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A 102-win season for the Tribe included a record-setting 22-game win streak that defied injuries and mathematical odds. But an early exit in the postseason left players (and fans) reeling, and they’ll head into the offseason with a few key players set to become free agents. With most of the 2016-2017 AL Central champion core still in place, the Indians will probably only need some minor retooling to be considered favorites for a third consecutive division title.
- Edwin Encarnacion, DH: $37MM through 2019 ($20MM option for 2020, $5MM buyout)
- Jason Kipnis, 2B/OF: $28MM through 2019 ($16.5MM option for 2020, $2.5MM buyout)
- Andrew Miller, RP: $9MM through 2018
- Corey Kluber, SP: $23.5MM through 2019 ($13.5MM option for 2020/$14MM option for 2021, $1MM buyout)
- Carlos Carrasco, SP: $8MM through 2018 ($9MM option for 2019/$9.5MM option for 2020, $662.5K in total buyouts)
- Yan Gomes, C: $12.95MM through 2019 ($9MM option for 2020, $1MM buyout/$11MM option for 2021, $1MM buyout)
- Brandon Guyer, OF: $2.75MM through 2018 ($3MM option for 2019, $250k buyout)
- Jose Ramirez, INF: $21.4MM through 2021 ($11MM option for 2022, $2MM buyout/$13MM option for 2023)
- Roberto Perez, C: $7.5MM through 2020 ($5.5MM option for 2021, $450K buyout/$7MM option for 2022, $450K buyout)
- Michael Brantley, OF: $12MM club option ($1MM buyout)
- Boone Logan, RP: $7MM club option ($1MM buyout)
- Josh Tomlin, SP: $3MM club option ($750K buyout)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLBTR & Matt Swartz)
- Lonnie Chisenhall (5.158) – $5.8MM
- Zach McAllister (5.077) – $2.4MM
- Cody Allen (5.076) – $10.8MM
- Dan Otero (4.124) – $1.4MM
- Danny Salazar (3.162) – $5.2MM
- Trevor Bauer (3.158) – $7.7MM
- Abraham Almonte (3.052) – $1.1MM
Cleveland’s roster is in good shape headed into the offseason. But for the first time in many years, the Indians will see several talented players become too expensive to retain. The Tribe’s guaranteed payroll plus projected arbitration salaries is already set to top $111MM in 2018, and that’s after setting a franchise record with a 2017 payroll close to $134MM. It’s unlikely that the small market Indians will significantly exceed that total, leaving them with some tough decisions to make this winter.
One of the first (and easiest) questions to answer will be whether or not to extend long-time first baseman Carlos Santana a qualifying offer. The switch-hitter has made at least 600 plate appearances in each of his seven full seasons with the Indians, averaging 3 WAR and 24 home runs across that span while leading the entire American League with 689 walks. While he’s been prone to slumps and is susceptible to extreme pull shifts, those weaknesses will definitely not be enough to dissuade the Indians issuing him a one-year QO at $17.4MM. He’ll almost certainly reject that offer, netting the organization a draft pick at the end of the first round should he sign elsewhere for at least $50MM in guarantees (or after Comp Round B, if the contract is less than $50MM). In the highly unlikely event he accepts the offer, they’d certainly be glad to have him back on a one-year deal during a contending season.
Beyond that, it would be atypical for the Indians to shell out big money and bring back Santana. Because he’s younger, he could seek more in terms of years than fellow first base/DH type Edwin Encarnacion did last winter. The average annual value of a new deal for Santana would tie up much of the remaining space in the Tribe’s 2018 payroll unless it were heavily backloaded, and such a contract could even approach or exceed the $60MM total promised to Encarnacion last winter. Perhaps there’s still some room to imagine a reunion, though. MLBTR’s Connor Byrne explored Santana’s market in-depth just last week, pointing out that another rich free agent first base crop could hurt his earning power. There were rumors back in April of a dialogue between the Indians and Santana’s camp, but at this point, teams like the Red Sox or Rangers will probably be able to offer the Octagon client more money.
