Indians are confident they can continue as contender
CLEVELAND — Once the pain from their postseason elimination eased, the Cleveland Indians didn’t panic.
Instead, they stayed mostly intact — and confident — this winter.
Determined to end their World Series title drought in 2017 after coming so close the previous season, the AL Central champions were bounced in the playoffs by the New York Yankees despite taking a 2-0 series lead.
It was a bitter finish for a team that won 102 games and reeled off 22 straight victories. But while there was a sense of finality for some Cleveland fans, manager Terry Francona said these Indians aren’t done.
“I don’t think anybody should be pessimistic right now,” Francona said last month. “My goodness, we have the best record in the American League the last five years. This has been a good run of baseball, and I don’t see that going anywhere.”
With one of baseball’s top rotations, anchored by two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, the Indians are aiming to win their first Series since 1948 and end the majors’ longest championship dry spell.
NEW LOOK: Cleveland’s power and bullpen were both drained during the offseason.
The club chose not to re-sign first baseman Carlos Santana (23 homers, 79 RBIs) or outfielder Jay Bruce (36 homers, 101 RBIs with Indians, Mets) as free agents. Cleveland tried to offset those losses by adding first baseman Yonder Alonso, who changed the launch angle of his swing last season and connected for a career-high 28 homers.
Reliever Bryan Shaw may have angered Indians fans with spurts of inconsistency, but he pitched in at least 74 games the past four seasons and took the ball whenever Francona asked. He’s gone and so is side-armer Joe Smith leaving the Indians to fill two major relief spots this spring.
ROOKIES TO WATCH: Technically, center fielder Bradley Zimmer is no longer a rookie after playing 101 games last season, but his first year was incomplete when he shattered his left hand sliding into first base in September.
Zimmer’s loss deprived the Indians one of one their best base-stealing threats in the offseason and forced Francona to move second baseman Jason Kipnis to center field.
Switch-hitting catcher Francisco Meija struggled during 11 games last September, but the 21-year-old is the top prospect in Cleveland’s organization and it may not be long before he’s up permanently.
THEY’RE SET: There are few, if any, middle infields better than shortstop Francisco Lindor and second baseman Jose Ramirez. The All-Stars affect the game offensively and defensively. Unfortunately, they both struggled at the plate in the division series, dooming the Indians.
Ramirez’s days at third base — he played 88 games there last season — appear to be over, but his versatility is a huge asset for Francona.
THEY’RE NOT: Left fielder Michael Brantley remains a major question mark. The club exercised its $12 million contract option on him for this season, not knowing with certainty if he’ll be available for the opener after undergoing ankle surgery. Brantley has played in just 101 games over the past two seasons and the Indians can’t afford to go through another year with him being in their lineup regularly.
ON DECK: Kluber, Carlos Carrasco (18-6) and Trevor Bauer (17-9) are locked into starting spots, leaving Josh Tomlin, Danny Salazar, Mike Clevinger and Ryan Merritt it to battle for two openings this spring. It’s possible that Clevinger could wind up in the bullpen. With Brantley’s status unclear, the Indians remain in the market for an outfielder to add depth. The club would like to secure Lindor long-term with a multiyear extension, but the 24-year-old and his agents have turned down previous deals and don’t seem rushed to finalize one now.