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Indians’ long-term plans undergoing ultimate stress test

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Not needing to go all-in on one year is the cornerstone of what the Indians are trying to do to win a championship. But what do you when things go south in the first year?

Cleveland Indians v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The Indians were never going to sign Bryce Harper.

They probably were never going to sign Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel either, but do they start to take a look now? The answer still remains the same — no.

Since the salary dumping began in the offseason to avoid a potential $220 million payroll, it became clear that the Indians were not interested in making another team like 2017 — a borderline super team that won 102 games and still couldn’t make it out of the ALDS. Instead, they intended to spread out their chances, stay relevant for several years on the back of their rotation and two superstar offensive players, and hopefully plug holes when they pop up.

They traded away a fan-favorite catcher in Yan Gomes, who was set to make $7 million in 2019. But that opened the door for Roberto Pérez to be the best defensive catcher in baseball, not to mention the emergence of Jefry Rodriguez and Daniel Johnson in Double-A. They also traded away Edwin Encarnacion’s remaining money for a package including Carlos Santana, who has only been the Tribe’s best hitter through a month and change. They trimmed salary, absolutely, but they also had a plan in mind that whole time.

To say the least, the first year of that strategy hasn’t gone as planned. The Twins have yet to roll over and die like they’re supposed to, and 2/5 of the rotation is now injured. That superstar duo of José Ramírez and Francisco Lindor the offense would rely on? Neither of them have a wRC+ over 100, and one almost looks broken beyond repair. Lindor has a couple home runs since returning from the disabled list, but Ramírez is slashing just .183/.280/.275 and hardly doing his part to hold up a paper-thin outfield.

José’s determination to beat the shift has worked to his detriment and the same swagger we’ve seen carry him through his first handful of major-league seasons isn’t there. His contact rate outside of the zone has dropped a full 10% from last season, from 77.7% to 66.7%, and he’s chasing the ball 24.4% of the time, up from 21.5% last season. For a player who was molded to be the next Michael Brantley in terms of good swings that never miss, he looks all sorts of bad at the plate right.

The offense as a whole sits tied for the second-worst in baseball with a combined 70 wRC+. Carlos Santana has been a pleasant surprise with his .323/.432/.495 slash, and he’s continued his transformation into an on-base machine as he continues to draw a ton of walks and rack up base hits. But the rest of the offense? Leonys Martin has cooled off since his hot start, Carlos González is hardly a savior in the outfield, and even Jake Bauers’ hard hits aren’t dropping for anything meaningful yet. Even if the goal was to field an average offense and hope for the best, this can’t be what the front office wanted.

And yet ... they are 16-13 after one of their best starts ever under Terry Francona, and 2.5 games back of the Twins. Despite a putrid offense from nearly top to bottom, they own a +2 run differential. That comes courtesy of a league-leading 3.75 ERA from their starting rotation and third-best 3.30 bullpen ERA.

In terms of a baseball season, the Indians’ current deficit to the Twins means absolutely nothing. They could fall 12.5 games back before Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger return, go on a big win streak, and lead again by mid-July. Of course no one wants to have to rely on that — and hopefully it won’t come to that — but the idea that the Indians are completely out of the race now is still premature. Baseball is a long season, the trade deadline exists, the Indians still have good-to-great pieces.

Various Let’s Go Tribe writers have touted the inevitable arrival of Oscar Mercado, and Indians.com’s Mandy Bell thinks it’s a certainty we’ll see him in the majors soon enough. A rookie who has never had a wOBA over .350 in the minors isn’t going to save the Indians season — even if his spring training swing change was legit — but he could be serviceable upgrade over Tyler Naquin, or whatever other left-handed bat needs replaced with a righty.

Beyond Mercado, there’s still hope in the bats of Ramírez and of course Lindor when he’s back to 100%, bootless, and powered by his turtleneck. Lindor, for one, already has a trio of home runs and just recently started seeing the ball well enough to draw walks. He’s only been back 10 games; a healthy Lindor changes the entire complexion of the offense. And Ramírez, for all his chasing woes, is hitting the ball as hard as he ever has in the Statcast era when he makes contact with a 90.3 average exit velocity.

Even Jordan Luplow and Kevin Plawecki have slowly found offensive strides. The former’s has come only recently since his return from Triple-A, but don’t expect his .455 BABIP to last forever. Plawecki has been more than a servicable backup for Roberto Pérez with his .222/.364/.444 slash and 117 wRC+ — which trails only Santana for the team lead.

The Indians are now left with a choice for 2019 that will impact them far beyond this season. Do they go all-in now, burn the farm, and get a few pieces at a last-ditch run with what they have? Burn it down and start over? The boring, and most realistic, option is to stay the course. Maybe they’ll get hot to end 2019 and go on a World Series run, maybe they won’t. Either way, they’re going to have another competitive next season, and the season after that, and probably the season after that. It would be shocking to see them not add something before the July 31 trade deadline, but nothing that jeopardizes the future in favor of a tiny bump in World Series odds this season.

You can probably rule out Dallas Keuchel immediately. Not only the monetary reasons, but even with injuries to Kluber and Clevinger the rotation still has two great pitchers in Carrasco and Bauer, and one pretty good one in Shane Bieber. The depth that the Indians started with can’t be overstated, and if they are going to fix something, it still needs to be the offense.

By the time the deadline even rolls around, Mike Clevinger could already be back, and the Indians would already have their three best starters — Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger — going every week, with Bieber not far behind. Because unless there was some renaissance on the horizon for Kluber, he probably wasn’t the Tribe’s best starter anymore, or even one of their top three. But that’s OK — whatever he was going to turn into would still help the Indians have one of the best rotations in baseball. Unfortunately, now we probably won’t know what’s on the other side until he’s off the injured list and gets his feet under him. However long that will be.

Baseball is a long, weird season and there’s a lot of it left.