The Cleveland Indians do not actually have to win in 2016, despite how much we want them to--and that is a good thing. Unlike teams gearing up for a one-year shot at the playoffs, the Tribe are built to win for several years. Depending on how some key prospects pan out, they could be technically in their window for the better part of a decade.
I would be willing to say that the Indians being inside their window to win over the next three years is pretty close to a guarantee. Before we even get to considering prospect call-ups, free agent signings or trades, as long as the Indians do the bare minimum by tendering arbitration offers to their eligible players and taking up team contracts, they will still have an excellent core through 2018.
Jason Kipnis, Corey Kluber, Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, Carlos Carrasco, Lonnie Chisenhall, Danny Salazar, Cody Allen, Trevor Bauer, Giovanny Urshela, and Francisco Lindor would all still be with the team through the 2018 season. Several of them would be still be under 30, and no one would be over 33 years old by the time the season concludes. This core, currently at an average of 26.4 years old, accounted for 34.3 of the Indians 43.2 fWAR as a team in 2015.
|Player||Current age||2015 fWAR||UFA in|
This not a team of aging veterans on their last legs or young players about to hit it big in free agency. No, the Indians front office has done a fantastic job over the past several years of locking key talent to long-term deals without being burned.
An issue could arise towards the end of this 2018 window, however, even if the Indians are just offering players their arbitration offers. According to Baseball Reference’s salary projections (based on MLB Trade Rumors), the Indians payroll would be somewhere between $82.9 million (if they decline every contract option) and $93.1 million (if they take up every player option). Considering Cleveland rarely hits the $90 million payroll mark, this would leave little-to-no wiggle room for free agent signings.
Luckily, the Indians may not have to turn to many free agents if even a fraction of their current prospects are hits. Come 2019, the biggest holes on the Indians would be first base and outfield--which sounds awfully familiar. The Indians have several potential prospects coming up through the ranks in those positions. Outfielders Bradley Zimmer, Tyler Naquin and Clint Frazier, first baseman Bobby Bradley, and third baseman Yandy Diaz are all expected to hit the Majors sometime before 2019. Now, there is no way you can count on five prospects to all be instant fill-ins. That is a best-case scenario and a longshot at that.
Indians starters making strikeout history
Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco have already reached 200 strikeouts for the season. Danny Salazar could give the Tribe a trip of 200-K arm.
The Indians biggest asset that will carry them through the next three seasons (at LEAST) is their core of young pitchers. Especially with how the pitcher market is trending in the last few years, being able to hold onto three great pitchers for around $20 million combined is extremely valuable. The Steamer projection system also sees the Tribe’s ‘big three’ pitchers of Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, and Danny Salazar trending upwards or remaining mostly even, at least for 2016.
On top of the ‘big three’ of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar, the Indians have several young pitchers that could hit the Majors by at least 2018. Assuming everything goes flawlessly (which it certainly will not), the Indians would have Justus Sheffield, Brady Aiken, Rob Kaminsky, and Mike Clevinger making their debut by 2018, according to MLB Pipeline’s estimates.
This prospect talk is a lot of ifs, but even just looking at the players we already know are established stars, the Indians are set to win through at least 2018. Everything else is just icing. So, as frustrating as it may be to watch the Indians plug and play a veteran or two every season instead of going for a big trade, it is usually the smarter alternative. Mid-market teams rarely have as long as a window as the Indians are currently in the middle of, and there is no reason to artificially cut that window short.