Tribe’s second-best starter, but with questions as to whether he could stay healthy and have a full season as a true ace-like hurler. He finally had such a season and the baseball world took notice.

Cookie will enter 2018 as Cleveland’s No. 2 guy again. No longer is that due to his potential, but is instead only due to the fact that Kluber is so good. Otherwise, Carrasco would be the ace of the pitching staff. On about 20 teams in baseball, Carrasco would probably pitch on Opening Day. With the Indians, he has a transcendent pitcher throwing in front of him. Still, he and Kluber combine to make perhaps the best starting 1-2 punch in the game. That is saying something for Carrasco. When he was recognized by the BBWAA as a top-notch hurler, it cemented his arrival as a known commodity around baseball circles that stretch further than Cleveland.

Perhaps next year is the year Carrasco makes his first All-Star game. He has the momentum, name-recognition, and acumen now. All he needs is another strong first half. It was always assumed that, if healthy, Carrasco could be one of the league’s better pitchers. Now, it is no longer an assumption. Now, as a fourth-place Cy Young showing would indicate, that notion is more of a fact.

Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

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Second Cy Young Award Puts Kluber Among the All-Time Indians Greats

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There are some great pitchers from before 1959 who will never be able to be judged in history by the number of Cy Young Awards they have won. That is the year the now-prestigious award came into being.

From that season, on, pitching icons have been defined by, and doors to baseball’s Hall of Fame have been opened, by winning that piece of hardware. Those who have won the trophy multiple times have earned a special place in pitching lore. If a hurler can distinguish himself among his peers over multiple seasons, he must truly be great.

Roger Clemens won baseball’s top pitching prize a record seven times. He would be enshrined in Cooperstown if not for getting entangled in the steroid mess that has stained the careers of may players from the 1990s and early 2000s. Randy Johnson won the Cy five times, while Greg Maddux and Steve Carlton earned it four times each. All three players are in the Hall of Fame. Pedro Martinez, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer and Sandy Koufax won the trophy three times – ditto on the Hall.

You can see where this is going. Earn multiple Cy Young Award and earn a lifetime of respect and honor. Only 19 men in the history of the game, at least dating back to 1959, have garnered the necessary votes from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to take home more than one Cy Young trophy. Ten of them are in the Hall while one, Clemens, would be under normal circumstances. Active pitchers Clayton Kershaw, with three Cys, and Max Scherzer, who won his third this past week, seem to be on a collision course with enshrinement after their great careers end. That is 12 of 19. The recently deceased Roy Halladay may eventually get there, potentially making it 13 multiple winners to earn a place in Cooperstown’s hallowed Hall.

On Wednesday, Scherzer earned his third Cy Young Award and Cleveland’s Corey Kluber joined the rarefied air of multiple award winners. He won his first in 2014. His second trophy came as little surprise after a 2017 campaign in which he was the hands down ace of what was arguably the game’s best starting pitching rotation.

Tribe fans have been watching greatness on the mound for the past four years now. Kluer has won 18 games three out of the last four seasons, nabbing a pair of Cys and finishing third in the voting in 2016. Only a lack of run support kept the Klubot from a great season in 2015.

Kluber was a late bloomer, not hitting his stride in the big leagues until 2013 (his age 27 season). Because of that, he only has five full big league seasons to his credit as he will enter his age 32 season in 2018.

Despite the late start to his MLB career, he has not wasted time piling up numbers. In those five full years, and parts of two others, Kluber is 76-48 with a 3.13 ERA in 163 games. He has been the Tribe’s best starter for four seasons and is starting to climb the ladder toward being among the all-time pitching greats in Cleveland history.

Kluber can certainly be argued as the best pitcher to wear the Wahoo Red, White, and Blue in recent history. He is the only Tribe pitcher to win two Cy Young Awards. The other Cy winners have been Gaylord Perry, C.C. Sabathia, and Cliff Lee. Sabathia and Lee have more career wins with the Indians, due to more seasons to this point, but Kluber has the better ERA and has been dominant more than either of those two. Perry, who had a great three-and-a-half seasons with the Tribe, is merely a footnote in the club’s rich history due to his lack of longevity as an Indian. He traveled the MLB landscape during his Hall of Fame career, best known for his time with the Giants.

