For the Cleveland Indians, a 2019 squad that was supposed to coast to the playoffs fell to an upstart Minnesota Twins team despite winning 93 games. Of course, Cleveland only won 93 games because they shared a division with the rebuilding Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, and Chicago White Sox — and suddenly only two of those teams are still rebuilding, with the White Sox suddenly looking like a legitimate contender. Adding insult to injury, the team traded estwhile ace Corey Kluber to the Rangers for spare parts and salary relief, only to have de facto ace Mike Clevinger succumb to a torn meniscus weeks later. With all of this negativity, it’s easy to be down on Cleveland going into the 2020 season.
Yet the bones of a good team are still here. Fangraphs projects Cleveland for a .532 winning percentage in 2020, just a shade behind the Twins at .541, and ahead of the rebuilt White Sox — and a look at the team’s depth chart reveals why.
Let’s start with the position player side. Francisco Lindor remains in the handful of best players in baseball, coming off his second consecutive season with at least 30+ home runs, 20+ steals — this time in just 143 games. Lindor appears a lock for his sixth consecutive 4+ fWAR season in six seasons, and whilst he may never again flirt with 8 fWAR like he did in 2018, he’s still a bona fide superstar. Jose Ramirez, who posted a 146 wRC+ in back-to-back seasons in 2017 and 2018, was hitting .218/.308/.344 when the first half ended; he started pulling the ball again and hit .327/.365/.739 (176 wRC+) between the All-Star Break and when the season ended. Carlos Santana is going to walk a hundred times a season until the heat death of the universe.
Cleveland catches a lot of deserved flack for its lackluster outfield, but it’s not nearly as bad as you might think. Young center fielder Oscar Mercado hit .269/.318/.443, basically a league average batting line (95 wRC+), but he also hit 15 homers and stole 15 bases in just 482 plate appearances. Franmil Reyes, picked up last year from San Diego, is a terrible defender, but didn’t need the juiced ball to hit his 37 homers last year; if the team uses him at DH, he could well hit 50 homers, albeit with a 30% strikeout rate. Free agent signee Domingo Santana was having a nice rebound season (.286/.354/.496, 127 wRC+ at the All-Star Break) with the Seattle Mariners last year before injuries torpedoed his second-half numbers and ended his season prematurely; he might be the shrewdest free agent signing of any team this offseason. Jordan Luplow and Greg Allen will be there to pick up the slack. It’s not a great outfield, but it might be a great-hitting one.
So if Jose Ramirez really is back to his old self, the team will be able to lean far less on its outfield and complementary pieces. Second baseman Cesar Hernandez is the paradigmatic secondary piece; he’s not exciting, but you can basically set your watch by his league-average offense and defense with double digit homers and steals. And even if catcher Roberto Perez reverts to his pre-2019 offense without the juiced ball, he remains one of the best defensive catchers in the game.
Now comes the bad news.
The Indians entered last year with arguably the best starting pitching rotation in baseball, anchored by Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer. Now, Kluber is a Ranger, Bauer was lackluster and then became a Red, and Carrasco is coming back from a battle with leukemia. That left Clevinger as the team’s nominal ace, but though his performance in 2019 warranted the label (56 ERA-, 55 FIP-, 3.31 SIERA), his injuries (just 126 IP) made him a question mark - and that was before we learned he’d be out until May recovering from knee surgery.
Shane Bieber now projects as the team’s opening day starter, and although he’s a good pitcher (68 ERA-, 73 FIP- in 214 IP), he can’t carry all of the team’s innings by himself. Carrasco is a question mark; whether he can regain his previous elite form is anyone’s guess. And after him, the team has Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale; Plesac posted scary peripherals last year (6.85 K/9, 3.11 BB/9, 1.48 HR/9) en route to an xFIP over 5.00, and Civale’s shiny results (49 ERA-, 74 FIP-) in limited action were the result of an unsustainably low 6.6 percent HR% despite the juiced ball, lower than he’d posted at any minor league stop above low-A ball. As of now, Adam Plutko projects as the team’s number five starter, and he has a 5.08 ERA/5.61 FIP/5.53 xFIP across 189 career innings.
Prospect Logan Allen was picked up from the Padres in the aforementioned Bauer trade, but Allen was terrible in Triple-A before the trade (5.15 ERA/4.87 FIP/4.77 xFIP) and somehow worse afterwards (7.66 ERA/7.39 FIP/6.34 xFIP), whilst not acquitting himself well in the big leagues either. If Allen is needed early on, Cleveland is probably in trouble. In short, Cleveland badly needs Clevinger healthy, because if he’s not, this starting rotation could have significant problems.
Unfortunately, Cleveland’s bullpen isn’t a harbinger of success either. Southpaw Brad Hand will once again be the closer and Oliver Perez can probably get lefties out just as long as Jesse Orosco did, but primary setup men Nick Wittgren and Adam Cimber both posted FIPs well over 4 last year. If there’s a savior to be found, it will be in Emmanuel Clase, the fireballing 21-year-old who was the primary return for Kluber; if he replicates his Rangers performance over a full season with Cleveland, the pen will at least be competent. Still, there just aren’t nearly enough pieces for this group to be called “good.”
So what will the 2020 season look like in Cleveland? In a best case scenario, Clevinger comes back on May 1st and stays healthy the rest of the way, Carrasco returns to his 2018 form, and a Clevinger-Bieber-Carrasco trio forms the basis for a strong playoff rotation, whilst Clase breaks out and Lindor and Ramirez carry a powerful offense. That’s certainly plausible - it’s not a “if you squint, maybe you see it” long shot - but it would require an awful lot to go right.
It’s just as possible that Clevinger suffers a setback, Carrasco isn’t effective, Ramirez slumps again, and Santana and Reyes struggle so much defensively that the homers aren’t enough to add meaningful value or to outslug a terrible pitching staff, and Lindor ends up traded at the deadline. If that happens, Cleveland might finish closer to 70 wins than 90. If this is indeed Lindor’s swan song in Cleveland - he’s a free agent after 2021, and rumors continue to swirl that the team would trade him rather than extend him — he deserved better than this flawed team as his closing act.