2018 Record: 91-71
First Place, AL Central
Team ERA: 3.77 (9th in MLB)
Team OPS: .766 (4th in MLB)
What Went Right
Often in this space we'll quickly run down how the season went -- the highs, the lows, the tense moments. There's not much to say about the Indians' season in 2018: they started well, they did well in the middle, and they ended the regular season well. The club won the American League Central for the third consecutive season without much of a sweat -- the next closest team was the 78-84 Twins, 13 games back. Leading the way were a host of stars, including MVP candidates Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor in the field and Cy Young hopeful Corey Kluber on the mound. Behind Kluber was a trio of dominant starters -- Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco -- that, along with Kluber, became the first group of four teammates to record 200-plus strikeouts in a season. On the other side, Michael Brantley enjoyed his second consecutive All-Star year, finishing with 17 homers, 12 steals and a strong .309/364/.468 line. Midseason acquisitions Josh Donaldson and Brad Hand helped the team position themselves for another postseason run, and Hand will likely be the odds-on favorite to close games for the Tribe in 2019.
What Went Wrong
As in 2017, cruising to a division title may not have helped the team in their quest for that elusive World Series win. It didn't help that they ran into a Houston Astros team that was equally primed for a deep October run. Hand's presence wasn't enough to overshadow the bullpen's struggles, as their closer Cody Allen and the reliable Andrew Miller faltered; Allen due to inconsistency, Miller due to injury. Injuries also played a part on the other side of the ball, as Lonnie Chisenhall appeared in only 29 games sandwiched between calf injuries, and up-and-comer Bradley Zimmer played in just 34 games before having his season cut short for shoulder surgery that will likely cut into his 2019 season as well. For all the good the top four starters did in 2018, the club struggled to find a reliable fifth starter, leaning on the disastrous Josh Tomlin before later turning to rookies Shane Bieber and Adam Plutko, none with resounding success. The sweep at the hands of the Astros in the American League Division Series was the latest in a line of successful seasons with unsatisfying results for the Terry Francona-led squad.
**There was a debate heading into the season about which of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez was the better player. A year later, nothing has really been settled. Ramirez fared better in most of the counting stats, batting .270/.387/.552 with 39 homers, 105 RBI, 110 runs and 34 steals; but Lindor scored an MLB-best 129 runs while hitting .277/.352/.519 with 38 homers, 92 RBI and 25 steals. The real takeaway is that both are fantasy stars, and both should be taken in or very near the first round of drafts next spring. Even if 2018 is the offensive ceiling for both -- and goodness gracious, it's hard to imagine it won't be, even though Lindor and Ramirez will be 25 and 26 years old, respectively, for the majority of the 2019 season -- that's a heck of a foundation with which to work.
**Corey Kluber has a legitimate shot to win his third AL Cy Young Award, and his second in as many years. The right-hander led the American League with his 215 innings and paired the volume with performance, finishing 20-7 with a 2.89 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 222 strikeouts in 33 starts. Few starters are more bankable for fantasy purposes: Kluber has now strung together five straight seasons with 200-plus innings, 222 or more strikeouts and an ERA at or below 3.49. That you get that kind of consistency with the unbelievable ceiling is amazing, and explains why he'll once again be one of the first pitchers off the board in drafts.
**Carrasco's name carries more cache and Clevinger's long-locked look is perhaps more memorable, but it was Trevor Bauer who had arguably the best season among the three non-Kluber starters. The enigmatic 27-year-old finished one strikeout shy of Kluber's 222 and just 10 behind Carrasco's team-leading 231, and his 2.21 ERA paced the club by a wide margin. What do we make of it? Well, the dominating 2018 came on the heels of a breakout second half in 2017, and he certainly seems to have found something that works for him after years of searching for the way to best unlock his boundless talent. This seems to be the real Bauer, within reason, and it's the one drafters should expect to see next year.
**Carlos Carrasco seems to sabotage his greatness with the occasional clunker sprinkled in, just to balance out his numbers and remind observers that he's human. If those stick in the viewer's mind, they have a micro-level opinion of him that belies just how good he is and has been for years. And this year was arguably his best, finishing one win shy of his career-best 18 wins in 2017 and posting a career-high 231 strikeouts. In talking about Kluber's consistency, how's this for reliability: in his last three seasons, Carrasco has had ERAs of 3.32, 3.29 and 3.38. He's good, he's near the peak of his powers, and he might be discounted because he's not even the best or (arguably) second-best starting pitcher on his own team.
**Kluber, Bauer and Carrasco are the household names, but Mike Clevinger is the new kid on the block. The right-hander won 13 games while striking out 207 batters and putting up a 3.02 ERA through 32 starts. Of course, there was indication that he was capable of something like this when in 2017 he finished with a 3.11 ERA and 137 strikeouts in 121 2/3 innings of work. He got even better by cutting his walk rate from 12 percent to 8.3 percent, while maintaining his swinging strike rate and throwing more strikes. There's nothing about his profile that suggests this was a fluke, so while there isn't likely much room to grow -- although he's a relatively new name to fans, he'll be 28 years old at the outset of the 2019 season -- he's in one of the first few tiers of starting pitchers for fantasy purposes.
**Cody Allen held the closer job down for years despite Indians fans and fantasy owners holding their breath seemingly every time he took the mound. That run ended for a time for Allen in 2018, as Allen and Brad Hand shared closing duties in August before Allen retook the gig down the stretch. With Allen now a free agent, the job seems to be Hand's to lose. Even if Allen is re-signed, Hand is the better reliever of the two and should be given every opportunity to win the job in spring. Tribe skipper Terry Francona's allegiance to Allen is a wild card -- again, assuming Allen is around in 2019, which is no certainty and may not even be a likelihood -- but Hand's talent should win out against any challenger, making him an upper-echelon fantasy closer in 2019.
**There was surely some concern as to whether Michael Brantley would ever play a full season again after serious injuries limited him to 11 games in 2016 and 90 games in 2017, but he came all the way back in 2018. The 31-year-old contributed in all five categories while playing in 143 games, registering 631 plate appearances. Now he hits the free agent market -- amazing how that works -- in search of a deal to the level of that five-category production. Where he lands will certainly be worth monitoring, but since his power numbers don't drive the conversation when it comes to Brantley, he'll hold a decent amount of his value wherever he ends up. His health will always be the wild card, which makes him a high-risk, high-reward play for those of the fantasy realm.
**Edwin Encarnacion's 2018 line: .246/.336/.474, 32 homers, 107 RBI, 74 runs scored. That's a step in the wrong direction, due in part to missing roughly 30 games, but his peripherals tell a similar story of a slugger who's about to turn 36 beginning to lose a tick. He's likely still got a good year or couple of years left in him, but the chances he falls off a cliff also go up with every passing year. Proceed with caution.
Team Needs: The possible departure of Brantley and Chisenhall leaves the team without two of its better outfielders in recent years, and Zimmer's health doesn't do anything to alleviate concerns. Hand and Adam Cimber are two solid bullpen pieces, but after that things get decidedly less certain. Otherwise, the team's terrific core is relatively young and will remain intact into 2019, barring the unforeseen, as they aim to make it four straight division titles, this time with a better final chapter.