Charles Nagy and Sam McDowell also had great Tribe careers that never saw either win the big pitching hardware, despite multiple fabulous and All-Star campaigns from both. McDowell may actually be the one pitcher Kluber trails when it comes to being recognized as the best Cleveland pitcher of the last 60 years. “Sudden Sam” spent his first 11 summers in an Indians uniform, winning 122 games with a sterling ERA of 2.99. He was an All-Star six times while with the Tribe and finished third in the Cy voting one season.

McDowell often gets overlooked in the pantheon of former Indians greats because of the era in which he pitched. The team was not great during his years of 1961-1971. He came on the scene a little after the 1954 World Series Tribe and long before the great and ballyhooed squads of the 1990s.

With another handful of quality seasons, Kluber should be at or near the win totals of the likes of McDowell, Nagy, and Sabathia, who all had 120 or more wins during their tenures with the Tribe. He should be able to get there. Unlike Sabathia and Lee, who were traded away the year after their Cy Young seasons, Kluber should not be going anywhere, any time soon.

The Klubot is under team control for four more seasons (2020 and 2021 are team option years). Provided Kluber is still pitching at an All-Star or Cy Young-caliber level, he will be a steal at $13.5 million and $14 million each of those final two seasons. That would take him through his age 35 season and near the climax of what could then be shaping up as a truly great career, especially if another piece of pitching hardware or two gets added.

Still, it is going to be hard for Kluber to earn the title of greatest Indians pitcher of all time. That is because Cleveland had some very special arms on the mound during the game’s early years. Some great pitchers wore Cleveland unis before the 1959 inception of the Cy Young Award. That includes Young, himself, who spent the turn of the century in Cleveland before the franchise was known as the Indians. He won many of his record 511 games in Cleveland, with a chunk coming as a member of the city’s long deceased National League Spiders club.

Then there are the likes of the great Bob Feller, considered by many as the best player in franchise history, Bob Lemon, and Addie Joss, who all are enshrined in Cooperstown. Mel Harder probably should be in the Hall. Those are four legendary Indians pitchers who were around too early to have the number of Cy Youngs listed on their Wikipedia pages. It would take a lot, certainly, and would require playing a few more seasons in Cleveland after his current contract and pitching to nearly 40 for Kluber to come close to having the career of some of those pre-1959 Indians hurlers.

It is likely Kluber will have to settle for merely being among the greats in team history. Like Jim Thome, from the club’s run of the 1990s, Kluber is likely to someday be memorialized with a statue outside Progressive Field for being perhaps the most important player in the most recent surge for Cleveland that has seen consecutive winning seasons and three playoff years from 2013-2017.

Adding more hardware would only add more fuel to the debate as to whether or not Kluber is the greatest Indians pitcher of them all. He is starting to inch closer to that debate after Wednesday’s announcement that he won his second Cy Young Award. Two trophies does not ensure a player to be remember among the game’s greats after retirement. However, it certainly helps and Kluber is rocketing ever closer to that sort of stratosphere.

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More Surgery, More Offseason Questions Surrounding Brantley

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Once the Cleveland Indians best everyday player and MVP candidate, Michael Brantley has become one of the team’s biggest question marks over the last couple of offseasons.

One question surrounding Brantley was answered this offseason already. That happened last week when the Tribe picked up his $11.5 million team option for 2018. In doing that, it put to bed the question of whether or not the two-time All-Star and a former top-three MVP vote-getter would be back for a tenth season in Cleveland.

There are so many more questions, however, clouding the winter and early spring when it comes to the superstar left fielder. As was the case the last two offseasons, they involve an injured body part and recent surgery. Unlike past offseasons, the concern is not with an ailing shoulder. Instead it is with a problematic ankle.

That there are no questions about Brantley shoulder is actually a good thing. He injured his throwing shoulder at the tail end of the 2015 campaign. After several surgeries and an all-but-lost 2016 season, the shoulder woes appear to be a thing of the past. He got through 90 regular season and three postseason games this past season without a setback to his surgically repaired wing. That was the good news.

