The Indians have been having a bit of an odd one this year. The season has been much more rife with drama, with interesting players coming and going, with exciting series, and whatever other euphemisms you want for having more of a struggle of a season than any in recent memory. We’re not used to it, not after how they’ve tromped all over the division the last few years, so it’s been a bit fun to have an actually roller coaster to ride this summer.
It’s just ... it feels a bit foreboding, doesn’t it? Like something looms in the not to distant future that we’re going to have to reckon with. This run the Indians have had these four or five years been fun and glorious and had a surprisingly long peak compared to past stretches of goodness. An ending always comes though, eventually. Sometimes you know it, you can see it on the horizon. Right now that end, whatever it might be, it’s hard to even tell what it would look like.
The last time a real “ending” struck the Indians would have to be 2008, right? A year removed from the ALCS and suddenly everyone was injured, traded or just terrible. The world collapsed. It’s a firm, identifiable moment in Tribe history of a changing of the guard. Prior to that the opening of Jacobs Field is another firm marker in time, or the departure of Jim Thome or Manny Ramirez could work. These are plain, obvious moments that tell you something is switching, that we’re entering a different era.
This iteration of the Indians, the one that’s been locking in winning seasons since 2013, that doesn’t really exist though, does it? There’s no firm start point. It’s certainly not centered around Justin Masterson or Ubaldo Jimenez, that was something else altogether. You could look at debuts of Michael Brantley or Corey Kluber or Jason Kipnis or Carlos Santana, central pieces in this stretch of contention. None of them even approach Francisco Lindor in electric exuberance and excitement injected into the team, so it’s a bit twisted up. Plus even Lindor was surpassed a year ago in terms of sheer impact by Jose Ramirez, who has also been at worst the second best player on the team for the three years prior to this one. So really, there's no real “start” to this era, is there? You could call it the Francona Era, but that’s the closest thing we have to any centering influence.
Which is just the same reason why any kind of ending, whatever it is, whether it even IS, feels so muddled. Brantley leaving, even Edwin leaving, Kipnis slated to be unsigned, Bauer traded, and obviously Santana leaving and then coming back, it’s a weird flux the Indians are in right now. Maybe that’s the real thing, it’s a sense of uncertainty, something the Tribe hasn’t dealt with for quite some time. With the stars of the first half of the decade gone, with the vaunted rotation in flux even if it continues to dominate, and with the bullpen just a strange amalgamation of good but nerve-wracking pitchers, this unease sits over the whole season. With all that is the ever-advancing age and declining health of Francona. Who knows how much longer he’ll be around? It feels like this October, if there is one, is a final period of a section on the Indians’ Wikipedia page.
What makes it so strange to fathom, it’s not a stark ending like what happened in 2008. It’s a switch, a turning of a corner. There’s still strings attached to years past, no less than Lindor and Ramirez still form the backbone of the team. But the guys who kicked it off are all but gone. Players we saw grow from prospects and “whos-that-guy” to stars and cult favorites just aren’t worth it anymore, or are worth too much on the trade market for it to make sense to keep them around. Which is how is has to be with a small market team, isn’t it. Look to the Rays, a team that’s had a sub-.500 season twice since they got their collective head out of their ass in 2008, and they have less resources than the Indians. They do what they have to for the general health of the franchise. Ebbs and flows, no eras or legendary, multi-year teams to celebrate and write books about, just consistent, solid contention.
Which really makes what the Indians put together the last few years so incredible. They were nothing short of dominant for three straight years, something the Rays haven’t ever really done in the regular season. Averaging over 95 wins a season is some late ‘90s Yankees kind of madness. It’s not really what the Indians are generally set up to do, it was kind of perfect storm with young guys flourishing, veterans hitting surprising peaks and a couple players making star turns. The division collectively tanking helped a bit, too. Another stretch like that may be a long time coming.
There’s still talent to come. Several young guys are still around for three or four more years. Nolan Jones looks like a stud, and the pitching pipeline just won’t stop. So it’s not the End of the Indians really, not some kind of 100+ loss rebuild. Just like they’re not really the kind of team that can go Dodgers on us and expect World Series berths. They're here to contend, to make a run and hope for the best. However you feel about that, it’s the new normal for them, just like it is for most of baseball. This season isn’t over, not by a long shot, but next year is going to feel and look different. It’s a slow slide into another new era, one we’re probably going to have to label after the fact. If this is that end, a final season of the last vestiges of a core’s run, it’s been a fun one, however it ends. It’s just weird to have it happen so quietly.