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5 biggest questions Tribe faces heading into '19

Cleveland endures first-round playoff exit for second straight year
MLB.com @castrovince

CLEVELAND -- It was sunny and 85 degrees the last two days at Progressive Field -- conditions that felt cruel at a time when, in the bowels of the building, they were packing up the baseball season. The clubhouse staff was busy cleaning up and cleaning out the clubhouse, players had their exit interviews with management, and the ticket office was issuing refunds for un-played playoff baseball.

When a season ends on terms other than your own, it's always brutal, but that's particularly the case in a place where they have spent six months -- 12 months, really -- anticipating October, only to have it erased in less than 80 hours.

CLEVELAND -- It was sunny and 85 degrees the last two days at Progressive Field -- conditions that felt cruel at a time when, in the bowels of the building, they were packing up the baseball season. The clubhouse staff was busy cleaning up and cleaning out the clubhouse, players had their exit interviews with management, and the ticket office was issuing refunds for un-played playoff baseball.

When a season ends on terms other than your own, it's always brutal, but that's particularly the case in a place where they have spent six months -- 12 months, really -- anticipating October, only to have it erased in less than 80 hours.

And so there are questions facing the Indians as they head into winter much earlier than they anticipated. Here are the five biggest ones:

1. Who or what is to blame for another quick October exit?

The hot takes about manager Terry Francona are widespread on the city streets right now, as fan frustration over the last two postseason exits is bubbling over. As understandable as that frustration may be, equally understandable is the Indians' preferred path of seeing the big picture.

The Tribe's .562 winning percentage under Francona is second only to the Dodgers' .581 mark in that six-season span. The team has won three straight division titles for the first time since its renaissance in the 1990s. Stability has been a strength, and, while there were disastrous results in three games against the Astros in the American League Division Series, there are no indications that Cleveland will make an immediate move to its coaching staff. That includes hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo, who will not be let go to appease fans angered by the club's .144 average in three October games.

"That's a reactionary move," Francona said during a downtrodden session with the local media Wednesday. "[The ALDS showing] hurt like crazy, but we were in the upper tier in just about every offensive category."

Video: HOU@CLE Gm3: Indians discuss ALDS loss to Astros

Could Francona have managed the ALDS differently? Trevor Bauer's unusual role -- converted from would-be Cy Young candidate to everyday relief option because of a late-season leg fracture -- might have given some of us license to dream up inventive ways of deploying him in Games 1, 2 and 3, but, ultimately, Bauer didn't pitch particularly well, and nobody in the bullpen did. Actually, the 11.70 ERA (13 earned runs in 10 innings) compiled by Tribe relievers in this series was the highest any team got from its relief crew in the last 20 postseasons (technically, the 2016 Mets had a 13.50 relief ERA, but that was only in a single-game Wild Card round).

Combine that with the ineptitude of the offense, and there were no magic buttons to deploy. The Indians were beaten in every facet of the game. And maybe, considering the Astros won 12 more games this season in a much tougher division and had a plus-263 run differential to the Indians' plus-170 mark, that shouldn't have been surprising.

"If you're inconsistent," said Francona, "Some of those inconsistencies will rear their head [in the postseason]."

2. So is the Tribe's window closing?

It is, and it isn't. Even in the biggest markets with the boldest of payrolls, windows of contention around a particular core of players evolve over time, and none of them stay open forever. As a function of market and revenues, the Indians' margin for error has always been smaller than it is elsewhere, and some upcoming financial crunches (more on that in a second) will make that margin all the slimmer come 2019.

With that said, the entirety of the Tribe's elite rotation -- Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Bauer, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber -- as well as lineup linchpins Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Edwin Encarnacion and relief ace Brad Hand are all on board for 2019. That's a lot to work with. And only the most outlandish of offseasons from the likes of the Twins, White Sox, Royals or Tigers would prevent the Tribe from entering next season as the prohibitive favorite in the AL Central.

So, the weak division that helped sustain the Indians in '18, will in all likelihood be an asset again in '19. But, there is much work to be done with this roster for this club to be truly World Series-caliber again.

3. How different will the roster look next year?

Quite a bit. Again, many of the assets that have elevated the Indians to a spot among the AL elite the last few seasons will return, and a great rotation can pave over a lot of sins. But much of the more-than-$40 million coming off the books via the Indians' eight notable free agents (Josh Donaldson, Michael Brantley, Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Rajai Davis, Oliver Perez, Lonnie Chisenhall and Melky Cabrera) will be offset by roughly $17 million in raises built into guaranteed contracts (including option years for Carrasco and Brandon Guyer) and the elevated arbitration value of Bauer (projected by MLBTradeRumors.com to be worth $11.6 million in his second round of arbitration after making $6.5 million this year) and Lindor (projected to be worth $10.2 million, which would fall just shy of Kris Bryant's $10.8 million record for a first-time arb-eligible player).

Video: HOU@CLE Gm 3: Brantley, Allen, Miller on free agency

So even if the Indians were to maintain their franchise-record Opening Day payroll of about $135 million from 2018 (and that might be a stretch after a downturn in attendance and a quick playoff exit), they're not going to be winning any bidding wars. They're going to have to get creative (they tried to trade Jason Kipnis a year ago and could potentially try again) in addressing holes, while Leonys Martin (who suffered a life-threatening infection shortly after his non-waiver Trade Deadline arrival) and Yandy Diaz will figure prominently into their planning.

"We try to be very purposeful about soliciting creative, out-of-the-box ideas, just to make sure we're considering all avenues to put our organization in a better position moving forward," Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said.

4. What the heck happened to Ramirez?

Especially given the potential departure of Brantley, Ramirez's importance to this lineup cannot be overstated. That makes his fall from grace in the midst of what had been an MVP-caliber year all the more troubling. In the last seven weeks of the season, including an 0-for-11 Division Series, Ramirez contributed the lowest OPS (.546) of any Major League qualifier. In all likelihood, some combination of opponent adjustment (more breaking balls, fewer fastballs), pressing and fatigue caught up with him.

Video: Anthony Castrovince on Jose Ramirez's struggles

"He got himself into a predicament, and he couldn't get himself out of it," Francona said. "Even when he got pitches to hit, he kind of peeled off, and he knew it. He watched video, and he just couldn't get the feeling of staying through the ball."

Even the greatest hitters go through slumps. Unfortunately, the timing of Ramirez's slump means he'll enter 2019 questioned for his fall as often, or even more, than he's celebrated for his 30/30 accomplishment.

5. What about the bullpen?

It was the story of the 2018 season, and not in a good way. The Indians didn't address the 'pen last winter with the free-agent departures of Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith, and that bit them when Allen and Miller regressed due to mechanical and injury issues. The team had to give up its top prospect, switch-hitting catcher Francisco Mejia, to get two controllable 'pen pieces from the Padres in Hand and Adam Cimber, both of whom will have an elevation in role and stature with Miller and Allen both potentially wearing new uniforms next season.

For all the work and thought that the Indians put into the bullpen over the course of the '18 season, to say it didn't deliver in the Division Series sweep is an understatement. The Indians will have to find affordable upside options in free agency, and there's a chance rehabbing starters Danny Salazar (who is expected to begin his throwing progression in November after shoulder surgery) and/or Cody Anderson could become 'pen options next spring.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

Cleveland Indians