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2017 MLB Offseason Preview: Cleveland Indians

Coming off two straight AL Central titles, the Indians will have to do some retooling this offseason.

MLB: ALDS-New York Yankees at Cleveland Indians Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland Indians (102-60), 1st in AL Central

Free agents: Craig Breslow, Jay Bruce, Joe Colon, Austin Jackson, Boone Logan, Carlos Santana, Bryan Shaw, Joe Smith

The Indians are still in the midst of baseball’s longest active World Series championship drought after ending the year with a loss for the 69th straight season in 2017. They’ve certainly had a fun two-year run, though, coming up just short in Game 7 of the World Series in 2016, then winning 33 of their final 37 games in 2017 before being bounced in five games by the Yankees in the ALDS. While all of Cleveland’s essential core players—infielders Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez and starters Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco—are locked in for years to come, they’ll have some retooling to do this offseason, and as a result their roster could look quite different heading into 2018.

While the Indians won’t be torn apart as much as the division rival Royals, it’s possible that they’ll undergo some rather substantial turnover, and it’ll be interesting to see if they continue to spend like a contender in the same way that they have over the past two seasons. Three primary starters from the 2017 club—Jay Bruce, Austin Jackson, and Carlos Santana—plus setup man Bryan Shaw are free agents.

Santana appears to be the player whom the Indians would most like to re-sign, as they tendered him a $17.4 million qualifying offer. Even though he rejected that offer, he’s been an essential part of Cleveland’s lineup for eight years now and likely has a better chance of getting a high-paying, long-term deal with the Indians than he does with any other team. Santana, who posted an .818 OPS with 23 homers in 667 plate appearances in 2017, is certainly one of the top first basemen on the market, but since he’ll be 32 in April and Eric Hosmer is also on the market, he may be hard-pressed to cash out elsewhere in a market where there aren’t many first base openings.

There have been rumblings that Michael Brantley could move to first base in 2018 if Santana isn’t re-signed—and Cleveland could also play Edwin Encarnacion at first on a regular basis and have Brantley DH—but if they lose Santana and decide to add another first baseman, players who could fit their needs include Lucas Duda, Mitch Moreland, Yonder Alonso, Logan Morrison, Adam Lind, and old friend Mike Napoli.

Bruce, 30, may be in line for a big payday this offseason, but it’s unclear how likely the chances are of that payday coming from the Indians. After hitting 36 homers between the Mets and Indians in 2017 and playing a crucial role in the Indians’ 22-game winning streak in late August and early September, Bruce seemed to recover whatever value he lost with a slump down the stretch in 2016. He’s now hit at least 30 homers in five of the past seven seasons and will serve as an imposing middle-of-the-lineup threat for whichever team he ends up signing with.

With that said, his age, injury history, and limited on-base skills (he has a .319 career OBP) could limit his potential earnings in a market where there aren’t too many teams looking to add an expensive outfielder. Bruce has spent all but a year of his career in Ohio, and since he’s historically been regarded as a below-average defender—it’s worth noting, though, that he was quite good as a defender in 2017, recording five defensive runs saved—he may be better off going to an AL club where he can DH at the end of a long-term deal. Thus, Cleveland would be a good spot for Bruce to land if the Indians are willing to spend to keep him. But considering that they’ve already got Brantley, Bradley Zimmer, Lonnie Chisenhall, Brandon Guyer, and Tyler Naquin in the outfield and have a history of frugality, it’s not a given that they’ll have interest in bringing Bruce back.

The same goes for 30-year-old Austin Jackson, who joined the Indians on a minor-league deal and had a bounce-back season in 2017, one year after missing almost an entire season due to a meniscus tear. Jackson, who hit .318/.387/.482 with seven homers in 318 plate appearances while playing standout defense at all three outfield positions, surely won’t get as big of a deal as Bruce is in line to get this offseason. Considering that he’s capable of moving around and is capable of functioning as a platoon player, he’s quite frankly a better fit in Cleveland’s outfield than Bruce is moving forward. But since he’s a good defender who has proven he fits well in a fourth outfielder role and can likely be had for less than $10 million a season, Jackson should have quite a few suitors this offseason and doesn’t have to settle for rejoining the Indians’ crowded outfield mix.

Shaw, 30, has quietly been one of Cleveland’s most important players over the past five seasons and would be a major loss if were to depart this offseason. Shaw has posted an ERA under 4.00 in all seven seasons of his big-league career, and he’s never had a WHIP above 1.30 during his five seasons with Cleveland. Shaw, who relies very heavily on a cutter that sits in the low to mid-90s, is also extremely durable, having made 378 appearances with the Indians while leading the American League in appearances on three different occasions while pacing the majors in two of those three seasons. While Cleveland has good bullpen depth with guys like Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Nick Goody, Tyler Olson, and Dan Otero on the roster, losing Shaw would leave them with a lot of innings to fill. With that said, he’s pitched so much that it wouldn’t be surprising to see him burn out in the near future, so it may be in the Indians’ best interest for him to move on.

Other than at first base, which is a question mark if Santana isn’t re-signed, Cleveland doesn’t really have any obvious areas of need heading into next season. They’re deep across the rest of the infield, in the outfield (even if they lose both Bruce and Jackson), and at catcher. They’ve got more than enough rotation depth, to the point where they could probably dispatch a couple worthy starters to the bullpen to fill any holes that may be created there this offseason.

Cleveland has enough quality relievers on the roster right now that their bullpen would be rather imposing if this was the group they carried into Opening Day. Even so, the Indians have rather frequently brought in veteran relievers to spring training as non-roster invitees and then later utilized some of those guys as members of their big-league bullpen. It’s difficult to project which free agents are going to be forced to settle for minor-league deals come February after going unsigned throughout the winter, but it’s likely that the Indians will bring in some experienced non-roster relievers again in 2018. If they lose Shaw—and perhaps even if they do, since it wouldn’t hurt for them to add another left-hander—they could pursue one of the many more high-profile middle relievers on the free-agent market this offseason.