Let’s cut to the chase: The 2017 Indians will not follow in the footsteps of the 2015 Cavs.
Don’t panic. At least not yet. What I mean is that “The Indians will not (a) return to the Finals and (b) take their revenge on the team that beat them the previous season.”
It’s not unusual for an NBA team to return to the finals in consecutive seasons. In this century (yes, it’s OK to say that– we’re 17 years in), it’s happened 12 times. In fact, the NBA Finals have seen the same opponents in consecutive years in both 2014-2015 (Cavs and Warriors) and 2012-13 (Miami and San Antonio).
It’s not difficult in the NBA, because teams have only five players on the floor and 8-9 guys seeing significant playing time. If everyone stays more or less healthy, you can repeat. Baseball has too many moving parts– nine hitters, five starting pitchers and two relievers. There hasn’t been a rematch in the World Series in 40 years (1977 and 1978, featuring the Yankees and Dodgers). In fact, a team has reached the World Series in consecutive years only six times in the last 20 years:
- Kansas City in 2014-15
- Texas in 2010-11
- Philadelphia in 2008-09
- The Yankees in four consecutive years (which counts three times, 1998-99, 1999-2000, 2000-2001)
Teams have reached the World Series twice in three years on three occasions: the Giants in 2012 and 2014, and the Cardinals in both 2011 / 2013 and 2004 / 2006.
So if you’re hoping to watch the Indians beat the Cubs and their smug, whining fans… as they say, fugeddaboudit.
Do the Indians have a chance to return to the World Series? Yes, but I’m not counting on it. The reason why is the same reason I usually pick the Indians to finish below .500– they don’t act like they’re trying to build a team that can win over a period of years.
The reason teams don’t repeat in baseball is that three forces are always dragging a team down.
- Age happens. Athletes gradually improve until their late 20’s, hold their peak for (depending on how well they master the finer points) 3-5 years, and then start to decline. Players over 30 are likely to decline– players over 33 are more likely to play badly.
- Players get hurt. The odds that a player will get hurt and fail to play a full season (145 games for hitters, 30 starts for pitchers or 60 appearances for relievers) are about one in three.
- Free agency. Another owner will always be willing to pay your players more than you are– and you can’t retain everyone.
Teams who want to keep winning have to fight against those obstacles every off-season. Players get one year closer to losing their skills– or signing with another team– every October.
It’s dangerous to say “We went 94-67 and we could do a lot better if everyone stays healthy and plays up to their potential.” Unless you have a collection of future Hall-of-Famers in the lineup (who’ll get elected because they stayed healthy and met expectations), that’s not going to happen.
If you want to play well continuously, you have to develop (or obtain) new talent, and put it in the lineup when it is ready– not the year after you have a losing season.
If a player has been given repeated chances to contribute and shows you that he can’t stay healthy– or produce consistently– you have to find someone who can.
For the last 20 years– the end of the John Hart era and the entirety of Mark Shapiro’s tenure– the Indians have surrounded whatever young, genuinely talented players on their roster with an assortment of veterans that they hoped could play well enough, for a year or two, to help them get over the top.
That strategy panned out in 2013, when Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Jason Giambi, Mark Reynolds, Mike Aviles, Ryan Raburn and Scott Kazmir all contributed enough to get them into the Wild Card Game. Almost every other time, that plan has failed. Often quite dismally.
The years the Indians have played well have always had a common thread:
- The veterans the front office has rented fail early and catastrophically
- The manager, in desperation, tries the talent is on the bench or in the farm system.
- The players inserted in the lineup play spectacularly well.
In the years where they lose, either #1 and #2 happen, but the replacements don’t do so well. Or the veterans stay in the lineup all season long.
A friend asked me if I was going to apologize for being so wrong about the 2016 Indians. I don’t think I was wrong. Let me remind you of the Opening day lineup a year ago:
Seven of the ten players who took the field were over 30. Four were way over. The lineup wasn’t the result of misfortune.
