No one really expected to have to do this so early in October, but here we are. The Indians are eliminated, the playoffs have begun, and we are left to consider what was, what is, and what will be.
Thus, some of the guys from Let’s Go Tribe put their minds together to hash out the answers to some of those questions.
What will you most remember about the 2019 season?
Chris Davies: I’m not always a positive person, but I try, and the two things I’ll remember most from this season are Carlos Santana’s glorious homecoming and Carlos Carrasco’s return from leukemia.
To me, there were no higher moments in the year than Santana’s extra-inning, game-winning grand slam, followed the next day by a walk-off home run, and Cookie taking the mound both in Tampa, when both teams and all the visiting fans gave him a standing ovation, and at home.
The latter, which still chokes me up, will probably remain in my memory as one of the greatest baseball moments I’ve ever watched.
Blake Ruane: Chris went first so he take what are clearly the best moments. The bastard.
CD: Move those fingers faster if you don’t want to miss out, Ruane.
BR: It’s tough to argue with the double dose of Carlos. Santana is the rare Cleveland Indian who actually seems to think of Cleveland as home, and I could not be happier that his return to the Land was followed by a career year.
And the fact that Carrasco was diagnosed with leukemia in June and was pitching again in September is a minor miracle. But the Tribe’s run to first place in the AL Central, however brief it may have been, was far and away the most exhilarating part of the season. They held first place for less than a day and never re-cl;aimed it, but I’ll always remember this team erasing what once felt like an insurmountable 11-game division lead.
Matt Schlichting: One of my favorite moments from the season is Lindor chewing out Leonys Martin after he dogged a fly ball early in the season. And then, days later... Martin wasn’t on the roster anymore, and it paved the way for Oscar Mercado to get his shot and prove that, yes, he is a Major League Baseball player.
That, and watching Brad Hand set himself on fire in that game against the Braves. Good lord.
CD: Oh yeah, the moment Frankie became the real manager of the Indians was also awesome.
BR: Speaking of Brad Hand, he’s still on the team, right?
Alex Hooper: I can say for certain that Trevor Bauer is no longer on the team, and most of what I remember about the season is Bauer related. We almost all picked Trev to win the Cy Young, and he really struggled (by his standards) all season.
I’ll never forget everything coming to a head with Bauer chucking the ball over the fence at Kauffman Stadium. Mike Freeman’s face. Tito’s reaction. And to think that Trevor knew ahead of time that he was going to Cincy. Then, when the trade actually happened, I turned on the Reds-Pirates game to see if they talk about it, Puig is still on the field, then he tries to fight the entire Pittsburgh organization.
CD: The GIF of Tito asking Bauer “What the fuck is wrong with you” is a gift that will never stop giving.
BR: Just that picture of Trevor with his hand on Tito and his, “It’s okay, I know” look, and Tito with his, “No, it’s fucking not” look is priceless.
Matt Lyons: Agree with the Trevor ball heaving moment and Tito’s reaction to it. You can tie that in with the feeling of knowing the Indians acquired Yasiel Puig, too. That 48 hours was just nuts and I’ll never forget it.
The finger guns are way up there, too. Just because they came out of nowhere and I loved them so much. We still don’t really know how or why it started, but they all seemed to get so into it between Kip’s revolvers and Frankie’s bazooka. So much fun that would have been great to see in the playoffs.
Was the season actually an enjoyable experience?
MS: I would say that, yes, the season was enjoyable. IF, that is, you allowed yourself to understand that the team wasn’t really a true World Series contender sometime before the All-Star Break.
Seeing if we could steal the division or sneak in via the wild-card game was a whole lot of fun once I left my previous expectations behind. Plus, watching so many young pitchers handle themselves like veterans was an absolute joy.
BR: I would echo that sentiment that it was a lot more fun once you re-calibrated your expectations — or simply abandoned any expectations altogether. It was a disappointing season, to be sure, but the middle third of the season when the Indians were chasing down the Twins was a lot of fun. It was a refreshing change of pace to be part of an actual division race, albeit an unsuccessful one for the Indians, as opposed to sleepwalking through the regular season.
To overarching trajectory of the season left much to be desired, but there were so many exciting subplots: Shane Bieber’s ascent, Carlos Santana’s homecoming, Oscar Mercado’s debut, Francisco Lindor’s turtlenecks; that made for a compelling narrative.
