One of the recurring themes at Let’s Go Tribe throughout the last couple of seasons is that a certain portion of the fanbase is never really satisfied with the ballclub. At its worst, this strain turns fans into doomsday prophets, stating that things will fall apart at any moment.
This article is not intended to join that chorus. I’m not absolutely certain that Bradley Zimmer is a bust, or that Jose Ramirez is really a 1-WAR scrub that got lucky for the last thousand plate appearances or so. Instead, I want to take a look at three tiers of failure that the Indians might stumble to this season. They will be increasingly bleak and improbable, but still possible.
I wish for none of them to happen, but do hope that readers will turn to these when the team drops four in a row in July and remind themselves that things could be much worse. My only disclaimer is to remember that we live in an ever more volatile sports world — one where relegation favorites win the Premier League, #1 March Madness seeds lose, and Tiger Woods is somehow good at golf again.
Frequent readers will be familiar with the tendency for some of my articles to veer into absurdity by the 4th paragraph. That’s not quite the point of this article. I will not suggest that the Indians lose Michael Brantley because drops acid, climbs a tree, and decides to stay there forever to be closer to Sol Invictus. They will be grounded in reality.
We begin with an outcome that is probably still top-of-mind for many fans.
A lesser team bounces the Indians from the playoffs in the first round
This is the likeliest awful outcome. Last year, the Yankees decided to become a solid team a year too early. They met the Indians in the ALDS and battled for five games, winning primarily because Didi Gregorious played much of Game 5 in a martial trance.
We can also point to poor series performances by Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, and Corey Kluber, but they are only that — a single bad series. Getting eliminated in the ALDS is a little bit like catching the flu. You can take every precaution in the world, but sometimes you’re stuck on a plane next to a man with waterfalls for nostrils, and there is nothing you can do about it.
I think, collectively, this outcome would cause us to lose our minds. It feels unfair, and cheapens an otherwise excellent season for many clubs. Andrew Miller and Cody Allen would almost certainly decline QOs and sign elsewhere in the offseason, leaving the Indians with only draft picks in return for their talents. That would sting a bit, too. We would at least feel like the Indians had a chance, unlike the following.
Every other team in the American League goes bananas
Remember how the Yankees were unexpectedly great last year? They went ahead and added the NL MVP and possible real life mythical Titan Giancarlo Stanton, so we can assume they’ll be playoff-bound.
Before we even leave the AL East, let’s consider the Red Sox. Andrew Benintendi may very well settle into his second full season at the Major League level by reversing the sophomore slump and fulfilling his prophecy. Meanwhile, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts all regressed last season. We’ll assume that they went below the mean rather than to it, and their numbers look more like 2016 than 2017. Toss in a resurgent David Price and an Eduardo Rodriguez whose knee stops exploding, and they suddenly look like a 100+ win team. Between them and the Yankees, that’s one Wild Card slot gone.
Over in the AL West, it is safe to assume that the Astros will once again claim the division. They remained stupidly good over the off-season, and the only thing I see derailing their chances is multiple long-term injuries. More on that thought later. The rest of the division is relatively weak, but the Angels are a dark horse candidate to have an excellent season. Last year, due to injuries and roster shuffling, only four batters accumulated enough at-bats to qualify for the hitting crown.
Their recipe for success looks something like this: Shohei Otani is the real deal on both sides of the ball. Justin Upton posts about 5 WAR again, Albert Pujols puts up numbers that justify starting him everyday, and everything finally clicks for Quadruple-A phenom Kaleb Cowart. Meanwhile Mike Trout and Andrelton Simmons assume business as usual, Garrett Richards makes at least 30 starts, and literally one other starter turns out to know how to pitch. Add good years from Kinsler and Cozart and a few lucky breaks, and now that’s a team that could win 90+. It’s a lot to bank on, but we’ve seen weirder things happen. Remember when the Rays went from 96 losses to 97 wins the next season?
Finally, we arrive in the AL Central. Let’s assume the Indians still manage to win at least 90 games. You know, a good-but-not-spectacular season. That team would most likely need to win the AL Central in this scenario. The only way that doesn’t happen is if the Twins take another step forward.
