There’s no such thing as a fast start in Cleveland.
Even during their run of three-consecutive American League Central Division championships, the Indians can never seem to get off on the right foot. It dates back to the dawn of the Terry Francona era in Cleveland, but only recently they began to turn it up in the latter half of the season and torch a historically weak division — aided by a bit of luck and forward-thinking approach to baseball.
It’s quickly looking like their luck — and progressiveness — may have run out.
Their actual demise and where they stand today was laid out in great detail by Zach Meisel at The Athletic, so I won’t bother going over that again.
Instead, I want to address something else that continually comes up in circles about the Indians: “Well they were this bad to start in 2016 and look how that turned out.”
First of all, terribly. Did everyone forget how 2016 really ended? Not how it ended in your dreams, not even how it ended two nights before it actually ended. They lost the World Series in the most crushing fashion. The Tribe’s depth was exhausted at the last possible point of the season and they collapsed. That’s not a fairy tale ending by any means, but it felt like it because of the team’s expectations heading into 2016, and even more so with their expectations heading into the playoffs.
The 2016 playoff rotation consisted of Corey Kluber — who was coming off his third-consecutive 200+ innings pitched season, Trevor Bauer coming off a career-high 190-inning season, human home run machine Josh Tomlin, and a whole lot of thoughts and prayERs. Somehow that group swept a Red Sox team that led all of baseball with a 113 wRC+ in the regular season. They followed that up by dominating the 6th-best offense in the 104 wRC+ Blue Jays to reach the World Series for the first time in this millennium.
It was — by all accounts — a miraculous run.. The Indians’ own beat writers claimed they were dead in the water a month before the playoffs began, their strength in the rotation was ravaged by freak comebackers and drone blades, and their offense was young and untested. And yet, they came within Jason Kipnis swinging a microsecond later to winning it all in Game 7 of the World Series.
The Indians started 26-21 through May 28 that year, and were first in the American League Central as the defending World Series champs started to fade in Kansas City. Cleveland didn’t start on fire by an interpretation. They had the worst winning percentage of any division-leading team at that point (.553) and showed no signs of a dominate rotation or lineup. Their starters were 12th in the league in ERA (3.94), and the lineup was 21st in wRC+ (92) and 17th in isolated power (.154). The thump of José Ramírez and Francisco Lindor had yet to be realized.
Then Tyler Naquin hit an inside-the-park home run, the Indians went on a huge winning streak, and the season ended in heartbreak. We all know that story already, and will tell our grandkids about it years down the road, hoping the ending won’t be bittersweet forever.
Fast-forward to 2017, and the May 28 Indians were in a very similar boat. They sat at 25-23, 2.0 games back of a surprising Minnesota Twins team that would lay the foundation for the unstoppable force wreaking havoc on baseball two years later. These Indians were held up by an outstanding bullpen that led the league with a 2.19 ERA. Even while the offense was mediocre (94 wRC+, .170 ISO) and the rotation didn’t live up to its starpower (4.89 ERA), Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, and crew kept them right in the AL Central race. Another lengthy winning streak would put them into the playoffs with an AL-best 102-60 record. A full 17.0 games over the second-place Twins.
Then came the 2018 Indians. At this point, it felt like a forgone conclusion that they would win the AL Central, and there was little incentive for the front office to improve. They did, however, attempt to replace Carlos Santana with Yonder Alonso, and he proved effective through our arbitrary May 28 mark — he posted a .243/.314/.479 slash for a 110 wRC+ and 11 home runs.
Through May 28, 2018, the rest of the offense followed Alonso’s thump and put up the third-best ISO in the league (not accounting for pitchers hitting) at .185. Along with Alonso, Francisco Lindor, Edwin Encarnacion, and José Ramírez were already in double-digit dinger territory. Michael Brantley wasn’t far off at eight. So, for once, it was the offense starting to carry the team and gel into a cohesive unit.
Instead, it was the bullpen that sucked the life out of this team with its collective league-worst 6.06 ERA and revolving door of relievers that you probably already forgot existed — Alexi Ogando, Jeff Beliveau, Evan Marshall, Oliver Drake, Matt Belisle, and Ben Taylor all came and went and came again as Terry Francona tried to find something that worked to stop blowing game after game. Andrew Miller was a broken man, and Cody Allen’s reliever-leading 3.18 ERA came with its usual heart-attack inducing outings. Still, it didn’t matter. The AL Central was a joke, and the Tribe were able to win it by 13.0 games, despite only finishing the season with 91 wins.
Meanwhile, the 97-win and 100-win Yankees had to battle it out for a Wild Card spot, and I’m sure the A’s still aren’t bitter about that.
The Indians sat on their hands after getting absolutely blasted by the Astros in the playoffs. They added as little as they could while also lowering the payroll, and refused to even try out players like Derek Deitrich or Adam Jones or countless others that could have filled their obvious holes in the lineup. Instead, they went with a strategy of trying to just hope for the best over several seasons without going all-in on one. Which I kind of agreed with then, and I can see the merit of it now. The problem is, when you do that and things go wrong — they go very, very wrong.
It’s more than just injuries to Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger hampering the team now. The offense is atrocious with a collective 76 wRC+ (27th in MLB), and power is non-existent (.137 ISO, 29th in MLB). Like with the bullpen issues last season, or the rotation in 2017, the Indians are probably going to sit around and wait for baseball to do its thing and give the Indians some positive regression in the form of a league-average offense. An offense that, hopefully, will be helped by the third-best bullpen in baseball (3.11 ERA), and a rotation featuring a healthy Mike Clevinger.
The problem is, they can’t just wade around in a garbage division anymore until luck finds them for a few weeks. And their problems are not one or two players in the bullpen, or just a starter or two. It’s the entire lineup, and more importantly, how that lineup is being managed.
Only four offensive players have a wRC+ over 100 right now — Francisco Lindor (107), Jordan Luplow (107), Carlos Santana (131), and Oscar Mercado (150). And yet, despite their struggles to score, we still see them repeatedly bunting in a game in which they lost by almost double-digits. Their issues are snow-balling, and there doesn’t seem like any desire to make anybody accountable for it, or anyone willing to step up and stop it.
Terry Francona’s pledge to give the young guys a shot is a step in the right direction — especially because the young guys in this case are probably better than who is taking up spots on the 25-man roster, but it feels like it might’ve come too late. After all, we’re still talking about a lineup that employs Leonys Martin as an everyday center, and no true designated hitter exists in the majors while Bobby Bradley continues to tear up Triple-A.
More importantly than how bad these Indians are compared to previous year’s counterparts is the context of it all. The Indians were massive favorites to win the AL Central coming into this season, so to see them floundering and falling back every day as we approach summer isn’t the same as the 2016 taking the league by storm and effectively killing off the Royals.
The 2016 Indians were in the upswing of their window; they were the fun, young team destined to do great things, even if it didn’t always look like it. The 2019 Indians have seen the endgame, and they’re supposed to make it there again — and they are failing. Without some kind of spark or change somewhere along the chain of command, it’s hard to see a miraculous 15-game winning streak coming out of this team.
Maybe, eventually, the offense can get going and we can look back at these first few months of the 2019 as a character building moment. Hopefully one that gives the front office, coaching staff, and players a well-deserved kick in the ass to not be complacent in winning a bad division.