AH: There was so much good, and so much bad. At some point, it felt like Murphy’s Law, but then there would be redeeming events.
I can say that there were multiple times on the beat last year where we wished something would happen, and that just sitting around waiting for the post-season was a slog. I would estimate that the players felt the same way.
Watching important baseball down to the wire was balanced out by my personal feeling that it would only end poorly. I enjoyed the season insofar as that I love baseball, but baseball is frustrating as hell, and it’s a game of failure. Both of those things came to fruition in a big way.
CD: As someone who never really gave up the idea this was a team built for the postseason, at least until the Rays swept the Indians at the start of September, I did not find this season enjoyable.
Although I felt jaded by ownership, frustrated by front office moves (or lack thereof), confounded by Tito’s decisions, and disappointed with injuries, I still believed in the talent on the team. The run of play that led to that briefest of division leads seemed to validate me, but then made the late summer swoon that followed all the more disappointing.
If this is just a retooling year and they’ll be back next year in the thick of things, my opinion might change. But right now, I see an ascendant Twins team (who probably hit their 95th percentile projection, but nonetheless is a legitimately good team) and a White Sox club that is ready for the next step, and I truly wonder what the future holds for Cleveland. I’d love to be proven too pessimistic about this and not see the team waste the last of Frankie Lindor’s time as an Indian, but I can’t at the moment, because this season was just not enjoyable for me and it’s coloring my perception of the future.
ML: In a weird way, yes, I think this season was enjoyable. I don’t remember ever being this frustrated with Tito’s decision making as in past years, but the team itself was so fun to watch at times, and they seemed to click so many times through the season. That’s more than can be said about last year’s team, playoffs or not. More than anything it helped having a division rival worth paying attention to and chasing down.
I also considered them a World Series contender from the start, and I still think they would have been without the mountain of injuries, and the Twins having a historical offense to back up better-than-expected pitching. The Indians with a near-healthy rotation and one of the best infields in baseball is easily a playoff team, and if you get into the playoffs and from there it’s a matter of those great pitchers being on their best for a month. Even with those expectations, I still had fun, though of course I would have rather been previewing their ALDS series right now than looking back on the season.
What are you most optimistic about for 2020?
BR: The starting rotation. One hundred percent. Next year, a presumably healthy and hopefully refreshed Corey Kluber will lead a rotation that now has two other legitimate AL Cy Young candidates in Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber. Carlos Carrasco will have had an offseason to continue to work back toward the elite pitcher he was before his leukemia diagnosis. Not to mention Aaron Civale, Zach Plesac, and Adam Plutko, who all helped carry the rotation this season at one point or another once the Tribe lost Kluber, Carrasco and Bauer. This organization’s ability to develop starting pitchers is second to none, and this season’s remarkably effective patchwork rotation is clear evidence of that.
CD: I’m most looking forward to seeing what developmental studs pop up on the big league roster next year. Assuming, of course, the team faces nothing like the ridiculous injuries of 2019 that necessitated such debuts — that would not excite me at all.
But, as Blake mentioned, we were blessed with huge debuts from Civale and Pleasac, and perhaps more important was Oscar Mercado shoring up the outfield. I wrote about how I believe in his growth profile recently, and I truly think Mercado taking a step forward — not being Naquin 2.0 (I love Tyler, but let’s be real here) — will be really exciting to watch. Beyond that, perhaps a guy like Ka’ai Tom could overtake Jake Bauers in the outfield? Ernie Clement displaces Yu Chang? Or maybe Sam Hentges makes the jump and provides a useful arm? I think the Indians, particularly after a season of imposed cost cutting, will continue to improve their player development and see returns at the big league level, and it really excites me to see what could come next.
MS: It’s tough to say what I’m excited for this far out. Spring training tends to be the time that I match on to storylines and such. That being said, I’m really interested to see where the Indians minor league system ranks around the start of the year next year, and how the national media adjusts that ranking as guys rise through the ranks. Nolan Jones is a stud, yes, but Bo Naylor, Tyler Freeman, George Valera, Daniel Espino, and even less heralded guys like Steven Kwan, Oscar Gonzalez, and Yainer Diaz are going to be a lot of fun to watch as they all start marching through the affiliates.
