In its MLB preview issue, Sports Illustrated picked one of the teams that will open the season today at Target Field to miss the playoffs entirely this year.
Hint: It’s not the Twins.
This appears to be an extreme case of national backlash toward an Indians team that, after easily winning the AL Central in each of the last three years, decided to do basically nothing during the offseason.
Nobody likes nothing. Probably because nothing is more boring than nothing.
The do-nothing Indians have, thanks to their do-nothingness, annoyed plenty of observers, both with and without any emotional or geographical attachment to the team.
Actually, to be fair, the Indians did do something in the offseason. They subtracted. They subtracted money from their payroll by subtracting players from their roster. They did so in the belief that their ownage of the AL Central was substantial enough that they could subtract several key pieces and still have their way with the four palookas that pass for competition in the division.
What annoyed many, however, is that most contending teams try to get better in the offseason. Especially a contending team that, after taking a 2-0 lead in the Division Series two years ago, lost three in a row to the Yankees, and followed that by getting swept in three games by Houston in last year’s Division Series.
The failure of the Indians in their last two postseason series doesn’t typically result in a decision to downsize.
But here we are. The Indians in 2019 can only hope that their downsizing won’t lead to a capsizing in the coming season.
Because nothing can inflame an already testy fan base more than to address the failure to do something by a decision to do nothing.
In all likelihood, however — notwithstanding the “hey look at us” trolling prediction by Sports Illustrated that the Twins will win the division, and the Indians won’t even wild-card their way to the postseason — the Indians still probably have enough left to claw their way to the top of MLB’s weakest division.
Their pitching should allow them to do that.
Any team that didn’t have the best starting rotation in the majors might be foolish to attempt such a bold financial corner-cutting as the Indians executed during the winter.
But even with their five-horse rotation, there are no guarantees.
Consider, for example, the number of players on the Twins and Indians who hit 20 or more home runs last year.
The Twins: Nelson Cruz (37), C.J. Cron (30), Eddie Rosario (24), Johnathan Schoop (21) and Max Kepler (20).
The Indians: Jose Ramirez (39), Francisco Lindor (38), Carlos Santana (24).
I’m not saying, I’m just saying.
The Indians’ lineup does have two perennial MVP candidates in it, but from top to bottom, the Twins’ lineup might be better. The Indians, of course, have a huge advantage in starting pitching, and that alone should be enough to win the division again.
It does, however, put more pressure than ever on that starting rotation to do most of the heavy lifting. Because this is the Indians’ shallowest lineup in years.
With the loss of Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion, Yonder Alonso and Yan Gomes, the Indians lost 88 home runs and 314 RBIs from last year’s team. They did add Carlos Santana (24 and 86), but unless Hanley Ramirez and Carlos Gonzalez can resurrect some glory days from their past, the Indians’ lineup after the top four or five will be far more pitchable than last year’s group which, let’s not forget, was completely overwhelmed by Houston’s pitchers in the Division Series.
Would the Indians have attempted such a drastic downsizing if they had been in a more competitive division? We’ll never know. What we will know, come October, is whether they’ll regret the decision to interrupt a streak of division triumphs by interjecting a dose of fiscal brake pumping.
Even there, the risk, on paper, doesn’t appear to be too great. The Twins, and only the Twins, appear capable of throwing even a modest scare into the current rulers of the AL Central.
The White Sox, Tigers and Royals are still engaged in what will be extensive and lengthy rebuilds until they are in a position to put any kind of heat on the Indians. But the Twins, with a rebuilt lineup, at least, are clearly a team that should not be taken for granted.
Another unknown is how the Indians would react to having to play meaningful games late in the regular season. They have very little experience, having won their division over the last three years by a combined 38 games.
But it’s opening day, and this is why they play the games.
It would, however, be the height of irony if a team, playing in a division without any teams good enough to stop them, stopped themselves by over-downsizing.
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