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'Cleveland ain't joking': World Series or bust

With roster beyond '18 unclear, club determined to meet lofty expectations
MLB.com @castrovince

CLEVELAND -- The winds were biting and blustery, prompting face masks and neck wraps and Francisco Lindor's unequivocal conclusion that "Cleveland ain't joking." Yes, the Indians returned to Northeast Ohio's typically trying early April weather for a home opener Friday that put the O-H in "OHpening" Day, with the 41-degree first-pitch temp causing Edwin Encarnacion to warm his bat on a dugout heater.

Then again, this is the place where snowfall once forced the Tribe to play its home opener in Milwaukee, so ...

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CLEVELAND -- The winds were biting and blustery, prompting face masks and neck wraps and Francisco Lindor's unequivocal conclusion that "Cleveland ain't joking." Yes, the Indians returned to Northeast Ohio's typically trying early April weather for a home opener Friday that put the O-H in "OHpening" Day, with the 41-degree first-pitch temp causing Edwin Encarnacion to warm his bat on a dugout heater.

Then again, this is the place where snowfall once forced the Tribe to play its home opener in Milwaukee, so ...

View Full Game Coverage

"Actually," closer Cody Allen said, "this isn't so bad today."

The Indians know worse is bound to come in an opening month that has them here at home 17 times -- a would-be baked-in advantage if there weren't reasonable suspicion that they'll spend some unfortunate percentage of that time either bundled up or waiting out rain.

But while Mother Nature's opener-invading winds inspired adjustments to attire, the winds of change that are bound to blow through here post-2018 are what inspire urgency out of this crew. Prior to the 3-2 win over the Royals, they hung up another division flag in Progressive Field's third deck Friday, and the good ol' days that are the Terry Francona era -- a five-season stretch in which the Tribe has won more games than any American League club and maintained relatively remarkable roster stability in what is still an eminently winnable AL Central -- continue on in earnest.

Yet because this is Cleveland, home of some of the world's more frazzled fans, the question of how long this run of contention can continue comes up from time to time. Team president Chris Antonetti did a pregame radio interview Friday in which he was asked nearly as many questions about 2021 (i.e. the Tribe's final year of contractual control of Lindor) as he was about 2018.

(Though at least he wasn't asked to speculate on LeBron James' 2018-19 whereabouts.)

Video: KC@CLE: Brantley singles on his return, plates a pair

The more pressing matter, of course, is that Allen and fellow bullpen behemoth Andrew Miller are pending free agents, as are long-term core contributors Michael Brantley (who made an instant impact with a two-run single hours after his activation off the DL on Friday), Josh Tomlin and Lonnie Chisenhall. Because Lindor and Jose Ramirez and the fantastic front end of the rotation (Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer, with Mike Clevinger creeping into that conversation) aren't going anywhere for a while, the Indians might look every bit as good at the start of 2019 as they do today. But as the division dynamics differentiate, the bullpen rebuild begins and the cost constraints tighten, they are certain to look quite a bit different.

So there's a lot on the line in '18, a year some in the clubhouse are terming a "last hurrah" for this particular cast of characters. The early performance has been uneven, and Encarnacion's literal heating of his bat hasn't applied to the lineup en masse in a more metaphorical sense. But if water finds its level here the Indians will have an opportunity to atone for last year's AL Division Series disappointment that was a blown 2-0 lead in the Bronx … in what was supposed to be a redemption tour after the 10th inning of 2016's World Series Game 7 ended some other club's curse.

It's a long road from here to October, and at this juncture of the journey the Tribe's greatest challenge is piecing together its bridge in the bullpen, where departed free agent Bryan Shaw's rubber arm and reasonably reliable results were already missed on the 2-4 season-opening road trip in Seattle and Anaheim.

"That guy was a frickin' staple," Allen said of Shaw.

Before they can tackle the possibility of replacing Allen and Miller, the Indians are figuring out the best means to get the ball to them with a lead. On Friday, when Carrasco left after six innings with a 3-2 edge, that job fell to Nick Goody. His 2.80 ERA and 1.08 WHIP last year fell into the realm of extra equity, but his scoreless seventh on this day might prove to be a meaningful moment as the setup situation slowly solidifies.

"Normally, in a month or six weeks, a bullpen has taken shape," Allen said. "You can kind of tell, 'OK, this is the spot where this guy comes in.' Guys kind of step into roles and start to become a little more defined."

Video: KC@CLE: Duda can't hang onto bat as it lands on net

The mix and match (and, sure, trial and error) this 'pen presents will require some resourcefulness from Francona. But that's nothing new in these parts. In baseball and in real life, to be a Clevelander is to be enterprising. In the first inning of the home opener, for instance, Royals first baseman Lucas Duda lost his bat on a violent swing and watched it land on the protective netting just to the side of Progressive Field's club-level stands. Some fan took this opportunity to turn the ballpark into his personal Big Choice machine, bearing a pair of crutches that he used to scoop up and secure the souvenir.

Roster creativity of a similar sort will be necessary for a Tribe team with transition on tap. But for now, there's clarity to the cause here, with an empty and expectant space to the right of the 2017 AL Central championship banner. When this group talks about filling that spot with a more boastful 2018 banner, well, they ain't joking, either.

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