What we have here is a Mount Rushmore starting rotation, surrounded by an avalanche of question marks in the outfield and bullpen.
That’s the Indians’ starting point for the offseason, which so rudely arrived Monday, following the demise of their late, lamented 2018 season, which expired, un-resuscitated, the victim of a three-game hit-skip by a runaway Houston Astros bandwagon.
Wednesday served as calling hours, minus the organ music, as Indians officials invited the media, and their questions, not only about the deceased season but about how they expect to pick up the pieces and re-load for next year, after their failure — in this, the 70th anniversary of Cleveland’s last World Series title — to end Major League Baseball’s longest, most painful championship drought.
Yes, Cleveland, they feel your pain, as well as your slings and arrows.
“When you win,” said manager Terry Francona, cutting right to the chase, “you’re smart. When you lose, you’re dumb.”
Said team president Chris Antonetti, whose team again emerged trophy-less from a third straight year of October hardball: “They’re all different. But they all hurt. It hurts a lot.”
What won’t happen, Antonetti, Francona and general manager Mike Chernoff assured the masses, is any knee-jerk reaction to what was an embarrassingly uncompetitive Division Series vs. Houston.
“If you make decisions when you’re emotional, you can blow the whole place up, which isn’t helpful,” Francona said.
“It’s important to separate your feelings from the process,” Antonetti said. “It hurts a lot. But we have to think about what can we do better?”
Tweaking the roster won’t be easy. The franchise had a team-record opening day payroll of $135 million in 2018, so don’t expect free agents Bryce Harper or Manny Machado to be limo-ing their way through the door this winter. The list of Indians players who will become free agents after the World Series includes two-thirds of the starting postseason outfield — Michael Brantley and Melky Cabrera — and the team’s three best relief pitchers — Andrew Miller, Cody Allen and Oliver Perez — plus starting third baseman Josh Donaldson.
Other free agents include outfielders Rajai Davis, Lonnie Chisenhall and pitcher Josh Tomlin.
On the other hand, that Cadillac starting rotation of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber isn’t going anywhere. And forgotten man Danny Salazar — an All-Star in 2016, a ghost the last two years — is expected back from basically a season and a half lost to injuries.
But as the Indians found out this year, a five-star rotation doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in October, if your position player stars don’t play like stars, and your injury-wracked, slump-ridden bullpen resembles a bus terminal at 3 o’clock in the morning, whenever the dugout dials 911.
Playing in Major League Baseball’s flophouse division, the AL Central, doesn’t help, either — but good luck trying to fix that problem. Being the biggest dog in a bad litter is no way to prepare the Indians for the pit bulls they face in October.
“That’s something we’ve asked ourselves,” Antonetti said, “but I’m not sure there is a magic answer.”
No there isn’t.
The Indians also played in the flyweight AL Central in 2016 when they won 94 games, cruised through September to a comfortable division title, then took the Cubs to the 11th inning in Game 7 of the World Series.
“Last year it was, ‘Did you push too hard (during the 22-game winning streak) during the regular season?’” said Francona, in the response to the death-by-lack-of-competition-in-the-division theory.
In this particular case, Francona tends to subscribe to the tip-your-cap school of thought.
“Houston’s starters in the first two games (Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole) were virtually unhittable,” he said. “Their stuff was off the charts.”
Meanwhile, Kluber went from unflappable to flappable, to beatable.
“He had a hard time taking his mechanics from warming up in the bullpen to the mound. His pitches were flat,” Francona said. “We’ve seen him be so good for so long that when he’s not good everyone thinks there’s something wrong with him.”
Nothing was wrong with Jose Ramirez, except for everything. He was 0-for-11 vs. the Astros, and in the last two years has a postseason batting average of .065 (2-for-31).
“The timing was unfortunate, but sometimes hitters struggle,” Antonetti said.
Front offices sometimes struggle, too. They Indians’ have a well-deserved reputation as a first-rate front office, but this offseason, given the context of two consecutive postseason collapses, and three in a row without winning it all, will be the biggest challenge yet for this group.
“At certain points during the (Houston) games, what they had was better than what we had,” Francona said. “If you’re not a complete team, the good teams will exploit that.”
Consider the Indians exploited.
Consider them also the ongoing Exhibit A for the most overused cliché in the business.
Wait till next year.
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