AH: I’m pretty optimistic about a return to normalcy. In the same way that Chris said the Twins hit their 95th percentile, the Indians hit some weird amount of low points and still won a ton of games. I’ve used the ill-preparation as a knock against ownership, but I think it obviously reflects very well on what is there already.
Kluber just being healthy will raise the bar, even if he’s not back in form. I think José showed that he had gotten things mostly figured out. There’s no way all of the freak injuries and regressions can happen again, right? Right?
ML: I just want to see Shane Bieber keep doing Shane Bieber things, and I’ll also be interested in what James Karinchak does with a full season of relief work. Just a lot of pitching to look forward to.
What will the Indians’ offseason look like, and will they sign a free agent to a multi-year deal
AH: I’m kind of weary of predicting an off-season direction before it happens. While I don’t think anyone expected mass additions last off-season, I just know not many expected...that, either.
My educated guess would be that it’s largely more of the same. Shedding Bauer’s arbitration money could leave money for a small one- or two-year deal, but it was likely collateral on paying Lindor in the near future. I expect more of the same. I could see Kipnis back on what could be his only major-league offer, but I’m not sure what that adds.
Does extending Mike Clevinger count as a multi-year deal? If so, I could see that. Otherwise, I’m gonna go with what I know and say no.
While I’m spending money that’s not mine, I want to tack on a pipe dream: I would love it if any excess revenue, if there is such a thing, be used to restructure Ramirez‘s deal as some sort of good faith move. It makes no fiscal sense, especially for a team that operates as if it is hemorrhaging money, but I think setting the precedent would be a positive thing. Again, a pipe dream.
BR: I don’t think we’ll see the front office slashing payroll as dramatically as they did last off-season — or at least I hope not — but I don’t see ownership writing any big checks either. They’ll maybe make a couple low-risk one-year deals with veterans who won’t be on the active roster come June. That’s about it. They have a lot of young talent under team control. Whether that collection of talent is good enough to win a World Series is up for debate. But I believe the front office is content to take their chances with the core they have in place now, leaving the door open to augment that group at the trade deadline, if need be.
I’d like to think the front office would be spurred to action by the emergence of a new contender in the division, but I just don’t see it happening.
CD: I agree with Hoop and may write about it this offseason, but I really expect Kipnis back on something like a 1-year, $2-3 million deal that bridges the gap between him and Jones or Freeman. Beyond that, I’m unsure. There’s clearly room for someone, but who is worth a contract? I haven’t looked much at free agents yet, and the only one I know offhand is Mookie Betts and that ain’t happening.
One crazy idea is based on the mini blowup currently going on in Chicago: What if the Indians traded for Kris Bryant? The Cubs don’t really have a shot at resigning him after the contract manipulation nonsense, and they haven’t developed a starting pitcher in...Epstein’s tenure? On paper the Indians could match up and could certainly use a left fielder, which is where Bryant ends up as a FA anyway. That’s more of a wish than an expectation, but whatever.
BR: Free agent market for those interested.
In a perfect world, I’d re-sign Yasiel Puig and then sign Josh Donaldson and shift Jose to 2B.
CD: Ugh, we’ll end up with Kole Calhoun.
MS: I expect the Indians to do very little this offseason. Which is sad, because as the Twins and others showed it may be that FREE AGENTS are actually the market inefficiency right now. I think the biggest, baddest, craziest move they go for is offering Martin Prado a very Juan Uribe deal.
I also think Sandy Alomar gets tapped to manage somewhere, finally.
ML: I just don’t see the Indians straying away from their plan and signing a player to a huge deal into their 30’s or something crazy. Yasiel Puig’s contract will probably not be as expensive as a lot of people think, so if they think a splash it could easily be there. I would love to see them kick around the tires of Mike Moustakas and move José to third, but most likely it’s going to be another wave of veteran guys they hope can catch fire like they’ve been so good at identifying in previous seasons. I’ll mostly be watching for Corey Kluber — if the Indians trade him and if they’re willing to go lower than the sky high price they are (and should) be asking for him to fill another hole.
What is the future of Terry Francona in Cleveland, and will the front-office dictate more game plan to him in the future?
