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Here's why Indians' blown 3-1 lead wasn't biggest heartbreak in team history
2:45 | MLB
Here's why Indians' blown 3-1 lead wasn't biggest heartbreak in team history
Monday November 7th, 2016

The Cubs' World Series triumph has been hailed as the beginning of a dynasty thanks to the years of control the team has over nearly every key player from this year's roster. Lost amid the celebration of Chicago's first title since 1908 is the fact that the Indians, who came so close to ending their own drought and winning their first championship in 68 years, are in very good shape for the immediate future as well. The roster that president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff have assembled can remain largely intact if the brass so chooses, putting Cleveland in a position to continue its quest for that elusive World Series win.

It's tougher to apply the d-word here because the Indians are on a much tighter budget than the Cubs. While Chicago's 2016 Opening Day payroll was $171.6 million (sixth in the majors, according to Cot's Contracts), Cleveland's $96.3 million payroll ranked 23rd. The organization has still never hit the $100 million mark, and it didn't exactly reap an attendance windfall for its thrilling 2016 run, ranking 13th in the 15-team American League with 1.59 million fans pushing through the turnstiles. But like their powerhouse teams of the mid-to-late 1990s—which pioneered the practice under then-GM John Hart—the Indians have locked in some of their top players by buying out their arbitration years, giving the club some amount of cost certainty and flexibility.

Player, Position remaining contract (Years, Total $) options (years, TYPE, total $)
Michael Brantley, OF One year, $7.5M 2018, club, $11M
Carlos Carrasco, RHP Two years, $14.5M 2019 and '20, club, $18.5M
Yan Gomes, C Three years, $17.45M 2021 and '22, club, $20M
Jason Kipnis, 2B Three years, $37M 2020, club, $16.5M
Corey Kluber, RHP Three years, $31M 2021 and '22, club, $27.5M
Carlos Santana, 1B/DH One year, $12M None
Josh Tomlin, RHP One year, $2.5M 2018, $3M

It's worth noting that three of those players will enter 2017 coming off injury-plagued years. Brantley played only 11 games because of a right shoulder injury; Carrasco missed the entire postseason thanks to a broken finger but pitched to a 3.32 ERA with 9.2 strikeouts per nine in 146 1/3 innings; and Gomes played just 74 games because of various injuries.

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Still, there's more good news for Cleveland when it comes to arbitration eligibility. Star shortstop Francisco Lindor has two more seasons before he'll even be eligible, and pitchers Trevor Bauer, Dan Otero and Danny Salazar are eligible for the first time this winter. Closer Cody Allen (second time), reliever Bryan Shaw (third) and outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall (third, out of four years of eligibility) are also still under team control. And part of the reason the Indians dealt two top prospects and two lesser ones to the Yankees for Andrew Miller in July was his two remaining seasons under contract at $9 million per year.

Jason Miller/Getty Images

Free agents: OF Marlon Byrd, OF Coco Crisp, OF Rajai Davis, 1B Mike Napoli

Napoli tied with his fellow DH/first baseman Carlos Santana for the team lead with 34 homers, but his streaky performance—which ended with a .239/.335/.465 line, a 104 OPS+ and -4 DRS in 98 games at first—was worth just 1.0 Wins Above Replacement. That's more or less in line with his $7 million salary, and it's nothing that can't be replaced. That said, Napoli's work at first base has been far better in recent years—six or seven runs above average per year from 2013 to '15 via DRS and UZR, so his '16 numbers might be viewed as an aberration. There's said to be mutual interest in a return. That would again pair Napoli with Santana, who rebounded from a down 2015 (102 OPS+, 1.1 WAR) by batting .259/.366/.498 for a 121 OPS+, setting career highs in slugging percentage and home runs (34) and delivering a solid 3.0 WAR.

As is the case with Napoli, the team is interested in a return from Davis, who had two huge hits in Game 7 but was overexposed by the various injuries and suspensions (including Byrd's year-long one for failing a PED test, which is probably a career-ender) in the Indians' outfield. Davis hit .249/.306/.388 for a 78 OPS+ in 495 plate appearances, and his league-high 43 stolen bases in 49 attempts added a dimension of speed to Cleveland's offense that came in handy during the postseason. Opinions are split regarding the quality of his defense and thus his overall value; Baseball-Reference had him as being worth -8 DRS, leading to 0.4 WAR, but FanGraphs had him at +2 UZR and 2.0 WAR overall. He made almost $6 million in 2016 (a base salary of $5.25 million and an additional $700,000 with plate-appearance-based incentives), and a salary along those lines for '17 wouldn't be an overpay, but the Indians should be able to do better.

Just before he was dealt to the Indians on Aug. 31, Crisp accused the A's of not using him more in order to avoid having his $13 million vesting option for 2016 kick in; when Cleveland acquired him, Antonetti was frank about him remaining in a backup role. Though he had a handful of big hits in the playoffs, Crisp's .231/.302/.397 showing in 498 plate appearances during his age-36 season isn't worth anything close to that salary, and he now has a 79 OPS+ and -0.4 WAR combined over the past two seasons. The Indians paid him a $750,000 buyout.

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Areas of Need: Outfield, first base/DH, pitching depth

Potential Targets: Napoli, Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick

Manager Terry Francona's facility with platooning could only go so far in masking his club's deficiencies in the outfield. Cleveland has the parts on hand for a much better arrangement, but it's asking a lot for the return of Brantley and the eventual arrival of top prospect Bradley Zimmer (.250/.365/.425 in 93 games at Double A and 37 at Triple A) to shore up most of the team's problems Abe Almonte drew an 80-game PED suspension and returned to post a 77 OPS+, so he's disposable. Tyler Naquin can hit, but his .296/.372/.514 line was driven by an unsustainable .411 batting average on balls in play, and his defense in centerfield was bad in the regular season (-17 DRS, -5 UZR) even before it began haunting the Indians in the postseason. As a lefty bat, he's still got more upside than Chisenhall, who at 27 is two years older and the owner of a career 97 OPS+ (96 this year). While that could make Naquin a platoon fit in right with lefty-mashing Brandon Guyer, some help from outside could be welcome, particularly when one considers the DH/first base vacancy Cleveland has unless or until Napoli re-signs.

Yoenis Cespedes is out of the Indians' price range, and the same is probably true for Jose Bautista, but Reddick (.281/.345/.405, 2.6 WAR for the A's and Dodgers) would make sense as a platoon partner with Guyer. Cleveland could also patch together rightfield with some combination of Naquin, Chisenhall and Guyer, let Napoli walk and turn to Beltran, who at this point is a DH who can spot in the outfield. He's coming off a strong age-39 season in which he hit .295/.337/.513 for a 122 OPS+ with the Yankees and the Rangers and would presumably choose an AL contender.

With Bauer, Carrasco, Kluber and Salazar, the Indians are in good shape in their rotation, leaving Tomlin, Mike Clevinger and Cody Anderson as fifth-starter/depth alternatives. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the team bring in additional options, but barring a trade, don't expect any big names. Expect opposing teams to make calls about Carrasco and Salazar this off-season, presenting Antonetti and Chernoff with options that may not be apparent at the moment.

With the Tigers shedding payroll, the Royals at a crossroads regarding their competitive core and both the White Sox and the Twins having far to go before they can contend, the Indians are well-positioned to repeat as AL Central champions. But having come so close this year, that isn't the title Cleveland will be aiming for.

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