1. The Indians chose to bring in Davis, Napoli, Byrd and Uribe, hoping they would play well .
2. They chose to play Collin Cowgill in the sense that they pretended Michael Brantley would be back by opening day, at full strength– even though the signs indicated that he wouldn’t.
On February 26th, Abraham Almonte– who was supposed to be their starting centerfielder– was suspended for 80 games for using performance-enhancers. That pushed Davis into center, so the Indians had nobody better than Cowgill.
By the time the Indians reached Game 7 of the World Series, they were different at five spots:
Almonte’s suspension forced the Indians to break camp with 25-year-old rookie Tyler Naquin— the alternative would have been to try to limp through the first half with Davis and Michael Martinez.
The discussion of whether Naquin was ready stopped after he:
- Collected four hits in his first nine at-bats.
- Was hitting .333 after his first 10 games.
- Was still hitting .333 after 20 games
Naquin’s defense was wretched. The average AL centerfielder makes 2.48 plays per game– he made 2.13 (that’s one extra hit every three games). But he ended up hitting .296 (.886 OPS), which was enough to get him 105 games in center (90 starts; 76 complete games). He finished third in the voting for rookie of the year and played better than Cowgill or Martinez could ever hope to do.
The Indians kept deluding themselves that Brantley would return quickly and regain his All-Star form, so they didn’t try to find a left fielder initially. for the first 17 games, they used:
- Marlon Byrd in four starts
- Rajai Davis (if wasn’t playing center) for four starts
- 23-year-old Jose Ramirez in nine starts
Ramirez also filled in for Uribe at third (three starts) and pinch-hit. He played in 13 of the first 17 games, hitting .283 with four doubles and a homer (.770 OPS) — enough to ensure himself some playing time, but not enough to guarantee himself a job.
The next major development came when Brantley returned in game 18– and demonstrated even to the Indians’ blinkered front office that he wasn’t healthy. He played in 10 games, hitting .231 with a .568 OPS, while looking very much like Nick Swisher in 2015.
Brantley made his final appearance of 2016 in game 29. The Indians went back to their three man rotation for the next 21 games:
- Ramirez made 13 starts
- Byrd made seven
- David made one
That might have gone on indefinitely, but Byrd was suspended for a year for using performance enhancers. His last appearance was game 50.
From that point on, the Indians alternated between Ramirez and Davis in left. It might have stayed that indefinitely, had another emergency not erupted. When Ramirez was needed elsewhere (see below), the Indians imported first Brandon Guyer and then Coco Crisp.
The Indians waited an inexcusably long time to ditch Uribe. He hit .208 in April (.627 OPS), but hit a bunch of singles in May (.276 average, .685 OPS). He hit .188 in June.
He was 37; he’d played with three teams the previous year, hitting .247 and .219 with two of them. The problem wasn’t inexplicable. Yet the Indians persisted.
Game 72 (June 24) was the last time Uribe started more than two games in a row at third. From that point on, Ramirez was sharing duties.
In game 81 (played on July 3), Almonte returned. That mitigated the shortage of outfielders.
But he remained in the lineup until July 30 (game 101), before being released on August 5. He hit.206 with a .591 OPS.
It’s worth noting that Ramirez didn’t do nearly as well at third as he did in left. He hit .331 in left (.890 OPS), but fell to .303 (801) at third. That might be because he was tiring, or because pitchers were catching up to him. Or it might be that he found third base more difficult to play.
The chief beneficiary of the problems with Almonte, Brantley, Byrd and Uribe was Lonnie Chisenhall.
Naquin’s running start enabled the Indians to go forward without Cowgill; his last appearance came on April 19th (11 games). In game 12, Chisenhall made his first start of the season.
Chisenhall started 2-18 and ended April hitting .227. But with Almonte and Brantley unavailable, the Indians had to keep playing him. He hit .313 in May (.850 OPS) — when Byrd was suspended on the last day of that month, his job was assured.
