The Cleveland Indians were eliminated from the playoffs on Monday night by a better Astros team. Cleveland suffered a sweep, but that is underselling what happened in this series. They were outscored 21-6 over the three games. It was a lopsided victory. As unpredictable as the playoffs are, the results probably are not very surprising. It was a 103-win team with home field advantage versus a 91-win team. Those 91 wins are likely overselling Cleveland, too, as that win total is padded from playing in a historically awful division (though to be fair, they had a BaseRuns record of 94 wins, but that is not adjusted for strength of schedule).
For Cleveland to have had a real shot at beating the Astros, they would have needed their stellar rotation to come through. Their best pitcher, Corey Kluber, giving up four runs in 4 2⁄3 IP in Game One likely plummeted their chances of winning the series, especially with Trevor Bauer relegated to the bullpen due to injury. Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger pitched decently well, but with the team’s poor bullpen they needed more. The bullpen gave up 14 of the 21 runs in this series.
Fellow boricua Francisco Lindor had a stellar ALDS. He got four hits, two of which were home runs, in 11 PA. He was basically the only offensive contributor on a team that hit .144/.196/.222 in the series. Surprisingly, José Ramírez managed zero hits and three strikeouts. His only offensive contribution was a walk. Cleveland had a good offense this year, but they were up against arguably the best pitching staff in major league history.
The good news is that Cleveland will be able to return its core six players next year: Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger, Francisco Lindor, and José Ramírez. Beyond that there are a lot of holes to fill. Michael Brantley is a free agent going into his age-32 season. He is good when healthy, but “when healthy” is the problem. Lonnie Chisenhall will be a free agent too after missing all but 29 games due to injury.
Cleveland should really consider making a splash in free agency. I assure you that they can afford it, regardless of how often they might deny it. At the very least, they should consider bringing back Brantley, Chisenhall, and/or Josh Donaldson at the right price. The right free agent signings combined with a (hopefully) healthy Bradley Zimmer would force less playing time with Jason Kipnis, which is the direction Cleveland needs to go in. His performance at the plate has dropped dramatically. Over the last two seasons, he has hit just .231/.306/.398. Also, he can’t play center field. I am sure they can bring back Leonys Martín for cheap to provide some center field depth.
Yonder Alonso was a disappointing free agent signing, but there is not a lot Cleveland can do about it. There are not a lot of free agent options available at first base. Steve Pearce would be interesting to take a flyer on, and he would likely be pretty cheap. If the team actually wants to spend money, they could sign Nelson Cruz, who is somehow still a very good hitter. He could be the full time DH while Edwin Encarnación becomes the everyday first baseman. That is not ideal defensively, but the offensive boost from Cruz would make it worthwhile.
By far the biggest problem to address is the bullpen. Reliever performance is frequently volatile, but Cleveland’s situation was extreme. They had the best bullpen in baseball in 2017, and then one of the worst in 2018. Their 4.80 RA9 ranked in the bottom five in baseball. The bullpen did well in terms of strikeouts and walks, but got killed on the long ball. They gave up 78 HR, which was the seventh-highest among bullpens. The thing is that the bullpens that gave up more home runs faced far more batters. Cleveland’s bullpen gave up home runs to 3.9 percent of batters faced, which was the worst mark in baseball.
Cody Allen and Andrew Miller are going to be free agents. Once the anchors of an elite bullpen, it is probably best to move on from them short of one-year deals, and that is not just because of the quality of other relievers who will be on the market. Spending big on the bullpen is never a good idea. Just ask the Rockies.
The bullpen will not be an easy fix. GM Mike Chernoff should sit with his scouts and try to identify high upside relievers this winter to bring aboard, preferably back end starters who could excel in the bullpen.
The good news is that Cleveland is almost certain to win the division next year. The Tigers and Royals will still be among the worst in baseball, and the White Sox are unlikely to improve enough to threaten for a playoff spot, let alone the division. The Twins could threaten with full, healthy seasons from Byron Buxton and Miguel Sanó, but even then it would be unlikely for them to catch Cleveland.
In baseball, all you have to do is make the playoffs. The Indians should be able to make October plans for at least the next two years. From there, anything can happen.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.