It was never really a matter of "if" the Indians would play into October this season, but more a question of when and in what kind of shape would they be in when they got there.
Now the real decisions begin.
The Indians came within one game, one play, of winning the 2016 World Series, but last season experienced a disappointing and sudden end to their playoff dreams. So, after a season void of much need for a sense of urgency, Oct. 5 and Game 1 against the Houston Astros in the American League Division Series draws near.
For the most part, the Indians are entering this postseason healthier than they've been in their last two trips, but it’s far from a perfect scenario. These are the decisions facing manager Terry Francona and the front office regarding the roster they’ll take in the ALDS.
First, the pitching staff and how they handle their rotation. The last two Octobers, the Indians used a playoff rotation with at least one pitcher taking the mound on short rest. In 2016, devastating injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar resulted in Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin carrying the load. Last year, roster construction and injuries to outfielders left the Indians wanting more flexibility.
Entering this postseason, the Indians can abandon any need or desire to use any starter on short rest, which allows them to utilize a four-man rotation. Kluber and Carrasco will start Games 1 and 2 in Houston. That much is known. The question is with Games 3 and 4, but it should only be a question of the order, not if anyone goes on three days of rest. Bauer has had a Cy Young-level season and has mostly done well building back up from a stress fracture in his right fibula. He threw 60 pitches in a game on Tuesday and, if all goes well on Sunday, he could be in line for a healthy workload in Game 3 or Game 4. The other start should be left with Mike Clevinger, who has also enjoyed a breakout season and has maintained his stuff and velocity well into September.
Number of pitchers
Should the Indians carry 11 pitchers or 12? It was 11 last year, though that was partly because of Bauer pitching on short rest in Game 4 and the need for an extra spot because of Michael Brantley’s shaky status. The Indians can employ a rotation without anyone pitching on short rest while still only needing 11 pitchers this postseason.
The first three spots for relievers go to Cody Allen, Brad Hand and Andrew Miller — the backbone of the back end of the bullpen. The fourth likely goes to Shane Bieber, who can move to the ‘pen and give the Indians some added length and insurance. The fifth should be Oliver Perez, a third lefty who has had a dynamite season while helping to stabilize the bullpen. It’s difficult to ignore a 1.42 ERA and 1.71 FIP.
That leaves two spots up for grabs. One can go to Adam Cimber, who hasn’t had the same K/BB rate he did in San Diego but has had a quality September (2.53 ERA) after a rough August (8.10 ERA).
The Indians would likely love to bring Josh Tomlin along as a veteran presence and extra insurance, as well as a respected member of the clubhouse. Tomlin could be a free agent this offseason, but he hasn’t corrected his course enough in a disastrous season. He had a 4.15 ERA in September, but he also allowed four home runs in 17 1/3 innings.
The two most likely candidates for spot No. 7 are right-hander Dan Otero and left-hander Tyler Olson. Otero has been only so-so this season (5.25 ERA, 4.77 FIP) but has been better the last month (3 ER in 9 innings). Olson would be a fourth lefty, but he’s been terrific lately, allowing zero runs on five hits and 16 strikeouts over his last 9 1/3 innings. Unless the Indians carry an extra reliever, though, one of those relievers will have to be left off the roster.
The next 10
Assuming it’s an 11-man pitching staff, that leaves 14 spots for position players. Ten should be easy calls — the starting lineup of Yan Gomes, Yonder Alonso, Jose Ramirez, Josh Donaldson, Francisco Lindor, Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Melky Cabrera and Edwin Encarnacion, plus Roberto Perez as the backup catcher. That brings us to 21, including Perez.
The bench makeup
There are five candidates for those four spots: outfielders Brandon Guyer, Rajai Davis and Greg Allen and infielders Yandy Diaz and Erik Gonzalez.
Gonzalez figures to have a place on the roster as utility infielder, though he must be cleared from concussion protocol after being hit in the head with a pitch on Wednesday. Having his positional flexibility would be an asset. That’s 22.
Either Davis and Allen will be on the roster as a right-handed (or, in Allen’s case, a switch-hitting) complement to Kipnis in center field, as well as an option for some speed on the basepaths late in games. Allen has played well in the second half, hitting .306 with a .764 OPS after a number of mechanical adjustments he’s made with his swing. The Indians, though, have seemed to go to Davis more late in recent games, and they could opt for the veteran presence — not to mention that Davis hit the biggest home run for the Indians in a couple decades in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.
Is there room for both? Having one would render the other somewhat obsolete in a series. One of them will be the 23rd player on the roster.
Which next brings up Guyer, who hasn’t had the best season. He’s been borderline atrocious against right-handed pitching and the Indians probably can’t afford to allow him to log at-bats in any postseason series when a lefty isn’t on the mound. But, against lefties, he’s still been a weapon, posting an .804 OPS even in a down year. He’s also been better overall in September with a .275 average and .795 OPS. Guyer would fill out the Indians outfield with Brantley in left field, Kipnis and Allen or Davis in center and Cabrera and Guyer in right field. Guyer would be No. 24.
With Perez, Gonzalez, Davis/Allen and Guyer on the bench, that leaves the Indians with one spot left and two likely options: Diaz or whomever is left over between Davis and Allen.
Diaz, who hit .306 with a .766 OPS this season, could be an option to platoon with Alonso at first base, though his splits this year have been reversed — he’s posted an .847 OPS against right-handers and a .645 OPS against left-handers.
One of those bench options won’t be suiting up for the ALDS, and that last spot being available is only assuming 11 pitchers are carried.
The Indians have had their sights set on a World Series ring and anything less — even the longest winning streak in American League history last season — hasn’t been enough.
Starting Friday, the wait to try to atone for the disappointing ends of the last two Octobers begins.