The Cleveland Indians’ Window to Contend Isn’t as Big as We Think

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Last night, during the annual Greater Cleveland Sports Awards, manager Terry Francona claimed that, despite their offseason losses, the Cleveland Indians still look like a 102-win team to him.

I certainly hope this is the case. As happy as I am to hear Francona exude some confidence, the results of this offseason currently have me feeling a little more nervous.

Frankly, how the Tribe has handled the past couple months only highlights the fact its window of contention may not be as big as everyone initially thought. This, of course, makes their offseason inactivity all the more concerning.

I don’t mean to come off as a doomsayer (believe me, I’ve already been called this a couple times when discussing the Indians). Nor am I ignoring the fact Cleveland’s starting pitching – the bread and butter of the team – is set to be intact this year and beyond.

I understand all of this, just as I’m aware Cleveland will be starting an infield featuring four All-Stars this season. This is certainly something to be excited about.

The problem, though, is how quickly you can see cracks in the plan when you take a good look at the offseason.

Right now, the most notable moments of the Indians’ winter involve players leaving the team, not joining it. The offense lost two key contributors in Carlos Santana and Jay Bruce, the latter receiving what certainly looks like an affordable deal from the New York Mets. The team also watched two arms from the bullpen head elsewhere, including the severely underappreciated Bryan Shaw.

In response to these departures, Cleveland…just sat and watched. While the team made a couple signings, it certainly wasn’t enough to mitigate the losses.

Melvin Upton Jr. marks the Tribe’s latest attempt to turn a spring training audition into an everyday contributor. First baseman Yonder Alonso was acquired to replace Santana. While he’s coming off an All-Star season, his performance took a steep decline after the midway point of last year as opposing pitchers keyed in on his adjusted swing.

Many believe Cleveland’s quiet approach to the offseason is due in part to how weak the rest of the AL Central looks. Only the Minnesota Twins seem ready to pose a threat, so the assumption is the Tribe shouldn’t have to overexert itself since it won’t have a difficult time getting back to the postseason.

This approach is, of course, flawed.

The Indians being complacent and assuming they can just cake-walk to the postseason does little to help them come October. Teams they’d likely face in the playoffs, such as the Houston Astros and New York Yankees, will pose an even bigger threat this year thanks to huge offseason additions.

On top of this, the AL Central will be greatly improving as soon as 2019, with Minnesota likely closing the gap and the Chicago White Sox beginning to make call-ups from one of the best farm systems in the league.

As you can see, Cleveland’s offseason strategy isn’t taking advantage of the team’s window of contention. If anything, it’s voluntarily letting it shrink.

The Tribe chose against making a big free agency pick-up, instead investing money in Michael Brantley‘s option despite the fact he hasn’t been fully healthy since 2014 and is currently recovering from yet another surgery. It made little attempt to fill the void in the bullpen left by Shaw and Joe Smith. It replaced Santana with a player who’s only hit more than nine home runs once since 2010 and, until proven otherwise, just put forth an All-Star campaign which looks like a fluke.

There’s still time to make a final move or two. The free agency market has been slower than ever, so the Indians might be able to pounce on a player they may have initially assumed was out of their price range.

For now, though, the Indians seem content with just running things back with last year’s roster, which now features some notable holes. This may very well result in another postseason berth. It just may not get much further.

At the moment, the Indians’ moves indicate they’re OK with that. This isn’t exactly what you would call striking while the iron is hot.

Casey Drottar is an independent sports writer. Subscribe to his podcast, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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