The Cleveland Indians are, quite simply, having some of the best baseball they’ve had in literally 20 years. As poisonously bad as 2016 ended, the regular season was the second-highest win total in franchise history; the highest since integration. This after a season with the 10th-most wins ever, and eighth-highest since ‘47. Only the late ‘90s and early ‘50s challenge this stretch. But something lurks underneath, something that infected that late ‘90s squad after running into the Atlanta Braves then flopping the next season against Baltimore. As Mike Hargrove described it in Glory Days in Tribe Town, even on that ‘96 team as they continued to dominate, there was volatility under all the winning. A doldrums threatened the clubhouse, players seeing the long campaign as something in the way en-route to the real goal, the real season. The Indians of today need to avoid this.
One would hope men playing a child’s game for a living could get over it, but expectation in the public eye can be a dreadful thing, putting such pressure on a team, making the interim between the present and the goal seem interminable. Everyone is talking about how they are in stone as the winners of the division, because they’re still really good even after losing a couple key guys, and the division is predominantly hot garbage. But that doesn’t make focusing on the day-to-day any easier.
Luckily for the Indians, there is still hunger on that roster, and that is the key to keeping the season interesting. Besides the youngsters still trying to forge their space in baseball, two key players in 2016 barely got a chance to play in 2017 — Jason Kipnis, and more particularly Michael Brantley, who only got into 11 games in 2016 and 101 over the last two years combined. Both players need to prove they still matter. They have to be just champing at the bit to show that he belongs on this roster, he can be a key contributor. Our recent memories of him are looking simply horrendous in his few October at-bats alongside wondering what the hell the coaching staff was thinking having him on the roster. Kipnis simply had a bit of a lost season, and now has been talked about as being traded, which would have been unbelievable two years ago. These are two key players, cornerstones of the team after a fashion, you have to believe their own desire to succeed, their evident efforts to prove themselves, that should allow them to at least lead by example.
Then there’s the fire that took living form in Francisco Lindor. I truly believe this young man could turn a monastery into the most exciting place in town. He just is energy. As he continues to perform he’s going to be more of a leader, and that vocalness is vital in keeping off the creeping dullness. Guys like Brantley or Kluber who have been around awhile, they’re not really known to be vocal leaders, the kind of guy that ties the clubhouse together in those dog days. That was what made Juan Uribe and Mike Napoli so valuable, even if their bats were less than useful at times. They’ve been gone, but Lindor is a prime candidate to be that kind of lightning rod, that lead dog. He’s proven himself to be one of the best on the team, so by merit he can gain followers. And he’s simply a ball of joy, a daily reminder to the older guys that baseball is, in fact a game. If he loses that, everyone loses. But for now the Indians could use that, feed off it.
I suppose this is all why they signed Terry Francona in the first place, isn’t it? The whole role of manager is kind of hard to hammer down, especially these days as the front office folk have taken precedence in the control of player development and roster construction. But this keeping guys in the zone, keeping them engaged, that’s still vital. They’re still human beings who need to be pushed sometimes. It’s hard to quantify the impact of a people person managing the team, but it seems like that’s the main aspect that makes Joe Maddon and his fun dress-up trips so good. Francona just seems to make people feel comfy, that’s his greatest skill. That, and bullpen management. And cribbage apparently. If the inklings of nepotism and favoritism that may have led to things like Brantley on being the postseason roster be covered up by making sure players perform their best, no just going through the motions and lose games they should win, Tito is worth whatever they give him.
Talent will win out at the end. The design of the baseball season forces it. Barring something unforeseen, the Indians are going to win a lot of games and the division, even losing Santana. I happen to be very bullish on Yonder Alonso, and think he’ll replace Santana’s impact, and the rest of the team is so good. Danny Salazar learned a changeup, Trevor Bauer is trying to learn Kluber’s slurve, and Lindor and Ramirez are a year older. The best players are still so young. It’s a nice blend of yough and veterans, so it’s hard to think they’re worn out. And they do have unfinished business. there should be a bit of anger to the team, but that should’t power the squad. That’ll wear you out by June. They need to approach the game as they always have. But sometimes even the best jobs can be a grind, and when you’re judged based on a month of work that barely resembles the six months prior, that can be a little hard on the psyche. The way they rebound from how their 2016 ended, that will tell the tale of this era of Indians baseball.