GOODYEAR, Ariz. — The Cleveland Indians figure to stand firmly among baseball’s best in 2018, a legitimate World Series contender and, arguably, one of the favorites.
They won’t be overlooked or overestimated, but if much of the spotlight and hype is directed toward the Houston Astros or the New York Yankees?
Well, that’s fine with them. They’re not here to count how many reporters are in each clubhouse.
This nucleus of players went on the improbable run to extra innings of Game 7 of the World Series in 2016, when they came within one pitch, one hit, one play, one lucky break of winning it all.
They added free agent Edwin Encarnacion last offseason and won 102 games, which included the longest winning streak in American League history, in 2017. The 2016 and 2017 seasons ended with varying degrees of frustration as the Indians fell short of their No. 1 goal.
Heading into the 2018 season, the American League landscape is top heavy. The defending champion Astros look even better on paper than last year after adding pitcher Gerrit Cole and others. The Yankees ended the Indians’ postseason hopes a year ago and then acquired power-hitting outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, the reigning National League Most Valuable Player. The Boston Red Sox still have the dynamic pitching duo of Chris Sale and David Price and added slugging outfielder J.D. Martinez. The Indians round out the grouping of four, all looking like potential 95-win quality teams, with some outsiders like the Los Angeles Angels, Minnesota Twins and a few others vying for the fifth and final postseason spot in the American League.
Respect for all
All of the big four are garnering national respect. All four are being picked by different outlets to be the last team standing. The Indians might have the easiest road to October baseball, though the Astros should run away with the West, as well. Three teams in the AL Central — the Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals — are in various stages of rebuilding. The White Sox did a solid job, by most accounts, with the prospect hauls they received for Sale, Melky Cabrera and others. They have a bright future, but it isn’t expected to arrive in 2018. The Tigers and Royals are entering some dark days with little hope and have less help on the way.
Then there’s the Twins, who won 85 games last season and stand as the Indians’ lone threat in the division. Some veteran additions, such as first baseman Logan Morrison, starting pitcher Lance Lynn and reliever Addison Reed, were brought in to supplement a younger talent corps, led by rising star outfielder Byron Buxton. The Twins are on their way up, but the Indians remain the clear Kings of the Central, at least on paper.
But who should be considered the top dog in the American League? Much of the national excitement and focus, at least, has been funneled to the Astros and the Yankees. A USA Today story outlined one sentiment from the Astros clubhouse that, for anyone who says the American League runs through New York now that they boast a lineup with Stanton and Aaron Judge, there’s a “What about Houston?” response from the reigning champs.
Talk is cheap
If you’re looking at 2018, the Indians might have a case to say, “What about Cleveland?” But the Indians don’t care about all that. Talk is cheap, and after the last two Octobers and how close they came in 2016, results are all that matter.
“Yeah, let them think what they want to think,” pitcher Josh Tomlin said. “That’s fine with us. We can’t control what people think. We understand what we did last year. We know we’re a very good team and maybe got better this year. Our job is to go out there and play. It’s not about worrying about what people think or who the team is to go through in the AL. That’ll work itself out in the end.”
The Indians didn’t find the endings to 2016 or 2017 for which they were hoping, but it’s also clear what they are capable of when healthy. They don’t feel like they’re chasing anybody.
“What other teams do, (free-agent) market or trade wise, we view that as them trying to catch us,” Tomlin said. “Obviously, we know what Houston did last year and what the Yankees did to us, but we feel we have a good group of guys in here.”
This follows some of the mantras the Indians have employed in the past. For example, as the Indians rattled off wins No. 20, 21 and 22 in their historic winning streak last season, much of the focus was simply on the next day’s game. The clubhouse wasn’t an ongoing party or a playoff-like atmosphere. It had an eerie normalcy to it. It was business usual. Control what you can control. That’s what the Indians have preached from the top down.
“I believe in my team and I know what we have in here,” shortstop Francisco Lindor said. “I know what we’re capable of doing. I don’t have to worry about them. We don’t worry about anything else but what we have in here and playing the game the right way.”
Perhaps someone in the clubhouse could be baited into a flashy quote to grab headlines or give the Astros, Yankees or Red Sox something to put on their bulletin board. More likely than not, anyone, like Lindor, will repeat the company line and just grab his glove and run out onto the field. The Indians don’t want to be concerned with the extracurriculars, and it’s something the organization has bought into completely.
They prefer to speak softly and carry a big stick. Or in this case, a bat.
“Houston should get the attention. They’re the world champs,” Lindor said. “The Yankees are the Yankees and they’re a good team. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter (who gets the spotlight). If you play the way we’re supposed to play, and we know how to play, well, I like my chances.”
And he should.