Is the window closing soon for Cleveland? (Indians Preview)

One hypothetical question I like to bring up to Royals fans is this: Would you rather have a club that was competitive each and every year, and was constantly at the top of the AL Central, but never won a World Series?

Or would you rather have the current rendition of the Royals: Overall, pretty bad to mediocre except for that 2014 and 2015 stretch where they earned two AL Pennants and a World Series title.

Almost unanimously, Royals fans prefer the latter for one simple reason: Flags Fly Forever. Yes, back-to-back 100-plus loss seasons weigh on the fans’ psyche, and improvement is coming slow in the aftermath of that Royals World Series glory about five seasons ago. But Royals fans will have that title. They will have that moment of the Royals rushing the field after beating the Mets in Game 5 of the World Series. They will have that parade and rally by Union Station. And those memories make all the mediocrity worth it, or at least palatable for a short while.

One of the reasons I also ask is because that other hypothetical option is not really a hypothetical at all. Over the past decade, the Cleveland Indians have been the model baseball club in the AL Central, perhaps the American League overall. Since Terry Francona took over as manager, the Indians have accumulated five 90-plus win seasons (2013, and 2016-2019), a 100-plus win season (2017), and an AL Pennant (2016). The Indians, who have not won a World Series since 1948, came awful close to adding their own World Series hardware in 2016, in an epic series with the Chicago Cubs, which included a spectacular bottom of the ninth moment from utility outfielder Rajai Davis that will probably get lost in the sands of baseball time, mostly because the moment didn’t result in an Indians win, and more importantly, championship.

However, even though the moment extended an epic Game 7 of the World Series, the Indians still lost, Cubs baseball history was made, and the Indians have not returned to the Fall Classic since.

Unlike the Royals, who fell quickly out of contention after their last World Series appearance in 2015, the Indians have certainly had their chances. They have continued to be at the top of the AL Central since 2016, as Francona and the Indians won the division two more times in 2017 and 2018, and finished second to the Minnesota Twins last year. But despite their dominance in the division, the Indians have either failed to get out of the Division Series (2017 and 2018), or failed to make the playoffs all together (2019).

Now, with the Twins loaded to make another run, and the Chicago White Sox splurging both on homegrown and free agent talent this off-season, it makes Royals and baseball fans wonder: are we seeing the final days of the Indians as a powerhouse in the AL Central?

The Cleveland-Akron metro area ranks 19th in TV market size at 1.366 million homes. While it certainly is bigger than Kansas City (which is around 897 K, the 32nd biggest market in the United States), it is not a major market by any means. If anything Cleveland is a mid-market area, and thus the Indians are a mid-market baseball team of sorts. The Indians are not exactly as limited as the Royals or Oakland Athletics, for example, but they are not exactly flush with cash like the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers either.

Fortunately for the Indians, they have been the class of Cleveland sports at the moment. Though the Cavaliers won a title in 2016, they have been a basement team since LeBron James left for Los Angeles. The Cleveland Browns continue to be the Browns (i.e. bad). So, the fact that the Indians are not only competitive now, but have competed for a good stretch of time, has been much welcomed in a city that has known mostly losing with the exception of the magic of that 2016 pennant and 2016 Cavs Finals triumph over the Golden State Warriors.

However, the Indians’ reign in the AL Central since 2016 has not really transitioned to more support at the ballpark. Since Francona took over in 2013, the Indians have only surpassed the 2 million attendance mark once, which happened in 2017, the year after they made the World Series and won 102 games. Furthermore, the club has seen a decline in attendance since that 102-win campaign, as their attendance slid under 2 million (1.93) in 2018, and around 1.74 million a season ago. That is a disappointing trend for a club that has not had a losing season since 2012.

Consequently, Indians management, as expected of any club that is seeing declining attendance at the gate, has begun to decrease payroll over the past few seasons. After increasing their payroll from around $96 million in 2016 to $128 million in 2017 and $134 million in 2018, the Indians decreased payroll to $119 million in 2019. This year, they got back under the $100 million mark, as their $92.6 million payroll ranked 25th in the league. After trying to compete for a three-years stretch from 2017-2019, the Indians seem to be going back to their frugal selves, as they didn’t rank higher than 23rd in payroll from 2010-2016.

