Core, contracts create optimism in Cleveland

While Indians haven't lived up to hype, they could be preseason darlings again in '16

Core, contracts create optimism in Cleveland

CLEVELAND -- It's not yet clear how the Indians' season will end. It might never be forgotten how it began.

It started with lofty expectations. They were the predicted Cinderella story of seemingly every media outlet. Sports Illustrated took it a step further with a regional cover and World Series expectations.

With the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, the third-place finisher in the race for the AL MVP Award, four former All-Stars and an AL Silver Slugger Award-winning catcher in the clubhouse, there was no reason to think those lofty goals weren't attainable.

Until the games began.

Five games in, that catcher, Yan Gomes, strained his right MCL on a play at the plate, sidelining him for the next six weeks. Coincidentally, that game was the first to drop the Indians below .500, where they've remained ever since.

At 60-66, Cleveland is being given an 8-percent chance to make the playoffs by Baseball Prospectus, and 4-percent odds from FanGraphs. The playoff dream isn't dead yet, but at this point, the stars need to align.

Given the preseason hype, those numbers add up to disappointment. Yet with each passing day, it seems more and more likely that the Tribe could again be preseason darlings not only next year, but for years to come.

It seems possible because those who generated the hype before the season began have only assured that the Indians' hype was warranted.

Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer have struck out 693 batters in 644 innings with an ERA of 3.67 -- inflated by shoddy first-half defense that's since been improved. The unit's expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP) of 3.25 offers an enticing glimpse of what the group's ERA might look like with the upgraded defense moving forward.

Kluber's dominant start

And while the offense in the first half was mostly a one-man show by All-Star Jason Kipnis, the second half has seen not only the vastly improved defense, but the emergence of potential future star Francisco Lindor, and a healthier Gomes and Michael Brantley. Those four have a batting line of .333/.395/.510 since the All-Star break.

While an impressive group of eight young Major Leaguers already puts the Indians in a better position than some organizations, this season perhaps more than any has proven that it takes more than eight.

"To be a good team, you can't give teams innings off," Cleveland manager Terry Francona said. "We're going to need balance all the way."

Though they may never obtain the $100 million players that highlight each offseason, a combination of savvy extensions and crafty maneuvering by general manager Chris Antonetti has the Indians in a unique financial situation where the stars are cost-effective and the role players are even cheaper.

The front four arms and the core four bats have all either been inked to team-friendly extensions or are earning close to the league minimum. Of that group, the highest-paid player next year will be Brantley, at a bargain price of $7.4 million.

Trade Deadline restructuring that moved two bloated contracts (Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher) for one (Chris Johnson) was crafted to give Cleveland not only financial flexibility, but also roster flexibility, indicating that Antonetti plans to have a more active offseason than the most recent one -- which started and ended with a trade for short-tenured slugger Brandon Moss.

A position that seems likely to be addressed is center field, which happens to feature a group of solid veterans who could fall within the team's price range: Dexter Fowler, Austin Jackson, Denard Span and Colby Rasmus are all hitting the open market. Trade chips exist at both the Minor and Major League levels, and Antonetti has a strong track record of extracting value in mid-level swaps.

The hard part of building a winner is assembling a young, cheap controlled core, and the Indians have that done. As the Royals proved last year and the Astros are showing this year, all it takes is a wise addition or two for that young core with little around it to turn into a fully-realized group of contenders. And with all eight members of that core signed through at least 2018, the Tribe's window is wide open.

"The more times that you play with the same guy or the same teammate, the better off you're going to be," Brantley said. "We've got a great group of young guys that are learning each and every day. This last month and a half, it's going to be very important to learn and get better."

August Fagerstrom is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.