CLEVELAND — A disappointing finish to last year and a largely unproductive offseason thus far hasn’t diminished the Indians’ optimism heading into 2018.
They still think they’re one of the best teams in the American League, whether the rest of the baseball world, including their own fans, share the same view or not.
“I don’t think anyone should be pessimistic right now,” manager Terry Francona said prior to Saturday’s sixth annual Tribe Fest event at the Cleveland Convention Center. “My goodness. We have the best record in the American League the last five years. This has been a good run of baseball and I don’t see that going anywhere. The more you get to the playoffs, you’re giving yourself a chance.
“Last year we were really disappointed. We thought we had a chance to get to the end. We didn’t. We uncharacteristically played not very good baseball and it cost us. It’s different every year. If you give yourself enough chances, maybe we can break through. I think we’re one of those teams, as we go into the year, we should have our glass half-full. We should feel good about things.”
After posting the AL’s best record with 102 wins, Cleveland hit the postseason last year as a favorite to return to the World Series. But upon taking the first two games of the Division Series, they were eliminated by the Yankees in front of their home fans in Game 5.
The offseason brought more losses, with longtime first baseman Carlos Santana and workhorse relief pitcher Bryan Shaw leaving via free agency. The Indians also saw the departure of rentals Jay Bruce and Joe Smith, who signed with other clubs.
Meanwhile, the majority of the AL heavyweights, including defending World Series champion Houston and New York, have improved this offseason. The only player of note that Cleveland has added is first baseman Yonder Alonso.
The lack of activity has been a major point of contention for Indians fans.
“You can focus on what we lost all you want,” starting pitcher Trevor Bauer said. “But no one seems to be focusing on what we’re bringing back, which is the best pitching staff in the big leagues last year.”
Bauer has a point. Even with the offseason departures, Cleveland’s cupboard is far from bare, with a top-notch rotation and bullpen that accompanies a lineup full of All-Stars.
“We have the right group of guys,” shortstop Francisco Lindor said. “The guys that we lost, yes, they’re definitely going to be missed, but at the end of the day, it’s not about what you have, but what you have in front of you and what you’re going to do with it.
“We’re going to miss the guys that left. We respect them, we love them, but at the end of the day, we’ve got a job to do and we’re going to try to win.”
“(Pessimistic fans are) looking too short-sighted and they’ll realize as soon as Opening Day comes around,” Jason Kipnis said, “the lineup we’re putting out, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve won a lot of games with these people.’ It wasn’t one person who won 102 games.”
Plus, there’s still time for Indians fans to get their wish. Cleveland has reportedly been in discussions with Baltimore regarding elite third baseman Manny Machado and there are plenty of other options still available on the free-agent market.
“The winter’s not over by any means,” Francona said. “There’s a lot of players, and this is the slowest I’ve ever seen free agency. There’s a lot of players out there, whether it’s roster, non-roster, I think the (front office) will be making calls every day. I wouldn’t be surprised if we ended up with somebody else. If we don’t, go play. I like our team a lot.”
Whether they’ve added enough muscle to contend with the likes of the Astros and the Yankees — among others — in the postseason, the Indians are clear favorites to repeat as champions in a perceived weak Central Division.
They will almost certainly return to the postseason, where they will have another opportunity to bring their fans the franchise’s first World Series title since 1948.
“We’re trying to win it for the fans, we’re trying to win it for the city,” Lindor said. “They deserve a championship-caliber team and we have it. We just have to close it, we haven’t been able to close it.”