It’s easy to look at team that has subtracted stars from its roster and conclude that it is headed for a step back. For Cleveland, those subtracted stars include the likes of Francisco Lindor, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Santana and Brad Hand. To be fair, I am not here to opine that the 2021 iteration of the Cleveland Baseball Team is better without them—clearly they are not. Instead, this team remains competitive despite these subtractions, rather than because of them, thanks to its ability to stack pitching depth while being just barely competent enough on offense.
With a projection of 85.2 wins, PECOTA likes Cleveland’s outlook better than FanGraphs, who has them as a .500 team. The main difference between the two systems is that while both agree that the Twins are better, only FanGraphs buys the White Sox. I may be a little more bullish on Cleveland even than PECOTA, as it is my belief that not only that they are better than the Sox, they are a legitimate contender to win the division entirely.
This may be a bold prediction considering that Cleveland finished the 2020 season tied with Chicago for second in the division in an extremely tight race, not to mention they will be without the aforementioned players. Further, while the other two were busy this offseason, Cleveland’s additions were more modest, with their biggest free agent acquisition being Minnesota non-tender Eddie Rosario.
This leads us to the biggest challenge facing this team: the offense. With an 87 wRC+, Cleveland brought baseball’s fourth worst offense in baseball to the postseason. Their outfield offense was especially bad, posting a pedestrian 54 wRC+. The addition of a league average bat in Rosario should be a major upgrade (that feels strange to say), so should a full year of Josh Naylor, who most projections have slightly on the better side of league average as well.
The rest of the outfield share will be a split between some interesting players who all seem to be at an inflection point in their careers. Roster Resource lists Oscar Mercado as the everyday centerfielder which feels right. Mercado had a respectable rookie campaign in 2019 when he posted a 96 wRC+ and a 1.8 fWAR in 115 games—another line that would provide a major offensive boost. The ‘20 campaign wasn’t as kind, as Mercado was sub replacement level.
If Mercado falters to start ‘21, Jordan Luplow and Bradley Zimmer represent the next two up on the depth chart. Like Mercado, Luplow had a relatively strong ‘19 but followed up with a less than stellar ‘20. Projections output production similar to Mercado’s, which would make him a solid fourth outfielder. It’s hard to nail down what to expect from Zimmer, who hasn’t seen much of the field since he came up as a toolsy centerfielder in 2017. He had some good moments, but ultimately never proved to be a stable producer. Now 29, any number of outcomes are possible.
While the outfield looks to be better, if painfully average, the infield, at least on paper, is where things look to take a step back. José Ramírez was great again in ‘20, posting a career best 164 wRC+. César Hernández brings his great defense back to the keystone, as well as another league average bat with a little pop.
The shortstop position will be one to keep a close eye on. The shoes of Lindor will be big ones to fill, but Andrés Giménez and fellow Mets acquiree Ahmed Rosario are competent albeit worse fills for the position. Even if one or both play at their ceilings, this represents a downgrade from the team’s former franchise player. But consider this, with Lindor coming off of a year in which his aggregate value was at a career-low (102 wRC+, 1.8 WAR in 60 games), they don’t need either of his replacements to be great for the team to be good.
The story is similar at first base, where Carlos Santana, like Lindor, had the worst output of his career as well. Jake Bauers is the favorite to start here, a player who didn’t play in the majors at all in ‘20. While the upside of his bat hasn’t quite materialized in the game’s highest level just yet, the fact that he draws walks at a high clip is reason to be optimistic, and after all, he is still just 25 years old.
Roberto Pérez and Austin Hedges make up an especially strong defensive catching core. Pérez enjoyed a nice offensive breakout in ‘19 when he mashed 24 homers en route to a 99 wRC+. He was unable to follow up that success however, posting a 36 wRC+ in ‘20. Hedges, another plus defender with a weak bat is a nice compliment to Pérez, even if he may be a Jeff Mathis in the making. Finally, Franmil Reyes will continue to mash. Not much else to add here.
Sketchy offense aside, Cleveland’s claim to fame is their stacked pitching staff, led by reigning Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber. By fWAR, Cleveland’s pitching staff was a full win and a half better than the next best team—a pretty impressive gap for 60 games. Their starting in staff in particular posted a 3.17 ERA/3.64 FIP/3.51 xFIP, and looks to be just as strong in the coming year.
Zach Plesac emerged as a legitimate No. 2 starter with a 2.28 ERA/3.39 FIP and Aaron Civale turned in a good year as well. Perhaps the most interesting and important piece to this rotation will be No. 2 prospect Triston McKenzie, who dazzled in his 33 1/3 inning sample. If he can repeat his success, he could be a favorite for the American League Rookie of the Year honor. Favorites to soak up the remaining bulk innings include any or all of Cal Quantrill, Adam Plutko and No. 15 Logan Allen.
On a rate basis, Cleveland’s bullpen was the best in baseball as well. James Karinchak and Phil Maton are emerging high leverage stars, and Emmanuel Clase, looks to prove himself after sitting out all of last year serving a PED suspension.
In all, Cleveland will play good defense and pitch extremely well. Their offense remains suspect, but will be vastly improved even if it approaches somewhere around league average. Although they are surely a worse team on paper from a year ago, with a few steps forward from key players, they should be able to replace the production they have parted ways with over the last year. Even if winning the division is a stretch unless everything breaks right, Cleveland is a legitimate contender.
Brian Menéndez is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a senior writer for DRaysBay. Additionally, he has been featured in The Hardball Times. You can find Brian on Twitter at @briantalksbsb.