Should Santana depart, the Indians could explore a reunion with Mike Napoli or Mark Reynolds. They might also have interest in Lucas Duda or any of the many other first base/DH candidates hitting the open market in a few days. The club has myriad internal options as well. Encarnacion could play first base, albeit with subpar defense. Such a move would allow the injury-riddled Michael Brantley to take over DH duties and stay off the field, if the Indians decide to pick up his option (more on that later). Outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall has some experience at first base, though he’s usually kept out of the lineup against left-handed pitching. Yandy Diaz might be a candidate to get a look at the position as well. It’s worth noting that the Indians have a high-upside first base prospect in Bobby Bradley, but he’s never played above the Double-A level and would therefore be unlikely to win the job out of spring training.
Thanks to some data-driven improvements to his swing, outfielder Jay Bruce enjoyed a strong 2017 season, clubbing 36 homers with a .254/.324/.508 slash line across 617 plate appearances between the Mets and Indians. He became a fan favorite after a trade to Cleveland in August, smacking the walk-off hit that extended Cleveland’s record winning streak to 22 games and crushing two clutch home runs in the ALDS. Like Santana, however, he’d require significant money to bring back. The Indians have a large crowd of left-handed outfield options already, including Brantley, Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis, Bradley Zimmer and Tyler Naquin. The club will probably end up choosing among those options rather than try to retain Bruce. The 30 year-old slugger is ineligible to receive a qualifying offer because he was traded mid-season.
Brantley, a former MVP candidate, has missed most of the past two seasons with ankle and shoulder injuries. For the third straight year, he’ll enter spring training coming off a significant surgery. While Brantley has been healthy, he’s been above average with the bat, hitting .292/.349/.427 with a typically low 13.4% strikeout rate. But although it seemed almost certain back in July that Cleveland would pick up his $11MM option for 2018, that decision may be one of the most difficult the Indians face this offseason. (The majority of MLBTR readers said they expect the team to decline the option in a recent poll.) Brantley’s health is a risk for sure, and the Indians will have to factor that in when trying to fit the payroll puzzle pieces together.
If the Indians do pick up Brantley’s option (with intentions of utilizing him in the outfield), Chisenhall could potentially become a trade candidate. Although his 129 wRC+ when healthy ranked fourth among Indians hitters, Lonnie Baseball’s $5.8MM projected arbitration salary might be more than the Indians care to pay for an injury-prone platoon player. The club could instead opt to have Naquin fill his role at the league minimum salary in order to open up payroll space to use in other ways. Then again, the club seems to have passed over Naquin in favor of other options this year, so he might not be someone they’re willing to rely on. Chisenhall will more likely than not be on the opening day roster for 2018, but I expect they’ll at least explore the trade market for him.
Austin Jackson is another player the Indians will have to make a decision on. With health questions surrounding Brandon Guyer, Cleveland would probably like to have another right-handed outfielder on the roster. The 30 year-old has a great track record outside of a poor 2016 season, and is coming off a year in which he had great (albeit BABIP-driven) success at the plate. Of all their free agents, Jackson is probably the most likely candidate to be brought back, but even he might cost more than the Indians are willing to pay with the speedy switch-hitter Greg Allen waiting in the wings.
Kipnis’ role with the club will be a big factor in the Tribe’s offseason plans. He’s coming off a poor offensive season wherein he had multiple stints on the DL, and the two positions he played for the club in 2017 seem tabbed for All-Star Jose Ramirez (second base) and Zimmer (center field). Ramirez could shift back over to third to make room for Kipnis at second, but the club might want to get long looks at Diaz and top prospect Francisco Mejia, the latter of whom is being tested at third in the Arizona Fall League. And Giovanny Urshela remains on hand as well; he struggled badly at the plate but carried the bulk of the load at third down the stretch. Depending on what happens with Brantley and Chisenhall this offseason, it seems like Kipnis could slide to a corner outfield spot — if he’s not traded, which also appears possible.
So, if the Indians decide to play Encarnacion at first base with Brantley as the main DH, the outfield pieces would fall into place somewhat conveniently, with Zimmer in center and Chisenhall, Kipnis, Allen, Guyer and Abraham Almonte as the other main outfield options. The club could then explore inking Jackson to a new deal or exploring a free agent crop that includes Melky Cabrera, Cameron Maybin and Carlos Gomez as reasonably-priced options.
