CLEVELAND -- When word began to spread that Carlos Santana had agreed to a free-agent contract with the Phillies, Indians catcher Yan Gomes fired off a text to his long-time teammate. Santana was well-liked inside Cleveland's clubhouse and productive on the field, but his departure does not damper the Tribe's expectations for 2018.
"Guys are going to step up and pick up the roles of the guys that we lost," Gomes said recently. "We don't go into the offseason thinking there's some secret magic guy out there that's going to, boom, join us and next thing you know we're World Series champions. We have a good enough team. We don't need to panic. We believe that we do have a good enough team."
The Indians were the American League champions two seasons ago with much of the same group that's still on the roster, and they are coming off a 102-win campaign that ended with an early October exit. Cleveland has also absorbed some losses this winter (Santana, plus relievers Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith), but it still fields a team capable of contending for a third straight AL Central crown.
The offseason is not over, but the year 2017 is officially in the books. Here are some questions facing the Indians in 2018:
1. Can the rotation continue to carry the load?
The Indians' rotation led baseball with 81 wins last season and paced the AL (second in MLB) with a 3.52 ERA. Cleveland's was the only AL rotation to have just seven pitchers log at least one start and the lone AL starting staff (one of two in MLB) to feature three pitchers with at least 175 innings. That speaks not only to the talent of the group, but shows that the Tribe had a relatively healthy year on the pitching front. In 2018, the rotation will once again be the backbone of Cleveland's roster and championship aspirations.
The Indians have the ability to return with the same cast: Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin. While Kluber has logged four straight seasons with at least 200 innings (not counting the postseason), the rest of the cast does not have an overwhelming work load over the past few years. That could bode well for a staff that will have three arms (Bauer, Clevinger and Salazar) still 28 years old or younger when Opening Day arrives. Tomlin will be the veteran at 33, with Kluber and Carrasco 31 years old apiece.
2. How will the bullpen replace Shaw?
Over the past five years, Shaw averaged 76 appearances and 72 innings out of the Indians' bullpen. That's a lot of durability out of the setup role, and manager Terry Francona has quipped multiple times that it might take two relievers to do what Shaw did for the Tribe. Well, Shaw signed a three-year deal with the Rockies, so Francona's words will be put to the test in 2018. Closer Cody Allen and relief ace Andrew Miller will continue to handle the bulk of the high-leverage work. With Shaw gone, right-handers like Dan Otero, Zach McAllister and Nicholas Goody could see their innings increase. Goody is an interesting arm, because he actually performed better against lefties (.590 OPS) than righties (.651 OPS) in '17.
3. Can Michael Brantley stay on the field?
That will be an important storyline for the season ahead. The Indians picked up Brantley's $12 million team option for 2018, but watched Santana walk away in free agency (a reported $60 million guaranteed over three years with the Phillies). Brantley was an All-Star last year, but a right ankle injury in the second half limited him to 90 games. That came after shoulder and biceps woes sidelined Brantley for all but 11 games in '16. Brantley is once again questionable for Opening Day after October surgery on his ankle, but the Indians need him on the field and productive to help make up for the loss of Santana.
4. How will Francona align the defense?
Even with Yonder Alonso signed to play first base, there is uncertainty around the diamond for the Tribe. We know Francisco Lindor will be at shortstop, a healthy Bradley Zimmer will be in center, Roberto Perez and Gomes will split the catching duties, and Edwin Encarnacion can stay at designated hitter. Francona needs to decide whether Jose Ramirez will be playing second or third base. That could impact Jason Kipnis, who has been at second for most of his career, but is now being considered for the outfield. Yandy Diaz is an option for the corner infield and outfield spots, too. If Brantley is healthy in time for Opening Day, how will that affect the position shuffle? And what about the likes of Erik Gonzalez, Giovanny Urshela and Tyler Naquin? There will be a lot to sort out this spring.
5. How much longer will the window be open?
The Indians are coming off two straight division titles, won an AL-leading 102 games in 2017 and return with arguably the game's best rotation. That's a strong foundation for '18. One thing to keep in mind, however, is the fact that Allen and Miller will be eligible for free agency next offseason, along with Brantley, Tomlin, Chisenhall and McAllister. That makes the coming season a critical one for Cleveland's World Series dreams. It helps that two teams in the division are rebuilding (White Sox and Tigers), one is at a crossroads (Royals) and the other (Twins) finished 17 games back of the Tribe in '17. The division looks like it's Cleveland's for the taking again, but the team needs to capitalize on its current window of opportunity.