Last season, The Twins won 85 games and snuck in as a Wild Card, as I predicted. Byron Buxton finally began to resemble the player everyone told us he would become for the last four years. This season, consider that Eddie Rosario, Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco, Maximilian Kepler-Różycki, Adalberto Mejia, and Jose Berrios are all between 26 and 24. Each of them is only just entering their prime and can improve this season. Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier are more or less guaranteed to combine for 7-8 WAR. Add some help from starting pitching prospects Fernando Romero and Stephen Gonslaves, plus relief pitching dynamo Chris Gimenez. If that Twins team approaches the top of its plus or minus and the Indians approach the bottom of theirs — along with everything else listed above — and the Indians could miss the playoffs entirely. Or, they sneak into the second wild card spot and lose the one-game playoff. Good teams have fallen to similar fates before, like the 1999 Reds, the 2005 Indians, the 2012 Rays and the 2013 Rangers. Granted, the Reds and Indians played in the old Wild Card system, but the number in the win column for those Rangers and Rays teams both started with a 9. Honorable mention to the 2015 Pirates, who neatly fit the Wild Card exit scenario.
It would take a lot of things happening in precise ways to happen, but it’s something that teams have dealt with in the past. It’s not an absurd scenario to consider, and this assumes that the Indians stay healthy. That’s never a guarantee.
Everyone gets hurt and everything else happens
This is our somewhat-plausible nightmare scenario.
Let’s say at least some of the scenarios above play out. No ground balls get through the left side of the Angels’ infield, the Red Sox bounce back with reckless abandon, and the Twins are just a little bit better than they were last season.
Take that, and saddle the Indians with some unfortunate accidents. I write the following sentence after going outside, spinning three times, and spitting, but what if Corey Kluber tears his UCL and requires Tommy John Surgery sometime in April or May? He’d miss the rest of the season, and the rotation would then require either the re-addition of Salazar or the inclusion of Ryan Merritt. In my opinion the right move would be to just move to a four-man rotation, leaning on Bauer’s desire to throw 300 pitches every other day and a bullpen already accustomed to non-traditional usage. Still, unless Merritt and increased bullpen usage can make up for 7 WAR, the Indians are taking a hit by losing the best pitcher in the American League.
I think the Indians could weather that storm, but it certainly doesn’t qualify as a slew of injuries. Losing someone like Francisco Lindor or Jose Ramirez for one or two months would cost the team one or two wins, most likely. Since we’re walking in a nightmare, we’ll let both happen. Meanwhile, Jason Kipnis has another mild injury-riddled season, keeping him from reaching his all-star ceiling. Also Bradley Zimmer’s only value comes with his glove, Yonder Alonso and Edwin Encarnacion regress, and, fuck it, Michael Brantley drops acid and climbs a tree, never to return. Praise be to the new solar empire of Brantlantium, may it never set.
This is a situation in which the Indians are suddenly lucky to reach 90 wins. They may start floating around .500. The absolute worst case is that the Indians fail to make the playoffs, but are in the hunt to the very end. The only way a season this disastrous can have some kind of silver lining is if it all happens very early, and by mid-July it is clear that the Indians would need a miracle to pull through. The CLEFO would be wise to sell Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, and potentially a few others like Kipnis and Chisenhall to get a boatload of prospects, rather than let them walk away in Free Agency with only a compensatory pick to show for it.
Because everything is awful in this scenario, I’ll allow for another small, nice thing — the Indians manage to extend Lindor after the worst season ever ends.
No, I don’t want any of this to happen
It feels a little cathartic, though, doesn’t it? Surely we’ve all imagined a series of disasters impacting the Indians roster. We know they’re absurdly unlikely. That doesn’t keep our brain from shouting them out every time somebody, say, cuts their finger in the dugout. WHAT IF JOSE HAD LOST A FINGER?
Now that we have these thoughts aired and out of the way, I invite everyone to kick back and enjoy the first game of the 2018 regular season. Even the most reasonable of these scenarios is incredibly unlikely. I expect, with no hesitation, to see the Indians play October baseball again.
Anyway, if Kluber does blow out his arm, blame Jobu, not me.