He hit .302 in June (.879 OPS) and .307 (but down to .742) in July, ensuring that he would play for the rest of the year, When he began to struggle (.268 and .749 in August– then .250 and .628), the Indians simply acquired some platoon players.
I used to post on a blog with a guy named Jim Pete. I drove him insane with my analysis and “what if?”-ing. He’d say “I don’t care how it happened– I’m just glad it did.”
That mindset is why the result of the upcoming season almost always comes as a shock to Jim Pete.
I do care how things happen– because if things are happening for a reason, they’re more likely to continue to happen. Luck almost always evens out– which is why the Indians (since Hart left) have almost always followed a good year with a bad one. The problems could have taken the Indians out of contention in 2016:
1. Brantley was struggling so badly they shut him down after 43 plate appearances. That was the second-best decision they could have made (the best being “not letting him play, because he wasn’t healthy”). But they only did it because Ramirez and Naquin were hitting.
- In 2015, when they didn’t have a couple of kids hitting .300, they let Swisher hit .198 for 30 games (98 PAs) before trading him.
- In 2014, Chris Antonneti let Swisher hit .208 in 97 games and 401 PAs.
- In 2012, they let Johnny Damon play 64 games (hitting .222 with a 610 OPS) and Shelley Duncan hit .203 in 81 games.
There is no guarantee that the Indians will be willing to shut Brantley down– or, as they should do, if he can’t play this year, look for another leftfielder. How much and how long Brantley plays will depend as much on how his teammates play as how Brantley does.
2. Ramirez and Naquin only got to play immediately because Brantley and Almonte were unavailable on opening day. Had those two been available, Naquin would have been in AAA and Ramirez would have been the utility man.
3. Uribe lasted until August– had Ramirez not been playing well, the Indians might have kept him in place all year long. Jack Hannahan played two years with statistics comparable to Uribe’s. At one point in 2013, the Indians were using Mark Reynolds and Mike Aviles at third base.
Because the Indians realized Davis, Naquin and Chisenhall could hold down the outfield (more or less), Ramirez was available to play third. Otherwise, it might have been 35-year-old Michael Martinez.
Let’s add in some other factors:
4. 34-year-old Mike Napoli set career highs in games played, at-bats, runs, hits, home runs, RBIs and walks.
5. 31-year-old Josh Tomlin reached a career high in starts, innings pitched and wins.
6. Jason Kipnis, avoided both injury and the lengthy slumps that often ruin his seasons.
The difference between me and the other writers in the area is that I don’t award gold stars for lucky accidents, and I don’t assume good luck will happen repeatedly.
The Indians’ game plan for this season is:
- Let’s assume everyone who did well this year will do what they did in 2016.
- Let’s assume everyone who didn’t will snap back.
- Let’s hope full seasons from Brantley and Andrew Miller will boost us.
That’s a very risky strategy. It could work, but the odds are that 3-5 players they are counting on will be significant disappointments. If that happens, they’ll have to put other players in place– and hope they pay off.
The Indians rarely let young players have a slow start– if you’re not doing well in a week, they try someone else. And a veteran always looks more attractive to them than a young player.
Yandy Diaz can’t, I don’t think, field well enough to play anywhere in the infield except first base. He can hit– probably better than Brantley– and might be an outstanding corner outfielder. (Another option would be deciding that you can’t sign Carlos Santana and grooming Diaz for first.)
Brad Zimmer might take a a year to develop or he might be ready by June.
The likelihood that either will get to play will depend on questions like:
- Does Brandon Guyer’s production against lefties justify him having a spot?
- How much longer should we give 30-year-old Austin Jackson (now on team #6) to come around?
- Is Abraham Almonte in a slump or is this what he;s like without steroids?
The Indians have more leeway than usual– there’s not a lot of competition coming at them from within the division– but it’s possible that someone could come on in a rush and blow by them, And it’s likely that they won’t get as a easy a path to the World Series. I hope everyone enjoyed 2016, because that might be all you get.