The bad news is that he spent two stints on the disabled list with an injured right ankle. The injury first happened in June. He spent a little under two weeks on the DL and was back. It seemed like just a little issue at the time. He reinjured the ankle on August 8. Considered a sprain, it was figured he would be back by late August or early September. Instead, the ankle never really was healing correctly.

Brantley did not feel good enough to start taking game at bats until the final two contests of the regular season. He was added to the ALDS roster for pinch-hitting purposes, but was forced into full-time designated hitter duty when Edwin Encarnacion went down with an ankle injury of his own in Game 2 against the Yankees.

By the end of the disappointing ALDS ouster for the Tribe, Brantley’s ankle still was not right and he had surgery on October 18. That surgery is expected to keep him on the shelf, away from baseball activities, for four to five months. That time frame gives him a return sometime during spring training and he should be ready to go by or close to 2018 Opening Day. Sadly, we have heard that statement uttered so many times over the last few offseasons.

Will Brantley truly be ready to go by the start of next season is one big question. The other is, where exactly does he fit at this point?

Between the shoulder and ankle issues, there are some who think playing every day in left field could be a little too rigorous for Brantley. Moving elsewhere would be no small task.

Being in the American League, it would be tempting to play Brantley at designated hitter on a more regular basis. Encarnacion was the primary holder of the DH duties in 2017 with 132 games in that spot. He was a part-time first baseman, playing we games in the field while Gold Glove candidate Carlos Santana played first most of the time.

There’s a chance Santana could be lost to free agency this winter. Encarnacion, a former third baseman-turned-first baseman during his tenure with the Blue Jays, has never played more than half a season manning first base. Brantley could be moved to first, into a platoon role with Double E, splitting first base and DH duties.

I have outlined in past weeks why bringing Santana back makes sense. This is why. Encarnacion is nowhere near the first baseman that Santana is. Brantley has a long way to go to be able to play first for even half a season.

Spring training and preseason games would be the optimal time for Brantley to grasp everything that would go into playing a new position. The problem is, he may not have a full spring training to get there. The best case scenario, four months from surgery, puts Brantley back on the field February 18. That could be fine to start teaching a new spot in the field. However, if there is any sort of set back or if his recovery period gets closer to four-and-a-half or five months, Brantley would not be prepared to start the new season at first base. He would be hard-pressed to get back into game shape in time to play his natural left field spot on Opening Day.

Even with the stress that running down fly balls can put on both his surgically repaired ankle and shoulder, the Indians would be wise to keep him in the outfield. He is the only one of what currently stands as a host of outfield candidates who is both a veteran and finds the outfield as his natural position.

Lonnie Chisenhall is a converted former third baseman now playing in right. Jason Kipnis could see more time in the outfield after transitioning from second base to the outfield at the end of this past season. Abraham Almonte and Brandon Guyer had their own bouts with injuries in 2017 while also scuffling at the plate throughout the year. Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen, rookies during the 2017 campaign, are just emerging as Major League outfielders. Brantley, if healthy, can help to settle a possibly in flux outfield rotation.

Of course, the “if healthy” phrase again comes back. Before the 2016 season, it was said a great deal. It turned out Brantley would only be healthy enough to play eleven games that year. His bad shoulder cost him a chance to play in the World Series with the rest of his teammates.

In 2017, Brantley showed he could come back from the shoulder issues. He played most of the first half of the season, earning his second career All-Star nod. It was in the second half that the ankle became a serious problem. He ended up this past year playing in 90 games, hitting .299, with nine home runs and 52 RBI while adding in eleven steals. During the times that he was healthy, he showed the skills that made him so great in 2014 and 2015.

Brantley has answered one lingering question regarding whether he could come back from the multiple shoulder surgeries to be an effective MLB player again. Now he is looking to answer the questions about the ankle in the same manner.

