I was planning on waiting until either Machado or Harper signed (preferably both) to finish up this series of posts, but as Spring Training has begun and the Tribe roster is more or less set, I can’t wait any longer. So the speculation about the state of free agency in general is going to be pushed off until another time.
With the Trevor Bauer’s arbitration hearing going in his favor ($13M, the Indians offered $11M), my estimate for Opening Day payroll is about $119M if you include the equivalent of 5 minor-leaguers to cover DL* stints over the course of the season. That would fall about $20M short of their ending 2018 payroll. Spending is not a perfect predictor of how good a team will be, given how the current salary system is set up, with good younger players being less compensated than good older players. With that said, I think they go into Spring Training a less talented team than the one from Game 3 of last year’s ALDS, particularly on offense, with projections showing the team 5 wins (fWAR) short of last year’s roster.
Gone is Michael Brantley, who signed a 2 year, $32M deal with the team that eliminated the Indians last year, and in his spot will be either Jordan Luplow or perhaps Jake Bauers. Gone is Lonnie Chisenhall, and his spot will probably be filled by Tyler Naquin. Gone is Edwin Encarnacion, and his spot is up in the air right now; it could be filled by Bauers, Carlos Santana, or shared among many players. Teams like the Indians need to take chances on young players to remain competitive over the long haul. However, as things stand, the Indians are going to be giving everyday spots in their starting lineup to at least 3 players who have yet to have a full productive season in the majors. And that doesn’t count the catching position, which will likely be shared by Roberto Perez and newly-acquired Kevin Plawecki, replacing Yan Gomes. Francisco Lindor’s calf injury makes the early-season lineup look even more suspect.
I have less of a problem with the way the Indians addressed the bullpen. Gone are Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, and in their places are several handfuls of relievers who have some potential but also can be sent to the minors. Because the Indians kept the rotation intact, they could use Danny Salazar (if the stars align) and Cody Anderson as relievers. Bullpens are fickle beasts, and I don’t mind opting for quantity over non-guaranteed quality here. They did bring back Oliver Perez, which should help stabilize the back end of the bullpen, but they desperately need a right-handed reliever to step into a key setup role.
There are two schools of thought about how a team like the Indians should operate. One is that you must maximize a short window of time for competitiveness by spending generously in terms of money and prospects, then completely rebuild. The other is that it is possible to keep the window open for a longer period of time by being good enough to compete for the playoffs but not be guaranteed of a long run into it. The Indians are attempting the latter way, perhaps mindful of how the 2005-2007 run collapsed so quickly. The minor-league organization has gotten praise for the number of prospects in the lower minors, so there is a chance that the team can remain competitive even after the current set of stalwarts inevitable leave or get too expensive. But by playing the long game, the team risks turning off fans who want to see them push all their chips into the middle every year, or at least some of them. And they have a point as well, because if Luplow, Naquin, and Bauers don’t take that next step, the offense could drag down a great rotation.
The AL Central once again appears very weak, particularly where the Indians are strong (starting pitching), but you can’t keep assuming your competition will continue to be inept. And strengths can quickly become weaknesses; one or two key injuries could quickly push the Indians backwards into the rest of the division. I’ll take a look at that competition next time.
*Yes I know MLB has changed the term to Injured List, but habits are hard to break and I just can’t make much of an effort to do so.