The Indians’ Big Three of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer was the best Big Three in the American League last year, and, arguably, the greatest Big Three in the history of the franchise.
The message from the Indians’ front office to the Indians’ Big Three in 2018:
Do it again.
As the hot stove league lumbers quietly through the winter, with the Indians being as quiet as a church mouse, one fact is becoming crystal clear.
If the Indians are going to win their division, play deep into the postseason, and perhaps even finally win that ever-elusive World Series, they are going to do it led by their Big Three — or they aren’t going to do it at all.
There are worse mule teams to which to hitch your wagon. Much worse.
Kluber (an American League-leading 8.0), Carrasco (5.4), and Bauer (3.1) had a combined 16.5 WAR for the 2017 season. That was easily the best of any Big Three in the American League. Of the 13 Indians teams that have reached the postseason in the 117-year history of the franchise, only one Big Three had a better WAR than the firm of Kluber, Carrasco and Bauer.
That was the Big Three in 1920, when the Indians won the first of their two World Series titles. And that Big Three was actually more like a Big Two, plus one. The Big Two were Stan Coveleski (8.5) and Jim Bagby (8.4). The other guy was Ray Caldwell, who somehow won 20 games in a season in which his WAR was 0.4, the lowest WAR in major league history by a pitcher with 20 or more wins (according to Baseball-Reference’s Play Index).
The Indians next year clearly intend to go to war led by their top three starters, Kluber, Carrasco and Bauer, each of whom are coming off career years, and each of whom may have to pitch even better than that, collectively, for the Indians to make a deep postseason run.
There is still about a month to go before the start of spring training, and about 10 weeks before the start of the regular season, so a lot can still happen between now and then. It just probably won’t happen in Cleveland.
Yonder Alonso was the Indians’ big-ticket item this year, and he alone is not going to make up for the loss of three players who were in the Indians’ starting lineup for Game 5 of the Division Series loss to the Yankees.
Carlos Santana, Jay Bruce and Austin Jackson won’t be playing in Cleveland this year. Neither will two of the team’s top four relievers from last year, Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith. Over the last five years, Shaw pitched in 378 games, 15 more than any other major league pitcher. Smith was acquired by the Indians in a mid-season trade last year, and in 21 appearances he held opposing hitters to a .229 batting average, with 20 strikeouts and no walks.
Those are five key contributors to the Indians’ reaching the postseason last year for the third time in the last five years.
So the lineup and the bullpen both have taken some hits during the winter. What hasn’t taken a hit is what is so good at preventing hits: the starting rotation.
Led by Kluber, who led the league with a .193 opponents’ batting average last year, Indians starters held opposing hitters to a .241 batting average, again the best in the league. Mike Clevinger was second to Kluber in the league (pitchers with 20 or more starts), with an opponents’ batting average of .206.
Clevinger makes up the second wave of Tribe starting pitchers, behind The Big Three. Josh Tomlin and Danny Salazar are also in that group, which we can call the Not So Big Three, but only if we want to be inaccurate.
Clevinger, Tomlin and Salazar last year combined to go 27-21, with a 4.16 ERA. That might seem like a very pedestrian ERA, but it’s not. It’s 38 points better than the league average for starting pitchers.
In other words, the Indians Nos. 4, 5, and 6 starters last year had a combined ERA that was significantly better than the league average. How many teams can claim that?
Small wonder, then, that Indians officials haven’t touched the key component of a roster which, over the last five years has the best record in the American League.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The Indians’ Big Three, Second Three, and all the other starters certainly aren’t broken. They have done most of the heavy lifting in the Tribe’s march into the postseason three times in Terry Francona’s five seasons as manager.
When it came time to tinker with the roster this offseason, the tinkering has been done elsewhere. The starters remain the same, and so do the marching orders:
Do it again.
Contact Jim Ingraham at firstname.lastname@example.org.