And in the process of slashing payroll, Indians President Chris Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff have let some key players go, especially in the pitching department. Trevor Bauer, who won 67 games for the Indians in seven seasons, was traded to the Reds at the Trade Deadline for a half-season rental of Yasiel Puig, with the meltdown below at Kauffman Stadium of all places being the last straw for the polarizing pitcher in Cleveland.

This off-season, they also traded two-time Cy Young winner Cory Kluber to Texas for outfielder Delino Deshields, Jr. and pitcher Emmanuel Clase (who was recently hit with a PED suspension). Even though Kluber was injured last year and was coming off one of his worst seasons (5.80 ERA, -0.4 WAR), the move was seen purely as a salary dump, as Kluber is due to make about $18 million this year, and will be a free agent at the conclusion of the 2020 season.

And now the main question on Indians and opposing AL Central fans’ minds is this: how long will superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor stay in Cleveland? Lindor, a four-time All-Star who has accumulated 27.6 WAR in his five seasons as an Indian, will be entering his last season of arbitration in 2021. Unfortunately for Indians fans, it seems like the two sides have not been able to come to a contract extension agreement. Hence, it seems like it’s not a matter of “if” Lindor will leave Cleveland, but rather when. That was further confirmed after Indians owner Paul Dolan told fans to “enjoy him” at the start of the 2019 season, as if to hint that his time as the Indians’ starting shortstop would be coming to a close in the next season or two:

“Enjoy him,” Paul Dolan told The Athletic earlier this spring. “We control him for three more years. Enjoy him, and then, we’ll see what happens.”

“Fans concerned by Paul Dolan saying ‘enjoy him’ in reference to Indians SS Francisco Lindor” by Matthew Florjancic; WKYC Studios.

First goes Bauer, then Kluber, and now perhaps Lindor, who’s been the most dynamic offensive Indians player since Grady Sizemore. That’s not how a team continues to compete in baseball, let alone capture a long-awaited World Series championship.

And yet, that’s the road Dolan and the Indians brass have chosen to take, much to the chagrin of frustrated Cleveland sports fans.

As of now, the Indians should still be a Top-3, perhaps even Top-2 team in the Central. They will compete for a playoff spot via a Central title or Wild Card spot. Lindor is still an Indian for now, and they have a damaging top of the lineup robust with power hitters such as Carlos Santana, Jose Ramirez, and Franmil Reyes, who was acquired last season from the Padres. And while they did lose Kluber, which hurts their rotation depth, they should still be strong at the top of the rotation with Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, and Carlos Carrasco returning. Add in the return of Brad Hand in the closer’s spot, and the Indians have the pieces to make one last playoff run in 2020.

That being said, it seems like this abbreviated 2020 season may be the last hurrah for this Cleveland core. It seems likely that Lindor will be traded by 2021 in order to make sure the Indians get something in return before he hits free agency. Santana will also be a free agent after 2020, and at 34-years-old, he doesn’t really fit in with a possibly “rebuilding” club. The Indians do have a strong farm system, as MLB Pipeline ranked them 12th overall in 2020. However, it may take a couple of seasons for the club to see those young players produce at the big league level, which could have an effect on the W-L column in the short term once Lindor leaves.

For Indians fans, the eventual future of a rebuild in the next year or two following 2020 is inevitable and disappointing. 2016-2019 held so much promise, and the club was a sliver away from bringing that long-awaited World Series to Cleveland. They probably will go for it once more this year, especially with an abbreviated schedule where more teams can make the playoffs. That being said, if the Indians start slow, it wouldn’t be surprising for them to begin the rebuilding process sooner than expected, which should give hope to Royals fans who are looking for the Royals to surpass one of the Top 3 AL Central teams who seem firmly entrenched at the top going into 2020.

The Indians have made baseball relevant in Cleveland in the Francona-era. And it will be interesting to see if Francona sticks it out through the likely rebuild, or if he will go somewhere where he can win one last World Series before retirement (or perhaps just retire altogether after his Cleveland tenure is done).

Whatever happens after 2020, this much is clear: the window for that elusive World Series championships seems to be near closed in Cleveland.

And it most likely will be shut for a good stretch of time starting in 2021…much to the dismay of long-suffering Indians fans.

I’m sure we’re going to see a lot of Randy Quaid-esque Indians fans at Progressive Field in 2-3 years.

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