The Cleveland Indians find themselves in an enviable position. All of their drafted and traded-for talent is flourishing at the same time, most of it is good or even great, and the only real injury problems to plague the team the last year or so have been of the freak variety. As painful as those can be in the moment, it doesn’t create a creeping dread in the back of your mind. Carlos Carrasco will heal fully. Danny Salazar is a tiny man who throws hard. He won’t ever see 200 innings, but he will still be a key contributor and get Cy Young talk around him when writers are bored in mid-July. They’re the class of the American League. The window is wide open. But for how long?
That’s the trouble with baseball. As quickly as you can get good, so too can you fade. The Kansas City Royals won a World Series like 15 months ago yet are slowly dismantling the team that got them there. The Reds winked at contention a few years back and are now literally the worst team. Even the Indians showed signs of juggernautitude in the mid-2000s, and it all fell apart in just a few months. Forecasting the future is so damn hard. The Indians make it little easier.
The biggest knock on the Tribe is also what makes them so fun to watch three or four days out of five. Their pitching staff is the backbone of the squad, and pitchers’ main attribute is getting hurt, sooner or later. All of pitching, whether throwing sliders, curves or just fastballs, is against the demands of biomechanics. The Indians have created a great team, but it’s one that dances on the edge. Not to say it will collapse, and at least Carrasco’s wrist just sort of happened, but it tosses question marks into the future. Compare that to the Cubs, whose might is predicated on huge bats and incredible positional defense. They can weather losing one of their bigger names. The Indians cannot.
That all said, it’s not like they have a bunch of guys who have been worked super hard. Salazar and Carrasco have gotten whole years off in the last few seasons from UCL surgery and Kluber broke out late. He wasn’t being worked for hundreds of innings as a youth. So there’s some hope of good tread still on those tires. Then there’s Trevor Bauer, who might pitch till he’s 45 with the way he trains. Of any of them, Kluber is the one I’m most concerned for in 2017 simply because he got used so hard right into November. That might have a hangover. As long a the other guys do some lifting, though, that won’t be a problem.
But this isn’t just about next year. How long can we expect the Indians to be at least division rulers, if not title contenders? Both outside and inside forces aid that. The Central is committing hard to a rebuild. The Tigers are on a downswing whether they like it or not, the White Sox are going to be very bad for a while, the Twins might figure it out sooner than later (meaning 80 wins in 2016) and the Royals are hitting the end of their run. So the Indians, if they are fortunate, should have the run of the division up till 2020-ish. You figure the Sox rebuild will take at least two years, the Tigers will realize reality eventually, and the Royals are going to lose a bunch of Scott Boras clients in the next year or so. They’re slowly losing their magic. Only the Twins are theoretically pointed in the right direction. Big changes in their management means there could be major changes into what the Twins look like as a team. That is the only real trouble maker that the Indians could face among their neighbors.
On the interior, as said before the Indians are peaking together, all at the right time. Their fortunate extension offering is well-known, and the only important player that isn’t signed past 2017 is Carlos Santana. They probably won’t be able to afford him after that. However, they could luck out like the Blue Jays just did with Jose Bautista, resigning their slugger because other teams don’t want one-dimensional players. That’s what good luck would look like.
Then there are the unknowns within the roster. Will Yan Gomes ever bounce back and be what he once was? That’s looking grimmer by the day. How much will Francisco Lindor improve? We assume very much, but even if he just holds where he is for several years he’s the best player on the team. Was Jose Ramirez a ruse? So much went right for him and Lindor, and the whole team really, you wonder what adversity will look like for them. What about Brantley? Where will Jason Kipnis land?
Those last two combine for an interesting consideration. For all his being a fine second baseman, finding a defensive upgrade for Kipnis is possible. For a team with all that pitching, maybe that’s the right choice. There could be a chance, if the worst happens with Brantley, that Kipnis finds himself in the outfield with a better glove at second. This is not to say anything is known about Brantley, because it isn’t. But the unknown is just as terrible, and anyway, he was never a great outfielder. He might have to split time with Santana and Encarnacion in the 1B/DH role. And if he’s truly bad, the Indians might cut ties after 2017. They have a club option with a $1 million buyout they may have to exercise. This opens up left for Kipnis, a position he came up at and could probably handle in a pinch. I always assumed that move to the outfield was going to happen eventually, but how they'll plug second is a big question. As he is right now, Kipnis is a major plus at second with his combination of offense and solid defense His bat is much less special in left field. The Tribe dealt with a lack of left field production this year, but that needs fixing one way or the other. That's the real problem. There is no answer right now.
It’s fair to say that the Tribe’s window is open through 2020 though. Through that year they have several very good arms, even if by then Kluber will have declined and most of the bullpen will disappear. That’s why Bauer is so important. He needs to fulfill the third overall pick pedigree and be more than a fourth starter. He seems like the kind of guy who will just click one day. Along with him, you have to look to the farm system. The pitching that may come from there intrigues, with Brady Aiken and Rob Kaminsky climbing the ranks, among others. Aiken has all the makings of a top-of-the-rotation starter, but he’s so young there’s not much concrete to really hope for. Bradley Zimmer will appear eventually, and if he can stick then Tyler Naquin could move to left and be better. Like with Kipnis though, the bat is a problem. The Indians have been hit or miss with quick development for years. Most of their current stars took many major league seasons to realize their potential. That is one thing that needs to change. If it does that window adds years to itself.
At the end of the day, it does come back to luck and hope in the part of the team you never see. From development to free agents to trades, that needs to be excellent for the Indians to maintain their peak. I touched on a lot of aspects here, many of which will be expanded on in the coming weeks. But the Indians have no reason to be anything but great for several years. The front office has created something here that could be very good for a while, as long as they keep working their trade magic. Perhaps another Kluber could be snatched away, or a pre-injury Gomes. After years of middling moves and half measures, there’s reason to hope in the Indians brass to make the best, right moves. As smart as they have been for the better part of 25 years as they’ve moved through different regimes, only recently has it really looked like anything more than pretty good. That’s that good luck again. Spending on Encarnacion was a notice to all fans and pundits that this is more than just a fluke, but it’s the guys already on the field, already in the system, that will affirm that.