The pressure is on the rotation to save the season before it starts. The Indians followed up their surprising World Series run in 2016 with back-to-back clunkers in the first round of the postseason.
Then things got worse.
In cost-cutting measures this offseason, they lost mainstay Michael Brantley, one of the game’s best relievers in Andrew Miller, four-year closer Cody Allen, powerful cleanup hitter Edwin Encarnacion and All-Star catcher Yan Gomes.
They added pretty much nothing outside of bringing back Carlos Santana, trading for unproven Jake Bauers and signing veteran free agent question marks in outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and designated hitter Hanley Ramirez.
The rest of their American League rivals got better, including New York and Houston, the teams that eliminated the Indians in the ALDS the past two years. Even Central Division foe Minnesota improved and could provide a threat.
If that weren’t enough, All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor, the face of the franchise, will open the season on the injured list with a calf injury that could linger during the season. His recovery suffered a setback this week when he sprained an ankle running the bases during an intrasquad game.
Second baseman Jason Kipnis will also miss the start of the season with a calf injury. He’s coming off consecutive subpar years and could be at the end of his time with the Indians.
That’s a whole bunch of negatives.
So even though Cleveland is a strong favorite to win its fourth straight Central Division title, it’s understandable that outside of baseball beginning again, Indians fans don’t appear real excited for the start of the season.
“We’ve had some moving parts,” manager Terry Francona, whose club slashed nearly $20 million from a payroll that had grown from $124 million in 2017 to $134 million, told reporters during spring training. “This has been probably the most unsettled (our roster has been) late because of injuries — plus we had a lot of turnover anyway. It’s the reality of where we are, but rather than make excuses, we just have to find a way to win. Because we’re not gonna ever throw in a towel or lose a game and we’re like, ‘Man, if we only had 5 more million dollars.’ We don’t feel like that. We feel like it’s our job to find players that can win.”
That task could get even more difficult with Lindor and All-Star pitcher Trevor Bauer headed for free agency in the coming years and the cost-conscious Indians unlikely to be able to keep them.
“We walked through, ‘How are we gonna keep our window open?’” Francona said. “We’d like to show up every spring with a realistic chance to win. Are you gonna be the favorite? Maybe not.
“I knew what the landscape was when I came in. I just valued working with the people here over spending money on players. And I think to this point, we haven’t reached the pinnacle, but we’ve done OK. The idea is to win the World Series but, on top of that, it’s to compete every year. And that’s hard to do.”
One thing left intact from 2018 is a rotation that is arguably the best in the majors. It’s really the only reason Cleveland enters the season as a playoff contender.
It contains three legitimate Cy Young candidates in two-time winner Corey Kluber, Bauer — who might have won the award last year if not for a late-season injury — and Carlos Carrasco.
Mike Clevinger could even be considered in the Cy Young mix after joining those three last season to give the Indians four pitchers with at least 200 strikeouts — the first time for a staff in Major League Baseball history. And fifth starter Shane Bieber won eight of his first 10 decisions during an impressive rookie year.
“It’s kind of scary,” Clevinger said. “Just being completely literal, I mean there’s nobody out there that can sit and look at our rotation ... I think this is the most dangerous rotation in baseball.”
“We look great,” Carrasco said. “Bieber, Clevinger, myself, Kluber, all those guys, even Bauer, Bauer is great. But I think we’re still the same guys. We have fun, we go out there and pitch, but we’re one of the best rotations in baseball. It’s no secret from anyone. We’ve been proving it for the last three years.”
It’s a comfortable feeling for Francona with whoever takes the mound for the first pitch.
“Every day we go out there I count my blessings because every starting pitcher we run out there I think is really good,” he said. “I know how I feel when we’re playing another team, like, ‘Man, we’ve got to be on our game because it’s gonna be tough.’ That’s how it’s gotta feel every night (against us).”
And this starting staff — just like the Indians as a whole — has something to prove after two straight early ousters in October.
Kluber was brilliant for nearly all of the 2016 World Series run, but he sputtered the past two postseasons.
The notorious drone incident limited Bauer three years ago. The right-hander returned to dominate the Yankees in Game 1 of the 2017 Division Series, only to have another health issue derail him last year.
Carrasco, who signed a team-friendly four-year, $47 million contract this offseason, missed all of the 2016 postseason with an injury. He went 0-1 in two Division Series starts in 2017 and ’18 despite pitching well.
“Everybody in our group is trying to get better,” said Kluber, who finished third in Cy Young voting last year after winning 20 games for the first time. “Nobody is really content where we are.”
The lineup isn’t without weapons — it contains MVP candidates in Lindor and third baseman Jose Ramirez — but unlike the rotation, it isn’t scary.
Lindor and Ramirez are expected to provide their usual top-shelf production and Santana should be steady, but there’s not much certain production beyond them.
Roberto Perez, who struggled mightily at the plate as a backup for Gomes the past two seasons after starring during the 2016 playoff run, gets his first shot as the regular catcher.
The biggest sore spot is in the outfield, where the Indians were expected to start Bauers in left, Leonys Martin in center and Tyler Naquin in right before Gonzalez, a right fielder, was acquired at the end of spring training.
The bullpen — sans Miller and Allen — doesn’t look much better, with only two-time All-Star closer Brad Hand as a proven commodity. Left-hander Oliver Perez was brilliant last year, but he’s 37 and isn’t expected to repeat the performance.
Though the Central Division is by far the weakest in baseball, Minnesota looks much better with a dangerous lineup that includes offseason acquisitions Nelson Cruz and Marwin Gonzalez.
Even with the roster upheaval, the Indians enter the year as the overwhelming favorite to win the division title — but an underwhelming contender against the AL heavyweights.
Yet their rotation gives them a chance in October. They say pitching wins in the postseason, and that will be put to the test more than ever with this ballclub.
“You can’t win without pitching,” Francona said. “(A hitting-dominant team) might be fun to watch, but you can’t get where you want. If you’re short somewhere, it’s gonna get exposed over the course of a long year. But if you don’t have starting pitching, you’re gonna get exposed way quicker. I mean, you’ve gotta win 10-9 games sometimes, but not four or five times a week. That’s too hard to do.”
“The expectations are always to win,” Kluber said. “Our job is to execute pitches regardless of who is behind us. There’s going to be injuries and guys are going to leave in trades and whatever. There’s moving parts throughout the season but, yeah, I think in the end the expectations are to win.”