The Indians were wise to bring Brantley back on what amounts to one more year to see if he can, indeed, still play at an All-Star level. If the Tribe had let him become a free agent, there surely would have been a team out there who would have given him a one or two-year contract worth more than the money Brantley will earn in Cleveland in 2018. It does not hurt for the Tribe to have him in the lineup, especially if Santana and Jay Bruce both go elsewhere this winter.

If healthy, Brantley should be near All-Star form. He should be there playing his natural left field, rather than trying to learn a new position while working back into baseball shape. Manager Terry Francona has always been creative with moving players around the diamond, splitting guys up at the DH position and giving off days where needed. That will surely be the case for Brantley next year.

Hopefully, this time next offseason, the questions will not be about Brantley’s health and ability to play in 2019. The hope is that the Indians are asking even tougher questions about whether or not they can afford to keep him and for how many years. That would mean he had, at least, a mostly healthy and productive 2018 season.

Brantley has answered past offseason questions in a big way. He will certainly put in the game effort to do so one more time this winter.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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Repeat of Last Winter’s Spending Not Necessary For Tribe to Be 2018 Title Contenders

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Last year, the Cleveland Indians made one of the biggest free agent signings of the winter. The guaranteed $60 million for three years doled out to slugger Edwin Encarnacion was the richest contract handed out in club history.

So, as this winter’s hot stove season starts to heat up, what will the Indians do for an encore performance? Is there another splashy signing in the near future? The reality is there does not need to be and probably will not be.

For the Indians, this winter is and should be more about taking care of their own free agents than going outside the organization to bring in another big-time player.

While some Tribe fans may still be hurting and reeling from their team’s early playoff exit, Cleveland’s American League Division Series ouster at the hands of the Yankees was not due to a lack of talent. It was due more to key players either going into funks at the wrong time or being physically less than their normal capabilities.

Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are still two of the best players in the A.L., even though their bats went stone-cold for most of the five-game postseason series. Corey Kluber is still one of the best pitchers in the A.L. despite a balky back making him look hittable in two playoff showdowns with New York. Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Andrew Miller were not in peak form in October thanks to spending large chunks of time on the disabled list during the second half of the regular season. Encarnacion’s Game 2 ankle injury did not help matters.

Given health and the timing to be playing at their best on October 1, the Indians as constructed are still one of the top five teams in the game. They simply have some in-house matters to take care of over the next month or two.

The biggest is going to be deciding between Carlos Santana or Jay Bruce as the power-hitting free agent to re-sign. The Indians do not need to keep both Bruce and Santana and probably do not have the means to lock up both to long-term, lucrative contracts. However, they ought to be able to keep one of them. The favorite would seem to be Santana, who has been with Cleveland his entire Major League career, dating back to 2010. The Tribe also has a plethora of outfield options, should they let Bruce walk away. Replacing Santana’s bat and Gold Glove-caliber fielding at first base would be a much larger challenge and hole to fill.

While locking up one of those two is probably the biggest priority, the first was deciding on options to pick up. Josh Tomlin‘s was picked up on Friday, meaning the Indians will go into next season with seven MLB-ready starters. There will be no splashy moves on the starting pitching front, for sure.

The same holds true on the relief pitching front. Cleveland has a lot of money tied up in All-Star set up man/closer Miller and closer Cody Allen. The biggest decision in the ‘pen will be deciding whether to bring back free agents Bryan Shaw and/or Joe Smith. Both are not likely to be back, as both will command multi-millions of dollars. Shaw will be seeking multiple years and is sure to get it. The Indians have plenty of good relief options in Dan Otero, Zach McAllister, Nick Goody, and possibly a starter who is left out of the five-man rotation. It’s likely a veteran could be brought in on a team-friendly, one-year deal, but a big name is not very plausible.

Brantley’s $11 million option was also picked up. He should be ready to go by Opening Day or shortly after following ankle surgery a couple of weeks ago to take care of a nagging ankle issue that cost him most of this year’s final two months and made him largely ineffective at the plate in the playoffs.

