CLEVELAND -- The Indians' rotation is the backbone of the team's roster and the primary reason for Cleveland remaining the favorite to win the American League Central next year. The outfield, on the other hand, is beset with uncertainty as the club begins an important offseason.
Both of those roster realities came into play on Tuesday, when the Indians announced a pair of contractual decisions to begin their offseason overhaul. The Tribe exercised right-hander Carlos Carrasco's $9.75 million team option for 2019, but it declined a $3 million team option to retain outfielder Brandon Guyer.
Guyer will receive a $250,000 buyout, and he now joins an Indians free-agent pool that includes Cody Allen, Michael Brantley, Melky Cabrera, Lonnie Chisenhall, Rajai Davis, Josh Donaldson, Andrew Miller, Oliver Perez, Adam Rosales and Josh Tomlin. Chris Antonetti, the Tribe's president of baseball operations, said the team is still interested in re-signing Guyer, but he noted that the club needs to first sort through other decisions, including determining the 2019 payroll.
"With Brandon, [it was] a very difficult decision for us to make," Antonetti said on Tuesday. "In the end, we had to assess where we are in the offseason and making a decision now to allocate those payroll dollars. Where we ended is that we thought we would be best declining the option, leaving the door open to bring Brandon back, but maybe under potentially different terms."
Cleveland has exclusive negotiating rights with its free agents until 5 p.m. ET on Friday. That is also the deadline for extending a one-year qualifying offer ($17.9 million) to any free agents in order to potentially net Draft pick compensation if they sign with a new team.
The decision to pick up Carrasco's option was a no-brainer, considering his rise to being an AL Cy Young Award contender over the past few years. After finishing fourth in AL Cy Young balloting in 2017, the big righty followed up that showing by going 17-10 with a 3.38 ERA and a career-high 231 strikeouts vs. 43 walks in 192 innings this past season. In the second half, Carrasco led the AL in strikeouts (119) and innings (89 1/3), and he ranked fourth in ERA (2.52).
The Indians also have a $10.25 million team option in Carrasco's contract for the 2020 season.
"We believe Carlos has established himself as one of the top starters in the American League," Antonetti said. "So we're obviously elated to continue his time with the team and the organization, and we expect him to make a big impact on our team for the next few seasons."
Carrasco surpassed 200 strikeouts for the third time in his career, joining Corey Kluber, Bob Feller, Sam McDowell and Gaylord Perry as the only pitchers in Indians history to reach that milestone at least three times. The righty topped 200 punchouts in each of the past two seasons, going 35-16 with a 3.33 ERA, 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings and a 5.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 392 innings in that span.
Barring any changes this offseason, the Indians can return in 2019 with their entire five-man rotation, featuring Kluber and Carrasco at the top, followed by Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber. During the '18 season, Cleveland became the first team in Major League history to have four pitchers (Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer and Clevinger) reach 200 strikeouts in the same season.
"It's a much better position going into the offseason knowing that we have continuity and some depth in our rotation," Antonetti said. "That's a very difficult area to build quality alternatives, as we've seen over the course of the last decade or so. We're really excited about the group that we have, and it gives us a leg up on our planning moving forward."
The decision on Guyer was less cut-and-dry, given his recent history of injury and his diminishing production against left-handed pitching. The right-handed-hitting corner outfielder came to the Tribe via trade in 2016, and he was a pivotal part of the Cleveland club that reached the World Series. Guyer hit .336 with a 1.021 OPS against lefty pitching in '16, but he saw the results decline (.243 average and .746 OPS) over the '17-18 campaigns.
"[Guyer] made a very big impact at times," Antonetti said. "He battled through some injuries. When he was healthy, we saw a guy that was capable of impacting our team and hitting in the middle of the order against left-handed pitching."
In 103 games this past season, Guyer hit .206 with seven homers, 27 RBIs and a .671 OPS, while posting an .804 OPS against left-handers. Guyer had a stint on the disabled list due to a left cervical strain this year, following left wrist issues that necessitated surgery in 2017. Overall, the outfielder hit .220 with a 77 OPS+ for the Indians in 173 games over the past two years.
With Brantley, Cabrera, Chisenhall, Davis and Guyer all potentially hitting the open market this offseason, the Indians are examining their options for the 2019 outfield. Jason Kipnis could be an option for left field, and Tyler Naquin might assume Chisenhall's former role in right. In center, Cleveland has a long list of possibilities, including Leonys Martin and Greg Allen. A right-handed complement to the current outfield group will be on the team's offseason to-do list.
"The outfield will be an area that we will continue to work through over the course of the offseason," Antonetti said. "It's probably the area on our team with the least certainty. Exactly what that composition of players will look like, we have a few months to figure out."