A rebuild isn’t necessary for the near future
As the Cleveland Indians wind down another season, one of the preconceived notions that has guided the thought processes of the front office and fans for several years has been severely undermined. That notion is that the core of the team would get too expensive sometime around 2018 and that another painful rebuilding project would begin. Events of the past year have altered that reality.
Those who have been Indians fans for as long as I have should try this trivia question: how many recent trios of Indians players have played as many games together as Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, and Carlos Santana? I confess I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it is close to zero. Brantley has been on the major league roster since late in the 2009 season, Santana since late in 2010, and Kipnis since late 2011. That means that they have been on the field together when healthy for six consecutive seasons. There may have been some guys on the great teams from the 90s who stayed together longer, but otherwise, probably not. It’s not exactly Jeter, Rivera, and Posada, but by Cleveland standards, it’s pretty impressive.
Around the time that the Indians returned to contention under Terry Francona, the front office began signing these and other core players to contract extensions. For the most part, the players traded immediate earning for long-term security. The flip side for the team was that by next season, some of those players would either be making big money or coming to the end of their deals. The team has an $11 million option on Brantley for next year, which would be a no-brainer if he could stay healthy. After that, he’s a free agent. Kipnis makes almost $14 million next year, and Santana is a free agent. In addition, closer Cody Allen is eligible for arbitration this winter, setup man Bryan Shaw is a free agent, and uber-reliever Andrew Miller’s contract expires after next year. Trevor Bauer and Lonnie Chisenhall will go to arbitration this winter, and Yan Gomes’ salary begins a three-year escalation that peaks with a $9 million team option in 2020.
This all leads to some tough decisions, made tougher by the fact that these guys are getting old. Santana and Corey Kluber are 31; Brantley, Kipnis, and Carlos Carrasco are 30; Gomes and Shaw are 29; Allen and Chisenhall are 28. None of them are ready to retire, but all are at the age where a long-term contract is a bad investment for the team. Put it all together, and you can see why a teardown seems to be looming.
But things have changed. The injury-plagued seasons of Brantley and Kipnis have rendered them something of an afterthought. Santana has increased his value by becoming a more adept first baseman, but his future in Cleveland probably hinges on his price. In the meantime, the core of the team, aside from the stalwart rotation, is the middle infield combination of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. Add to them rookie sensations Mike Clevinger and Bradley Zimmer and catching prospect Francisco Mejia, you suddenly have a new core, none older than 24 and all of whom play crucial defensive positions.
The Indians have already locked up Ramirez through 2021, with team options for the two years beyond that which could have the MVP contender playing his age 30 season for $13 million. While Clevinger and Zimmer have a few years to wait before they can make big money, Lindor could hit the jackpot as early as this winter. He won’t be eligible for arbitration until 2019, but the Indians know that if he gets that far, he could earn as much as $20 million per season. Cleveland will be proactive and try to lock him up at least through his arbitration years.
All of which makes the decisions on the veterans more interesting. Kipnis seems to have lost his position to Ramirez. He could move to third, or replace Santana at first if Santana leaves. As effective as Gomes and Roberto Perez have been behind the plate, it’s hard to see both of them sticking around if Mejia is ready next spring. The team will probably exercise Brantley’s option for next season, but they could also make an offer to Jay Bruce or Austin Jackson, or give Yandy Diaz a crash course in left field.
The bullpen will be the toughest call. Allen and Shaw are about to get expensive, and there will be a temptation to get something for Miller before he walks after 2018. There are younger and cheaper options in the system, but the bullpen has been the essence of this team for two years, and any changes to the back end are fraught with peril.
The rotation, on the other hand, is steady for the foreseeable future. When Ryan Merritt, with a 1.74 ERA this season, is your seventh starter, you have an embarrassment of riches. Of this group, only Bauer seems likely to get prohibitively expensive within the next year or two. That probably makes him the most likely to be traded, despite his seventeen wins this season. A potential silver lining with Bauer is that given his age, salary, and performance, he seems likely to be the most attractive starting pitcher on either the free agent or trade market this offseason. Should Cleveland elect to trade him, a fair basis for comparison would be the Jose Quintana deal this season, in which the Cubs gave up two top-100 prospects for a pitcher with stats and contract status similar to Bauer.
A couple of elite prospects, thrown in with the young core that the Indians have built over the past couple of seasons and a dominant rotation, and maybe the teardown we were all waiting for isn’t as close as we thought.