BR: Living in Chicago, I’ve had a few conversations recently with Cubs fans about the parting of ways with Joe Maddon. When the conversation has turned to the future of Terry Francona, I was surprised when I realized that I think he’ll be the Indians’ manager until he decides to retire. Because as much as I disagree with Tito at times, I don’t get the impression he has a fraught relationship with the front office. On the contrary, everyone seems to be on the same page, from my albeit limited vantage point. If there was a disconnect, I think we’d feel it. And with the news that Francona won’t be making changes to his coaching staff aside from a new bullpen coach, it seems safe to assume he doesn’t feel it either. So I see Francona managing in Cleveland for the foreseeable future, and I’d caution anyone against expecting any sort of philosophical change in how he fulfills that role. He is who he is at this point. The front office knows that and they seem content with him at the helm.
AH: Yeah, I think Blake hits the nail on the head.
I think this is a stale marriage. It is hard to look at guys like Derek Falvey and think that this front office operates on anything but information. On the other hand, you’re not just going to change a Hall of Fame manager overnight, and I don’t think Tito is dying to just remove his personality from his approach.
Can you imagine how much implementing a hard-lined, analytical approach would neutralize Francona’s style? Especially if he is unfamiliar and uncomfortable with putting this data in front of players. If his explanations are muddied, then how would he be able to connect and have the personal relationships that allow him to connect with his guys?
Most of what Tito brings can not be shown on paper. Meanwhile, all numbers are going to be on paper. It’s pretty clear that the game is going away from guys like Francona towards guys like Rocco Baldelli, AJ Hinch, etc.; but I still don’t think you can say the Indians are “stuck” with Tito.
He’s still very effective. He is also holding the team back by many measures. It’s just a weird fit, but it is what it is until Tito decides to hang it up. Maybe he becomes more receptive, but I don’t think forcing numbers on him will help anyone in the end.
All of this is not to say that Tito can’t be more like the analytical new-school guys, or they couldn’t be more like him. It’s just that, if a major change in approach were coming, I just feel like we would have seen it when the team was struggling this year. What we saw was clearly not that.
ML: I would hope the marriage has gotten a little stale, but I still don’t know. The Indians didn’t seem to hesitate to extend him, so clearly they value his locker room abilities, which exist as long as your name isn’t Yandy Díaz. And for my money I think he’ll manage out his current contract and retire. He might not stay away forever, but it’s the best optics for both sides.
CD: My feelings about Francona’s future directly relate to what Lyons said previously, that there has never been a season before this one where I asked myself “WTF is Tito doing?” so often. I was really hopeful that some of the obvious Franconaphiles in the dugout would be replaced this offseason with new blood, someone with different ideas about achieving good results. On Twitter the other day I opined for Ruben Niebla — a man who has clearly played a big role in the development of Cleveland’s greatest assets, its pitchers — to get a dugout role next year, to see how that could continue to improve player development for the Tribe. But it appears that won’t happen.
So, my hopes for the future, for Francona’s future, are somewhat dimmed. Yes, he does a good job with the stuff numbers don’t show, but is that what the team needs? I see guys like Frankie stepping up to be a clubhouse leader, letting guys like Leonys Martin know their BS won’t be tolerated, and I feel good, at least until the next first inning bunt. But Tito will say that was the player’s discretion anyway.
MS: Short of a controversy I think Tito manages through the new contract. I *want* the front office to make it clear that, under no circumstances, should Tito ever bunt unless there are runners on first and second with no outs in the ninth or later and a poor hitter at the plate. He really is a great manager, and as fans we’ll never quite understand how much of that job involves personality management rather than “hey steal this base maybe”. I’m guessing it’s more than I’ve ever really considered given the CLEFO’s willingness to deal with a season in which we felt the need to launch the Academy of Bunting Sciences.
I think it’s tough to be too hard on Tito given how well his disciples tend to do out in the league, too. I don’t know. I have started to wonder if wanting a manager with the same ability to run a clubhouse but greater commitment to analytics/wise decision making is just asking for something that doesn’t exist.
CD: I’m not as negative as my comments may seem, just give me a few weeks to let this season digest.
BR: My one big hope is that Paul Dolan decides to forgo any offseason interviews.
MS: We should consider a battle royale to determine which of our 12 possible outfielders gets to stay on the roster.
BR: Greg Allen vs Franmil Reyes would be a heck of a battle. Speed vs size.
Oh I forgot Franmil is not an outfielder. My bad.
ML: Francisco Lindor lifetime contract.