Indians pitchers and catchers report for the start of spring training this week, and if there’s a slogan for the week it should be, “Gentlemen, start your fastballs!”
Given what’s transpired in the offseason — all the significant position players from last year’s team not named Francisco Lindor or Jose Ramirez are gone — it’s hard to recall a season with an Indians pitching staff under more pressure to perform than this one.
The good news is that this Indians pitching staff, specifically the starting rotation, is loaded. Maybe the best in the American League. Perhaps the best in the majors.
The bad news: the pitchers better be lights out, because the offense probably won’t be lights on. Here is my best guess — as of today, about six weeks from Opening Day — on the Indians’ most used starting lineup in the first months of the season, assuming Lindor returns from his calf injury sometime in the first or second week:
Lindor-SS, Jason Kipnis-2B, Jose Ramirez-3B, Carlos Santana-1B, Jake Bauers-LF, Eric Haase-DH, Tyler Naquin-RF, Roberto Perez-C, Leonys Martin-CF.
To use Haase as the DH the Indians would have to keep Kevin Plawecki as a third catcher, which might mean one less reliever, which might not be bullpen maestro Terry Francona’s idea of a good time. If so, then Kipnis goes to DH, and either Ryan Flaherty or Max Moroff play second base and bat ninth.
“Gentlemen, start your fastballs!”
Your sliders, your cutters, your changeups, and whatever other four or five pitches Trevor Bauer throws.
Despite having two perennial MVP candidates at the top of the order, this year’s Indians lineup is going to need some help from its pitching staff. Lots of help. Those 8-5, 9-3 and 10-2 Indians wins from last year are going to have to become 3-2, 2-1, and 1-0 wins this year.
The starting rotation of Corey Kluber, Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber will have to stay healthy and grind out quality start after quality start for the Indians to keep the rest of the AL Central comfortably at bay.
Those starters did that last year, until Bauer got hurt. But with this year’s lineup having been severely downgraded from last year’s group that scored 818 runs, third most in the majors, the Indians’ starters are going to have to do even more heavy lifting.
Because if they don’t, or, for whatever reason, the Indians — crazy as it sounds — were to fall out, or almost out of contention by the trade deadline, then all bets are off.
Because then the Indians would have to consider trading Kluber and Bauer, both of who’s value, assuming both were in the midst of typical seasons for them, would be at an all-time high.
Imagine the potential return the Indians would get for Kluber if they opened up the bidding on him at the end of July or August, with the eventual acquiring contender knowing they’d have him for the rest of the regular season, all of the postseason, and all of the following two years, and postseasons, assuming that team picked up Kluber’s two club options.
The team that traded for Bauer at midseason would have him for the remainder of the regular season, all of the postseason, and all of next year, regular and postseason, before he became a free agent.
No team will go into the 2019 season with two bigger potential trade chips than the Indians. But no team has a bigger reason not to want to make such trades. Because that would mean the Indians were no longer lords and masters of the AL Central, a title they would be forced to voluntarily relinquish by gutting the top of their rotation.
Other than that, there’s not much riding on baseball’s most elite rotation. All they are being asked to do is to keep the team in every game, lead the way to a fourth consecutive division title, then turn it up another notch for the postseason, and lead the team to its first World Series title in 71 years.
At the very least, this could be the last full season (or half-season) we get to enjoy this Indians’ monster rotation. After the 2019 season, the potential for trading Kluber and/or Bauer will still be there, and the argument for trading one or both would be even more persuasive, assuming you’re from the use-your-assets-to-acquire-more-assets school.
If you’re from the ride-your-horses-until-they-run-away school, then you would oppose trading either, barring, one would presume, a total team-wide collapse.
Given that the Indians have won their division by 13, 17 and eight games the last three years, they could probably win it again in 2019, even with a partial collapse — especially with a starting rotation this great.
They are a long way from being baseball’s most complete team. But they do have baseball’s most complete rotation.
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