The Cleveland Indians remained in playoff contention until the final series of the regular season. However, their Friday night loss to the Nationals in tandem with the Rays' win in Toronto means that their 2019 season is effectively over.
Narrowly missing the postseason in MLB is a bit like losing a close game writ large. When the margins are tight, there's rarely one thing you can point to as the culprit. Rather, we tend to ignore the many turning points and focus on what happened near the end. The ninth-inning error lodges in our mind more firmly than the grooved 0-2 pitch in the third.
That brings us back to the 2019 Indians. They barely missed making the playoffs for a fourth-straight year, as it took until the final series of the regular season for the A's and Rays to freeze them out of the AL Wild Card Game. In this instance, though, you can lay a great deal of blame on what happened before the season even began: the complete failure of Cleveland ownership to invest in the roster.
Last year, the Indians won 93 games and claimed the AL Central title for the third straight year. They had a strong returning core going into 2019, fronted by the likes of Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Carlos Carrasco. Rather than add to that core in an effort to win the World Series for the first time since 1948, ownership retrenched. They cut payroll and along the way allowed veteran contributors Michael Brantley, Andrew Miller, Josh Donaldson, and Cody Allen to depart via free agency, and they ordered the trade of catcher Yan Gomes. They haven't missed all those names, but the Indians would be be a playoff team and maybe a division champ with Brantley and Donaldson on the 2019 roster. Sure, the AL Central looked like an eminently winnable division coming in, but the Twins this season acutely reminded the Indians that such assumptions are hazardous.
The Indians' marquee signing of the winter? That would be lefty reliever Oliver Perez, whom they inked to a $2.5 million contract. At a time when Cleveland should've been working to surround their championship-caliber core with useful supporting pieces, the Indians chose to go into austerity mode. Over the winter, the front office cut more than $15 million from the 2018 Opening Day salary obligations and reversed almost a decade-long trend of year-over-year increases. It cost them.
The outfield has been a particular trouble spot. It was a concern last year even with Brantley in the fold, and this season they came in with "bold solutions" like Jordan Luplow and Carlos Gonzalez along with holdover Leonys Martin. The eventual promotion of Oscar Mercado helped matters somewhat, as did the deadline addition of Yasiel Puig. Mercado, though, wasn't called up until mid-May, and it was August before Puig played his first game with Cleveland. Second base has also been a notable weak spot, as has DH (and the addition of Franmil Reyes in the Puig deal hasn't greatly helped matters). That those positions wound up as trouble spots also isn't surprising.
Cleveland has a pretty heady front office, and they no doubt were aware they were in essence taking a pass on almost half the lineup. The pitching injuries and illnesses are duly noted, but even with all of that the Indians still had one of the best rotations in baseball. This team missed the postseason by just a win or two, depending on how things wind up, and you can find those missing wins in the lineups manager Terry Francona was forced to trot out for much of the year.
It says a lot -- none of it good -- about ownership when the response to an ALDS sweep at the hands of the Astros is to get cheaper, not better. Such tight-fisted passivity on the part of team owners should be denounced. So it is that the story of the 2019 Indians is how the Dolan family cheaped out when it mattered.