As the Indians begin their spring training games, which initiates the countdown to their hideously conceived opening day rainout or snowout in Minnesota on March 28, it’s becoming more apparent than ever that their chief competition this year won’t come from division opponents the Twins, White Sox, Royals or Tigers.
Nor will it come from the Red Sox, Astros or Yankees when, not if, the Indians win their division and advance to the postseason for the fourth consecutive year.
In 2019, the Indians will chase, or be chased, by their most formidable opponent of all: Themselves.
The pressure is on what’s left of this core group of players. The departure of a handful of key position players has left the team, on paper, at least, more vulnerable than in any year of this mini-run of division titles.
The bullpen also lost two of its key pieces. But what wisely hasn’t been touched, tweaked or altered in any way is the pristine, immaculate starting rotation, which will do the team’s heavy lifting in 2019.
Therein lies the crux of this pivotal Indians season, a season that could be the last incarnation of this rotation as we know it. The two pitchers at the top, Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, are reaching the point in their careers that, regrettably, too many Indians stars inevitably reach: They are becoming too expensive to employ.
Indians officials can stew about it. Indians fans can rail about it. Indians opponents can rejoice about it. But, like it or not, that’s the reality.
That Kluber and Bauer are pitching and pricing their way out of the Cleveland market leaves the Indians with two options.
They can either keep one or both to the bitter, yet possibly championship end, and then watch them, when the time comes, ride off into the sunset, as one or two huge unparlayed assets.
Or they can cut their losses by using one or both pitchers in proactive trades to help assuage the roster-rupturing talent depletion their exits as free agents will cause.
Those decisions don’t have to be made now, however. They can be researched and prepared for now, but they don’t yet have to be acted upon. That the front office has apparently decided to start the season with both pitchers atop baseball’s best rotation seems to be an indication that management wants to make one more run with this rotation as its engine.
After that, who knows? Everything is on the table.
But this is, and will be throughout this season, the unspoken subplot: Can the Indians win a World Series before they have to break up their world-class starting rotation?
They’re on the clock — and the ticking is deafening.
That’s not to say, of course, that the Indians can’t continue to win without Kluber and/or Bauer. This is an organization that has a track record of building winning teams though all avenues of roster construction, including trades — which is the route they used to acquire both Kluber and Bauer in the first place.
What the looming uncertain status of the two pitchers — and, by definition, the rotation itself — does mean is that the coming season could be the last one we’ll see with Kluber and Bauer together at the top of baseball’s best rotation.
Having baseball’s best rotation is frequently the best way to make it to the postseason, if not to win the World Series outright.
The Indians have that in 2019. Kluber and Bauer, followed by Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber is a full house at the pitching poker table that no other team in the majors can match.
But it won’t mean anything if the Indians can’t use it to finally, for the first time in 71 years, win a World Series. That rotation isn’t going to remain intact forever. In fact, it could become un-tact at some point during this season or, more likely, during the next offseason.
That’s why the Indians in 2019 are in a good but precarious position. They are trying to produce a parade in downtown Cleveland, before they lose the two drum majors at the front of their rotation.
You can win a World Series without an elite rotation. The Indians proved that in 2016, when, despite a bruised and battered rotation, they made it all the way to the 10th inning of Game 7 before not winning that World Series.
A better way to win it all is to have the best rotation, and, barring injuries, the Indians will start the 2019 season with potentially their best rotation since 1954, when Early Wynn (23-11), Mike Garcia (19-8), Bob Lemon (23-7), Art Houteman (15-7) and Bob Feller (13-3) combined to win 93 games.
That team didn’t win the World Series, either. But it got there.
The 2019 Indians must get there before Kluber and Bauer leave here.
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