If the club declines Brantley’s option and opts not to sign a free agent first baseman, they’ll probably at least inquire on J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton, whose right-handed power would be a welcome addition to a lefty-heavy outfield. However, those outfielders are likely to be well out of their price range; each would command even more money than a new contract for Santana. Given the commitment to Encarnacion, it’s not altogether clear that kind of investment is really plausible. Jose Bautista could be another free agent they consider as a bounceback option, at a much lower price.
Another option would be to fill the potential hole in the lineup via trade. The Indians have two blue chip prospects in Mejia and strikeout wizard Triston McKenzie, and a good number of upside prospects beyond them. If they opt to decline Brantley’s option, the Tribe could target right-handed hitting outfielders Marcell Ozuna of the Marlins or Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates. Matt Adams of the Braves could be available at a lower cost and would fill the first base opening nicely.
On the pitching side, the Indians might have the payroll space to bring back one of Joe Smith or Bryan Shaw, but it’s highly unlikely that both will return. If both depart, the Tribe’s bullpen might be able to succeed on internal options alone. With Cody Allen and Andrew Miller at the back end, they’ll once again be well off in close games. Zach McAllister, Nick Goody, Tyler Olson and Dan Otero will all be back, and the Indians could rely on Shawn Armstrong or Kyle Crockett to fill the remaining opening. I expect the Indians to decline lefty Boone Logan’s option and sign at least one free agent bullpen arm from the middle or lower tier, but there’s a good chance they’ll rely on internal options and waiver claims as well, provided they can’t retain Smith or Shaw. It’s worth noting that the Indians will open 2018 with a surplus of starters if they pick up Josh Tomlin’s $3MM option, so it’s possible that he, Danny Salazar or Mike Clevinger could pitch in a relief role as well.
A brilliant starting rotation has become Cleveland’s signature, and the whole group is coming back once again. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Salazar and Clevinger are all under control through 2019. I anticipate the club will pick up Tomlin’s option for 2018. Cody Anderson will be able to serve as vertical depth when he returns from Tommy John recovery at some point this season, while Ryan Merritt and Shawn Morimando will be available for spot starts as well.
No Indians offseason outlook would be complete without a mention of former Platinum Glove-winning shortstop and MVP candidate Francisco Lindor. The 23-year old posted another phenomenal season, slugging 33 homers and posting good defensive marks across 1,377 innings at shortstop. He posted an 8.3% walk rate and 12.9% strikeout rate exactly identical to his 2016 season while leading the entire American League with 723 plate appearances. After reportedly offering their young phenom an extension close to $100MM this past spring, they’ll no doubt make another attempt to lock him up before the 2018 season begins. After another 6-WAR season, he’ll probably cost even more in terms of guaranteed dollars, but with Lindor quickly establishing himself as one of the Tribe’s all-time great shortstops — and arbitration beckoning in the fall of 2018 — this might be the last reasonable chance they have to keep him in Cleveland beyond his age 27 season.
Although Cleveland typically makes an attempt to extend as many young players as they can, there aren’t many extension candidates in the organization outside of Lindor. Bauer showed major improvements in the second half, and with three arbitration years remaining he’s probably the next best candidate with whom to explore a long-term deal. But the occasionally offbeat righty has had his ups and downs and is at best a questionable target for a new contract. Clevinger could be worth a conversation as well; he’s shown promise in his limited service time.
The Indians already took care of one notable item on the docket when they found a pitching coach to replace Mickey Callaway, who was recently hired as the Mets’ new manager. The loss of Callaway comes as a sting to the Indians, whose pitching staff has been the best in baseball by WAR since he became the pitching coach in 2013, in addition to being the only staff during that time to average over a strikeout per inning across the board. He’ll be replaced by Carl Willis, who previously held the position in Cleveland and (more recently) with the Red Sox.
The Indians have a lot of flexible pieces to try and connect in a creative roster mosaic this offseason. The amount of possible combinations will be both an advantage an a headache, but whatever path they take, they’re likely to enter 2018 as favorites to return to the postseason once again.
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