If ever there were an team’s offseason to sit out as a fan, it was this one. Of the projected 25-man roster, 24 of the players were in the organization at the end of the 2017 season. Heck, if you want to go a step further, 38 of the players on the 40-man roster were in the organization at the end of the 2017 season, free agent Yonder Alonson and waiver claim Rob Refsnyder being the only two newcomers. So if you turned off the TV in frustration on the evening of October 11, didn’t catch a single piece of Indians news this winter, then turned on STO to watch Friday’s Cactus League opener, you hardly missed a thing.
The Indians had a similar type of offseason in the winter of 2016-2017, but the difference here is that in 2017 the Indians did lose multiple key players to free agency. Carlos Santana, Bryan Shaw, Jay Bruce, and Joe Smith, all of whom played major roles down the stretch in 2017 left, with the Indians only attempting to replace Santana via free agency. The rest of the holes, at least for now, will be filled by existing players. Most of the 40-man roster spots vacated by departing free agents were filled by homegrown prospects.
One departure that may have quite an effect on the roster isn’t a player: Mickey Callaway, who oversaw some of the best pitching staffs in franchise history, is now the manager of the New York Mets. Mickey is leaving one talented pitching staff for another, so it will be fascinating to see how both will fare from this point forward. It’s always difficult as outsiders to determine exactly how much of an impact an individual coach or manager has on a group of players, but this change is as close to a controlled experiment as any.
The Indians have had an extended continuity of people in charge of baseball operations. John Hart replaced Hank Peters as general manager of the team in 1991, and since then every subsequent GM (or its successor title – President of Baseball Operations) had previously been a part of the Tribe front office. The reason I bring this up is that this quiet offseason is reminiscent of that overall continuity. The lessons learned in the wake of the 2008-09 crack-up is that you need a continuous wave of young players to take the places of key players who get too expensive to keep on a mid-market payroll. The Indians could still trade some of that young talent during the season (a corner outfielder would be need #1, especially if Michael Brantley has any kind of setback), but for now they’re going to see if they can get by with what’s already here. They could have easily attempted to maximize the potential for winning over the next 2-3 years at the expense of having to tear everything down after 2020, but didn’t (at least yet).
I mention 2020 because that’s how long they have their top five starting pitchers as well seven of the nine projected starting position players under control for. The Indians will lose important players before that point (Cody Allen, Andrew Miller and Michael Brantley are free agents after this season, for instance), but the Indians can still remain at least a playoff contender even with those losses. After 2020 and 2021, though? If the Indians remain competitive, they’ll be so with an entirely new slate of players. After the 2020 season (assuming all options are picked up) Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Edwin Encarnacion, Yonder Alonso, Danny Salazar, and Jason Kipnis can become free agents. After 2021, Francisco Lindor and Corey Kluber can become free agents. Now some of those players by then won’t be worth retaining, but even so they’ll need an equivalent of their 2017 value to slot into that roster slot. If the Indians can’t develop the next group of core players by then, 2021 isn’t going to be much fun even if Kluber and Lindor are still here.
They’re going to see if Tyler Naquin can still become a viable major-league player (especially as a corner outfielder), and whether Ryan Merritt can make the jump to a major-league rotation. In other words, can Naquin become the next Lonnie Chisenhall, and can Merritt become the next Josh Tomlin? That goes for higher-upside players like Yandy Diaz or Francisco Mejia, both of whom could allow the Indians to trade more expensive players because they want to and not because they have to. It’s also going to be important to develop the next generation of the high leverage group, as neither Cody Allen nor Andrew Miller will likely be pitching for the Indians in 2019. If the Indians have to go out and pay retail for their 8th/9th inning pitchers or third outfielders or 5th starters, they won’t have that money in hand to try to extend the one or two of their core players in 2019 or 2020 that they really want to keep. I think it’s important to look as closely at the margins of a roster rather than the centerpiece, because a productive homegrown margin allows you to spend on your stars. Just think of what the Indians have gotten out of Josh Tomlin over the years, and what they would have had to spend (whether in prospects or in free agent cash) had he not developed into a decent starting pitcher.
I see the conservative offseason as partly an attempt to forestall an apocalyptic 2021. This franchise, barring some radical change as to how MLB payrolls are structured, is always going to operate on the notion of postponing a rebuild as long as possible. It’s going to happen someday, but if you always have that delaying idea in mind, you won’t be suddenly forced to sell everything off some July in the future after you tried to win at all costs for a couple glorious seasons.