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After playoff exit, Tribe faces contract decisions

With nine free agents this winter, front office must re-evaluate roster
MLB.com @MLBastian

CLEVELAND -- The October chill has yet to hit Cleveland and yet the Indians' season has come to a close. On Wednesday afternoon, Corey Kluber climbed the stairs to the players' parking lot and left Progressive Field. Trevor Bauer sat inside an elevator lobby, taking a phone call before his own exit.

Inside an interview room off the ballpark's main tunnel, manager Terry Francona took a seat at a table with general manager Mike Chernoff to his right and Chris Antonetti, the team's president of baseball operations, on his left. It's not where they wanted to be on Wednesday. This was supposed to be an off-day during the American League Division Series or a day to prepare for the postseason's next round.

CLEVELAND -- The October chill has yet to hit Cleveland and yet the Indians' season has come to a close. On Wednesday afternoon, Corey Kluber climbed the stairs to the players' parking lot and left Progressive Field. Trevor Bauer sat inside an elevator lobby, taking a phone call before his own exit.

Inside an interview room off the ballpark's main tunnel, manager Terry Francona took a seat at a table with general manager Mike Chernoff to his right and Chris Antonetti, the team's president of baseball operations, on his left. It's not where they wanted to be on Wednesday. This was supposed to be an off-day during the American League Division Series or a day to prepare for the postseason's next round.

"We set out to start the year to try and win the World Series," Antonetti said. "That didn't happen. And so, regardless of how that comes to an end, it's painful, and this year is no different. It hurts a lot."

The Indians were just dealt a three-game sweep in the ALDS in overwhelming fashion by the Astros, who are vying for their second straight World Series crown. Cleveland, on the other hand, is facing its 70th straight offseason without a title to celebrate. And this winter will be a critical one in the Tribe's effort to sustain its current window of realistic contention.

Five biggest questions facing the Indians this offseason

For the third consecutive year, the Indians captured the AL Central crown, doing so this time with a star-heavy roster led by AL Most Valuable Player contenders (Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez) and AL Cy Young candidates (Bauer and Kluber). For all the good, though, there were plenty of question marks -- the bullpen being a main concern -- heading into the ALDS.

Francona was asked if the team's primary worries came to fruition in the three-game sweep.

"I think that's fair," Francona said. "If you're inconsistent, it's probably fair that some of those inconsistencies rear their head, even in a short series. And I think they did."

During the three-game ALDS, the Indians were outscored by the Astros, 21-6. Houston launched eight home runs, compared to two (both by Lindor) for Cleveland. The Tribe's bullpen posted a 11.70 ERA in 10 innings, while the Astros' relief corps spun a 0.93 ERA in 9 2/3 innings behind strong starting pitching. Overall, Houston's lineup posted a 1.037 OPS, while Cleveland had a .418 OPS as a team.

Video: HOU@CLE Gm3: Lindor launches 446-ft dinger off clock

A year ago, when the Indians saw their 2-0 lead vanish in the team's ALDS exit against the Yankees, Francona said it was "open season for second-guessing." This time around, while the Tribe's decision-makers will examine the preparation and results and search for things that could have been done better, Francona felt this was a case of the Astros flat-out beating the Indians.

Specifically, Francona cited the overpowering outings by Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole in Game 1 and Game 2, respectively.

"Their two starting pitchers we faced the first two days were virtually unhittable," Francona said. "You can frame questions any way you want, and I don't blame you. It's part of why we're here. If you kind of simplify it, we got three hits off of their first two pitchers. ... Their stuff was off-the-charts good.

"You can talk about intangibles. You can talk about analytics. Analytically, those first two guys are really good."

Throughout Wednesday, Francona and the front-office leaders held exit meetings with a lot of Cleveland's players. That includes a significant group that will be eligible for free agency this winter. All-Star left fielder Michael Brantley, relievers Andrew Miller and Cody Allen and third baseman Josh Donaldson are among the nine players poised to hit the open market.

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

Because he was traded to Cleveland this season, Donaldson will not be eligible for a one-year, $17.9 million qualifying offer. The Indians will, however, need to weigh whether it is worth extending that type of one-year pact to Brantley, Miller or Allen with the idea of potentially netting Draft pick compensation. Antonetti called those "very challenging" decisions as the team maps out its plans for 2019 and beyond.

Video: CLE@KC: Donaldson crushes grand slam for 10-run lead

Complicating matters for Cleveland, which ended with a franchise-record payroll north of $140 million, is that the money coming off the books via free agents will be offset by raises through arbitration and guaranteed contracts. Lindor, specifically, could challenge the first-year abitration record ($10.85 million) set by Cubs star Kris Bryant a year ago. In total, the Indians could see more than $35 million added to the payroll through raises in 19.

"I don't know exactly where we'll be," Antonetti said of the 2019 payroll ceiling. "Obviously, we're going to take the next few weeks to work through that with ownership. The one thing we do know is, whatever payroll might be coming off the books with the free agents we may be losing, we're going to need just as much, if not more, to retain the guys through arbitration raises and increases in guaranteed contracts."

The Antonetti-led front office has a knack for creativity, and that will likely be required again in order to address the multiple roster questions.

While Cleveland can return with its talented rotation intact and with Lindor and Ramirez anchoring the lineup, there will be uncertainty at all three outfield spots and a major need for bullpen reinforcements. Given the state of the AL Central, the Indians will likely remain the favorites to claim the division crown once again. That said, the club's goal is to end Cleveland's 70-year World Series drought, not to be content with division titles.

"I think we're in a really healthy spot with where we are as an organization right now," Antonetti said. "We will be faced with some really difficult decisions, but the reason we're having those difficult decisions is we have a lot of really good players on our team that are returning, some of whom will earn a lot more than they earned last year. We have a very healthy Minor League system.

"I think we continue to work and build an organizational culture that's established winning as being a foundational element there, which is an important thing. It's taken a while to get to that point. So, I feel like we're in a very healthy spot moving forward."

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.

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