With Brantley back, the Indians have a ton of quality outfield options even without Bruce. Lonnie Chisenhall, Bradley Zimmer, and Brandon Guyer will all be looking to bounce back from injuries that plagued their 2017 campaigns. Zimmer and Guyer both missed the postseason, while Chisenhall was not himself in the ALDS with minimal plate appearances following his September return to the active roster. Kipnis is also going to be an option in the 2018 outfield. He is likely to split time between the outfield and second base. Throw in Greg Allen as an emerging prospect and the outfield has plenty of depth without a big-time free agent move.

In the infiled, Ramirez can play both second and third base and play both very well. With Kipnis hurt in August and September, Ramirez flourished at second and found comfort there. Reports indicate he would prefer to stay there, which is why Kipnis could be pushed into more outfield duty. Giovanny Urshela is a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman, but his bat leaves something to be desired. The Indians can live with that due to so many other good hitters in the lineup. Lindor is obviously a great fielding shortstop with a strong offensive presence. Encarnacion can man first base, but is better off as a designated hitter at this point. That is why bringing back Santana is so important. He is heads and tails better at first than anyone else in the organization. Brantley could be an option to move there, but Cleveland would lose a lot without Santana.

Basically, the Indians should re-sign Santana, one of Shaw or Smith, and make a minor bullpen and bench move. The Indians do not need to make a big free agent splash like they did a season ago. Simply keeping the core in place and seasoning it with some smaller tweaks would keep Cleveland near the top of the MLB contenders list and the run-away favorite to win a third straight AL Central Division title.

Last year, Cleveland almost had to upgrade Mike Napoli with Encarnacion to remain a viable World Series contender. No such replacement is needed this winter. It can be quiet on the winter front while the team continues to make a lot of noise during the late spring, summer, and early fall.

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Tribe Bullpen Could Look Different Without Shaw Next Season

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How much money are the Cleveland Indians willing to put toward their vaunted bullpen?

That is something Tribe fans may find out this offseason. Arguably the best relief corps in baseball, the team has two key free agents in Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith. The bullpen would definitely have a different feel to it without Shaw, but to what lengths should the Tribe actually go to keep a reliever who is not one of its top two pitchers?

Shaw has been an absolute workhorse out of the bullpen for the Indians over the last five seasons. In three of those campaigns, he led the league in appearances, and in two of those, he led all of baseball. That includes this past season, when he threw in relief 79 times. He established a new career high with 80 outings in 2014. His low output was 70 games pitched in 2013, when he was new to the Tribe and manager Terry Francona was figuring out just what he had in what was then still a young arm.

Shaw has pitched nearly every other game for the Indians for five years and has been pretty good. At times, he has been great. However, the pitching-rich Indians will need to decide how much they are willing to spend on a reliever who, while very good, was their third or fourth best arm out of the bullpen at times during the 2017 season.

Cleveland already has more than $16 million tied up in its best two relievers. All-Star and bullpen ace Andrew Miller is due to make $9 million in 2018, the final year of his contract. Closer Cody Allen has one more arbitration-eligible season. He made $7.3 million this past year and did nothing to make you think that bill would be lower. His salary will surely go up a chunk (MLB Trade Rumors projects a figure of $10.8 million) and could be in line for a long-term contract this spring from the Tribe.

The Indians will need to decide just how much they want to break the bank on their bullpen. Shaw made $4.6 million last season. He will be 30 at the start of the new year. This is the first time he has been a free agent and you can be sure he is seeking a multi-year deal. Three or four years in the $6-$7 million range per season is probably about what it will take to ink a contract for a player who has been amazingly consistent for a reliever.

Many relief pitchers are prone to up and down years. They are rarely good every year. That is what makes Shaw so intriguing on the open market. In seven years in the Majors (including his first two with the Diamondbacks), Shaw has not had a bad year. He has had very good years and decent years, but no bad ones. A manager can put Shaw into the ‘pen and be sure of 70-80 appearances, with a certainty that most will end well. That really is all you can ask of any relief pitcher, especially one who usually pitches in tight spots with games on the line.

Some Cleveland fans have soured on Shaw over the year. That, however, is because he pitches so often and is not afraid to take the ball when it matters most. Because of that, Shaw has memorably lost some late games. People always remember when a set-up guy or late-inning reliever lets a game get away, rather than when he pitches a ho-hum, 1-2-3 frame to keep his team ahead, tied, or in striking distance, as Shaw has done many more times than not.

