The Cleveland Indians are expected to claim their fourth American League Central title in a row this season, en route to what should be a seventh consecutive winning campaign. Add in All-Star Game hosting duties, and this should be a fun season in Cleveland — one that could, theoretically, culminate in the franchise’s first World Series victory since 1948.
Unfortunately, it won’t be as fun as it could be. Cleveland is coming off one of the sport’s most disappointing offseasons. There’s no doubt the team remains the favorite in the Central, but its quarter-measures have left reduced chances at winning the pennant.
- Leonys Martin, CF
- Jason Kipnis, 2B
- Jose Ramirez, 3B
- Carlos Santana, DH
- Jake Bauers, 1B
- Tyler Naquin, RF
- Kevin Plawecki, C
- Matt Joyce, LF
- Eric Stamets, SS
The glaring omission here is shortstop Francisco Lindor, who is expected to miss the beginning of the season due to a strained calf. With him, Cleveland has two MVP-caliber performers, in him and Ramirez. This group isn’t inspiring without either. Cleveland figures to run a series of platoons throughout the season, particularly in the outfield. Santana returned as part of a cash-swap with the Seattle Mariners involving Edwin Encarnacion. Bauers is another trade addition — one who could see action at first base and in the corner outfield. He has a good eye but the Rays could never help him tap into his full power potential. Keep an eye on the catching situation. Perez is a good defender and horrendous hitter; Plawecki is injury-prone, yet has a 97 OPS+ over the last two seasons. One non-roster invitee not referenced above who could break camp with the club: Hanley Ramirez.
Here’s the strength of this team. Kluber, Carrasco, and Bauer could each conceivably challenge for the Cy Young Award. Clevinger, meanwhile, has a big arm and demonstrated last season he can be an above-average workhorse. Cleveland has floated Bieber in trade talks, but his pitchability and poise gives him the chance to be a fixture in a big-league rotation. Top prospect Triston McKenzie could debut before the season ends. Adam Plutko, Cody Anderson, Danny Salazar and Chih-Wei Hu could get the nod here and there as need be, too.
Say this if nothing else, Cleveland has a lot of options to sort through in its bullpen. Hand is, by far, the best of this bunch. Wilson and Clippard are coming off solid seasons, though neither profiles as a true late-inning reliever anymore — Wilson lives on the ground, Clippard through the air. Nick Wittgren, Nick Goody, James Hoyt, and Justin Grimm each have previous big-league experience and could find themselves in the fold. Prospects Nick Sandlin and James Karinchak are also likely to join the ranks before the season ends.
A cold winter
To be clear: Cleveland didn’t bottom out. The team’s Opening Day payroll is slated to be around $116 million, higher than many small-market teams. Still, it’s a reduction from the past two seasons, down about $18 million from the end of last season — when the franchise finished the year with the 16th-highest payroll in baseball. That dip comes at a time when the extra coin could’ve helped.
Instead Cleveland’s ownership forced the front office to trade starting backstop Yan Gomes, weigh dealing a starting pitcher, and permit a number of veteran free agents (Josh Donaldson, Michael Brantley, Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen) to leave to greener pastures. Despite a shaky outfield and bullpen, Cleveland didn’t sign a single free agent to a big-league contract.
You can argue Cleveland stretched the past two seasons and should be commended for that, but why stop now? Trevor Bauer is a free agent after 2020; Corey Kluber and Francisco Lindor are after 2021. Odds are, at least one of the three will be dealt before they’re allowed to walk. This season, then, could be the last chance Cleveland has at maximizing this core — after the winter, you can’t say the team is doing everything it can in order to make the most of it.
Despite everything said above, Cleveland remains the favorite in the Central — and by a safe margin. FanGraphs has Cleveland down for 92 wins, or 10 better than the Twins. Baseball Prospectus has Cleveland in at 96 wins, 14 more than the Twins. Injuries and over/underperformance can and will change that, but it’s clear the projection systems don’t think there’s going to be much of a race in the Central.
Where things fall apart for Cleveland is envisioning this squad trying to beat two of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Astros in order to earn entrance into the World Series. Anything can happen in five to seven games, but it’s a hard sell.
The funny thing about Cleveland’s offseason is that it’s easy to see some of the cheap gambles paying dividends. We mentioned Wilson and Clippard in the bullpen section, but let’s roll through some of the hitters.
- Plawecki has proven he can hit. If he can stay healthy, and perhaps work on his receiving, he should spend most of the season as the primary backstop.
- Ball-tracking metrics suggest Joyce had a better season last year than his raw numbers suggest. He’s always hit right-handed pitching, and manager Terry Francona is skilled at running a platoon. Bet on a bounce-back.
- Cleveland is the best team in the majors at altering hitters’ launch angles. Luplow and Bauers, then, could tap into more of their raw pop. At minimum, Luplow should prove to be an improvement over Brandon Guyer. Bauers could be the long-term answer at first base or DH. (If not, Cleveland could give time to Bobby Bradley. who has maximized his power, albeit with ample issues of his own.)
- Ramirez disappeared last season after being released by the Red Sox. As with Joyce, his ball-tracking metrics were much better than his numbers. Ramirez even posted a new personal-high in exit velocity, in large part by leading the majors in miles per hour on groundballs. Who knows if he’ll offer anything.
And so on. Cleveland has a brilliant front office and has shown the ability to get the most from role players, which bodes well for at least one or two of the above to outpace expectations. That doesn’t excuse ownership cheaping out completely — imagine if this team had signed Yasmani Grandal, or had retained Donaldson, or … — but it should make the club look better in the long run than it looks right now.
Hey, if we’re going to highlight what could go better-than-expected with the Cleveland lineup, it’s only fair to highlight some potential risks, too.
- Kipnis looked better in the second half last season, but the larger sample over the last two years suggests he might be a well-below-average hitter now. Generally, players don’t pull out of multi-year slumps as they’re entering their age-32 season. We hope he does, for his sake.
- Martin hasn’t played in a regular season game since a life-threatening bacterial infection ended his 2018 season in August. Again, we hope he’s back to normal, but it’s understandable if he’s not as sharp as hoped.
- Naquin actually has a 105 OPS+ in his nearly 600 career big-league plate appearances. He’s been a negative over the last two seasons, however, and there’s sufficient reason to expect those career marks to dip further.
- Remember all those guys we mentioned as mystery boxes who could overperform? Yeah, there’s also a chance they underperform. This lineup, as constructed, is going to have serious boom-or-bust potential.
Hope for the future?
Cleveland doesn’t have a great farm system. There aren’t many youngsters coming up who will make sizable impacts on this season. Still, Cleveland has a number of interesting prospects who could see their stocks improve greatly over the coming year. Some names to keep an eye on: righty Luis Oviedo, outfielder George Valera, third baseman Nolan Jones, lefty Sam Hentges, and righty Ethan Hankins.