As of June 1st, the Indians sit at .491 with a record of 28-29, and are 10.5 games out of first place in the AL Central. To most, this is a complete shock. People were not necessarily picking Cleveland to win the World Series coming into 2019, but they certainly were picking them to have a winning record. In fact, almost everyone had the Indians winning the division they now trail by over 10 games. In my 2019 Indians season preview, which you can read here, I picked Cleveland to win 83 games, which was on the extreme low end of the spectrum. With a losing record, they are not even on pace to meet that mark. An optimist would claim that the Indians have been hurt, particularly in their starting pitching, which is the strength of their team. On top of that, they would also claim that 2018 AL MVP finalist Jose Ramirez will get back on track soon. Finally, they would say that the Minnesota Twins, who currently own the best record in baseball, are sure to cool off in the coming weeks. While all of these points are plausible, I am not an optimist. Even if everything goes their way, this team does not have the makings of a playoff team, much less a World Series contender.
Why can’t this team get back on track? To put it simply, they cannot score any runs. They average just over four runs per game, which is nowhere close to the mark of a viable offense. If everyone in the lineup were under-performing, that would be one problem. However, the Indians lack of offense isn’t surprising, or at least shouldn’t be, given who they have in the lineup. Francisco Lindor is performing slightly under his career averages, but the difference is microscopic in the grand scheme of this horrific offense. Carlos Santana has greatly out-performed expectations thus far, with an OPS over .900. To put the rest of the lineup into perspective, the highest OPS outside of Lindor and Santana is Jake Bauers, who posts a current mark of .639. The only player that is drastically under-performing is Jose Ramirez. However, at what point is he no longer under-performing, and just isn’t that good anymore? Ramirez slashed .174/.322/.315 in the last month of 2018 and has slashed .211/.314/.319 in his first two months of 2019. That is quite the slump, and it may be such a long slump that it isn’t even a slump anymore, it’s just the player he is now. Obviously, the expectation is still that he picks up his play substantially throughout the season. However, with an offense this bad, even an MVP Ramirez would probably not be good enough to right the ship.
If the Indians are, for lack of a better term, toast, then what comes next? The answer is somewhat obvious, but it likely will not happen due to the current ownership. Cleveland currently finds themselves in purgatory. The team is nowhere near good enough to win a championship, but nowhere near bad enough to be in a full rebuild. Teams in this position have two options: they either go out and get the players they need to contend for a championship or trade away their best players to enter a rebuild for the future. Which choice is right for the Indians? Well, that question was answered in the off-season. Coming off of their third straight AL Central crown, Indians upper management elected to make the team worse over the off-season, in favor of financial flexibility. Although it did not happen, there was speculation all throughout the off-season of Cleveland dealing one of their stellar starting pitchers, specifically Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer. That was very symbolic of the front office plan for this team going forward. 2018 All-Star catcher Yan Gomes was traded for prospect Daniel Johnson, who was not expected to contribute in any way at the major league level in 2019. The move saved the team roughly seven million dollars, which was obviously the goal of the trade from the Indians’ side. Cleveland also allowed real contributors from 2018 to walk in free agency without making any sort of attempt to retain them. Longtime Indian and former fan favorite Michael Brantley is having an All-Star type season in Houston. Additionally, Cleveland allowed two of their best bullpen arms, Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, to sign with the Angels and Cardinals respectively. The off-season goal for the Indians was to cut payroll, and they did that. However, the team was made significantly worse through these money-saving moves and we are now seeing the repercussions.
Based on all of their moves in the off-season, the Indians have ruled out one of the two options that mediocre teams have. Those two options, as mentioned before, are to either go for a championship or build for the future, and Cleveland is clearly not doing the former. One might argue that they are simply waiting until the trade deadline, when they will have fully assessed team needs and be able to fill them for a run into October. The problem with this train of thought is that this team is simply too bad to be repaired at the deadline. With a team whose players are not drastically underperforming, adding a veteran bat or a bullpen arm at the deadline is not going to make up that ten game hole in the division. Additionally, with such a big deficit to make up, bulking up at the deadline becomes an unwise decision for the future. If Cleveland elects to trade top prospects to try and win now, they are mortgaging their future. For a team that will almost certainly not make the postseason anyway, that is not an advisable decision. It would be similar to what we saw the Pittsburgh Pirates do in 2018 when they traded for starting pitcher Chris Archer. The Pirates had recently won ten straight games and wanted to make a run at the postseason. To do this, they traded three very highly rated prospects in Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and Shane Baz for Archer. The result was missing the postseason anyway and now being significantly set back in a rebuild without three players who are now establishing themselves as legitimate major leaguers in Tampa Bay. Either way, the Indians are most likely not planning on taking this route when the time comes. As previously stated, it was decided in the off-season that this team was not going all in to win a championship.