Shaw’s worst season out of his seven big league campaigns was actually this year. His 3.52 ERA was not great, but hardly alarming (consider a couple of really bad outings can truly skew a reliever’s numbers). However, if there is one cause for concern with the Tribe’s workhorse, it is that his numbers have declined over the past few years.

Shaw’s ERA in 2014 was a very good 2.59. It was his best since his 2.54 of his rookie year in 2011. It has risen each year since. In 2015 it was 2.95, then 3.24 in 2016, and then the 3.52 of this past summer. Whether all of the appearances logged and innings pitched have cause some wear and tear is unknown, but it is certainly a possibility. It could be the one thing that causes interested suitors to lower the relief specialist’s asking price.

If there is a team out there willing to give Shaw several years and $6 million or more per season, the Indians may have to think long and hard about bringing him back. That would be a lot of money to give three relievers. Consider, on the Indians, Shaw is at best the third bullpen option. Another team may view him as a No. 2 or even a lesser expensive No. 1 option, with the potential to slide into the closer’s role.

Cleveland may also lean toward bringing back Smith over Shaw. Smith was added by the Tribe in July as a trade-deadline deal. It was a bit of an unheralded move, but Smith has been a quality reliever since his debut in 2007. It was a homecoming for Smitty, who had been with the Indians from 2010-2013. Oddly enough, he was deemed expendable after the 2013 season because the Indians had learned that year that Shaw could be an effective and cheaper replacement. It could go the other way this winter.

While Smith has been a very good reliever and amazingly consistent for 11 years, he is almost essentially an older version of Shaw. Smith’s 3.83 ERA in 2010 was the worst of his career. Again, for a reliever to go that long without a truly bad season is pretty special.

Smith had a 3.33 ERA in 59 outings between Toronto and Cleveland. It was 3.44 in 21 games with the Tribe. His career ERA is 2.97. While Shaw has had very good years in the past, Smith has had some elite relief seasons. He topped out at a 1.81 ERA in 76 games for the 2014 Angels. He had a 2.01 ERA in 2011 and 2.29 ERA in 2013, both with the Tribe. Those are outstanding campaigns out of the ‘pen.

Where Smith could come cheaper than Shaw is due to age. Smith is about four years older than Shaw, who will turn 30 in less than two weeks. Smith will be 34 when the first pitch of 2018 is tossed. His days of getting a long-term deal are probably over, as teams tend to shy away from giving relievers long, hefty contracts when they are in their mid 30s. At most, he would perhaps garner two seasons around the $10 million mark in total (he played for $3 million last season after making more than $5 million in each of the three previous years). That would be affordable for the Tribe.

Smith’s price tag may be even lower considering he has not hit 60 appearances in either of the last two years. In his prime, from 2011-2015, Smith hit 70 or more for relief outings. That is coming down with age, as it naturally would.

Even considering that, Smith could still slide right into Shaw’s role as the Tribe’s No. 3 reliever and a key go-to guy in the seventh or eighth inning, with an ability to close on occasions that Allen and/or Miller need a night off.

The Tribe’s ‘pen is deep, beyond the big arms. Guys like Zach McAllister, Nick Goody, and Dan Otero give the Indians a plethora of trusted arms to count on out of the ‘pen that most teams would love to have.

Between all of the relievers on hand and the chance to keep Smith on what could be a more team-friendly contract, it could mean Shaw is expendable.

When Smith was about to hit 30, four years ago, Cleveland allowed him to walk away. The bullpen has not skipped a beat. It could happen again with another 30-year old. It would definitely be odd to see a Tribe ‘pen without its workhorse, but for what Shaw would cost and considering his role and gradually declining numbers, he may not be worth to the Indians what he could be worth to a team willing to spend a lot of money for the chance that he could resemble more frequently the reliever that he was in his 2014 and ’15 seasons.

Shaw is worth keeping for the Indians, but the only question is, at what cost? We may find that out in the next month or so.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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