If the option of going all in is officially ruled out, that leaves the other option which is much less popular among fans. That option is, of course, to trade every valuable player for prospects and rebuild. With arguably the best starting rotation in baseball and two extremely valuable position players, this would be a very hard pill to swallow. However, at this point, it is the best course of action. If this team has decided not to try and win a championship, it makes no sense to just wait for all the valuable players to walk in free agency. Instead, the more logical approach would be to trade every good player on the roster as soon as possible. Francisco Lindor would command as much in a trade as almost any player in the league, but every game he plays with the Indians is a game the team that trades for him could not get back. The same applies for Jose Ramirez, and even though he is under-performing, he is more valuable to the Indians franchise in a trade than he is playing for the team. Both Lindor and Ramirez have very low salaries, and any team that is looking to make an October run would be an eager trade partner. Given Ramirez’s recent production, it would probably be a better idea to wait until his play improves before dealing him. However, Lindor should be traded at the earliest available instant (waiting only to receive a better return, of course), and there is no way Ramirez should still be on the roster at season’s end. The same goes for this stellar pitching staff, which contains both established veterans like Corey Kluber and exciting youngsters like Shane Bieber. Kluber has been one of the most consistent starting pitchers in the majors since his first Cy Young award in 2014. He probably should have been traded in the off-season, but as the saying goes, “better late than never.” Trevor Bauer was the other primary name that came up in off-season trade speculation coming off of his breakout 2018. Bauer is currently on the last year of his contract, but a trade to a contender could yield some serious help to the farm system. Carlos Carrasco was extended over the off-season, so a team that is looking to compete for years to come, perhaps a team like the Atlanta Braves, might be eager to acquire him. Mike Clevinger showed before his injury that he can be a great pitcher in the majors, and at 28 years old, he is probably too old to keep through a rebuild. Still, he’s young enough to be very attractive in a trade, and it would be the most logical decision to deal him. Shane Bieber is the toughest case of the bunch, given his age. At 24 years old, he could very well be young enough to keep through a rebuild. However, like Clevinger, his youth makes him a good trade piece. It would probably be best for the Indians to test the market for Bieber, and only pull the trigger if a serious return can be obtained. It certainly wouldn’t be fun, but through a fire sale, the Indians could give themselves one of the best farm systems in baseball, and put themselves in as good a position as anyone to win the future.
Unfortunately, for this rebuild to actually occur, the people making the decisions have to sign off on it. The problem with that is that the Indians front office sees this issue differently. They do not see it as two options, one to go for it and one to rebuild. They instead prefer the third option, which is to do absolutely nothing. This course of action might seem very illogical at first… because it is. However, Paul Dolan does not see the dilemma as a baseball issue, but instead a financial issue. Dolan wants to maximize the profitability of the team, so how does this relate to the product on the field? Penny-pinching obviously rules out the option of going all in. The Indians had absolutely no interest in perusing any big-name free agents, and instead significantly cut payroll during the off-season. The problem with the fire sale is that a rebuild makes the team terrible temporarily. The time being terrible is worth it of course, because it puts the team in a much better position to win further down the road. However, for that period of time in which the team is terrible, ticket sales will likely drop significantly. That is not good for Dolan’s wallet. That leaves the strategy of straddling the fence. The goal for Cleveland ownership is to field the most competitive team possible while spending as little money as possible. That course of action would lead to keeping young players who are on rookie deals, like Francisco Lindor, until they walk in free agency. Extending Lindor would cost too much money, and trading him before his deal is up would make the team less competitive. Paul Dolan has attempted to make a small market baseball team into a money-making machine. Whether or not it has worked for him is irrelevant, because I can tell you that none of the fans care. What is for sure is that the way Dolan has elected to have this team run is just about the worst way to have team success. Unfortunately, the Indians are likely to remain a mediocre team as long as the franchise is run this way. The only chance of winning a title is if the team out-performs everyone’s expectations and makes an unexpected championship run in October, something we almost saw this team do in 2018. In the meantime, the fans can, in the words of Paul Dolan, “enjoy” being in second place in the AL Central as they continue to fall behind.
Featured Image: Arturo Pardavila III on Flickr