As we prepare for the 2021 season, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s off-season and previewing the season to come. Today, Peter Khayat takes a look at the Cleveland Indians!
2020 Record: 35-25, 2nd Place in AL Central
Team MVP: Jose Ramirez
Team Cy Young: Shane Bieber
Following a heartbreaking Wild Card round sweep, most fans would probably call Cleveland’s 2020 season an utter failure. I would have trouble disagreeing with this sentiment, but the season certainly wasn’t all for nothing. We saw Jose Ramirez make the best run at MVP by an Indians player in years, and we saw Shane Bieber have one of the most dominant pitching seasons in club history. At 35-25, Cleveland was on a 95-win pace over the shortened 2020 season. If we exclude their two heartbreaking postseason defeats, this team played like a contender. Overall, it was a season not unfamiliar to fans, and 2021 presents less hope than 2020. However, nobody wants to watch baseball with that attitude, so let’s talk about what this team can do this season.
Notable Free Agent Additions: OF Eddie Rosario
It was a pretty standard offseason by Cleveland standards. After finishing 2020 in a position to compete, ownership let the team become worse. Two of the club’s biggest free agents, Carlos Santana and Brad Hand, were let walk without much of an effort to re-sign them. However, as far as free agent additions go, it could be argued this was a bigger offseason than usual (which certainly reflects more on the general inactivity of the organization than it does on the acquisitions they made this winter). The team re-signed fan favorite Cesar Hernandez to a one-year, $5 million contract. In his first season with Cleveland, Hernandez trailed only MVP runner up Jose Ramirez in both wRC+ and fWAR. Eddie Rosario, who was signed to a one year, $8 million contact, could also prove to be a significant addition in a perennially struggling outfield.
Finally, there’s the elephant in the room. Ownership prioritized their pocketbooks over a championship when they traded franchise player Francisco Lindor along with Carlos Carrasco to the New York Mets. The return certainly could have been worse, and we’ll get into how those pieces might contribute in 2021. Overall, this offseason will undoubtedly result in a worse on-field product this season than last, but I’d be lying if I said this team doesn’t have a chance to outperform expectations.
2021 Season Preview
According to FanGraphs, this is what the lineup projects to look like this season, with new additions in bold:
- 2B Cesar Hernandez
- 3B José Ramírez
- LF Eddie Rosario
- DH Franmil Reyes
- RF Josh Naylor
- C Roberto Pérez
- 1B Jake Bauers
- CF Oscar Mercado
- SS Andrés Giménez
The biggest question marks about the lineup going into the season will likely concern shortstop, first base, and the outfield. It remains unclear who will be the opening day shortstop, but it becomes questionable as to why the team acquired Amed Rosario from the Mets if they plan to start the younger Giménez right away. Carlos Santana’s departure, along with Franmil Reyes’ inability to play the field, leaves a gaping hole at first base. FanGraphs projects Bauers to fill this role, who, in 117 career games with Cleveland, has accumulated a whopping -0.3 fWAR. It is Bauers’ struggles coupled with the fact that he did not play in 2020 that may lead the club to look elsewhere to fill the position. Don’t be surprised if we see Bobby Bradley make a return to the majors, and even top prospect Nolan Jones has been considered. Eddie Rosario and Josh Naylor will likely be everyday players in the outfield, but there is little to like about what Mercado brings to the lineup after his -11 wRC+ campaign over 36 games in 2020. It would be surprising if prospect Daniel Johnson does not make an appearance in the Cleveland outfield at some point. Overall, this lineup is objectively bad. Signs point to Jose Ramirez being able to consistently produce at some level resembling 2020, but the same cannot be said for really anyone else in the lineup. Realistically, we could see this unit finish anywhere from bottom 5 to roughly average among the rest of the league.
After the mass exodus of starting pitchers via trade the last few years, there’s little to argue with about this projected rotation. It’s possible we could see Cal Quantrill makes some starts from that 5 spot along with Allen, but that first four will almost certainly remain that way for the duration of 2021. Unlike the last few seasons, most of Cleveland’s top pitching prospects are years away from being major league ready, so we likely won’t see that same level of turnover in 2021.
As far as performance goes, there’s nothing to say this rotation won’t continue to be among the league’s best. The 2020 rotation was able to claim the top ERA in baseball, and the 2021 version features mostly the same pitchers. The biggest concern is that, because Cleveland only played teams in the AL and NL Central divisions in 2020, this rotation got to face considerably weaker lineups than teams in other divisions. Although this will not be the case this season, Cleveland will still play almost half of their games against the AL Central in 2021. Not only should this rotation be one of the best in baseball, it will likely have to be for this team to go anywhere. As aforementioned, it would be wishful thinking to assume average production from this lineup, so this team will undoubtedly live or die by the starting pitcher.
- RHP James Karinchak
- RHP Nick Wittgren
- RHP Emmanuel Clase
- RHP Phil Maton
- RHP Cal Quantrill
- LHP Oliver Perez
- RHP Adam Plutko
- RHP Blake Parker
- RHP Trevor Stephan
As with the starting rotation, this unit both should and likely will have to be among the league’s best in order for this team to win games. In 2020, Cleveland’s bullpen pitched themselves to the 5th best ERA in the majors, and coupled with the rotation’s league-best ERA formed a truly formidable pitching staff. There is also little with this unit to suggest any massive dip in production. The loss of closer Brad Hand is certainly a big one, but with it comes the return of the headlining piece of the Corey Kluber trade, Emmanuel Clase. Clase consistently throws in the triple digits and the organization was reportedly very high on him when they acquired him. If he’s able to put it together, we could see production that even exceeds in filling the hole left by Hand’s departure. Outside of that, the guys getting the majority of innings out of the pen will most likely be the same. James Karinchak and Phil Maton will look to build off of excellent 2020 campaigns, and whichever of Logan Allen or Cal Quantrill that doesn’t end up in the rotation will be able to provide solid long relief along with Adam Plutko. The lineup certainly has seen better days, but business is still booming at the Cleveland Pitching Factory.
FanGraphs Projected Record: 80.3-81.7, 3rd place in AL Central
PECOTA Projected Record: 85.4-76.6, 2nd place in AL Central
Personal Projection: 86-76, 2nd place in AL Central
Although I would generally describe myself as a pessimistic fan, where’s the fun in that? As you can see I anticipate this team winning more games than predicted by both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus, and my reasoning is pretty simple. In 2020, Cleveland went 35-25, which equates to 95 wins over a full season. Let’s start with that number, and then analyze the factors that might change it this season. Off the bat, with a regular schedule and a full sample of 162 games instead of 60, I think this number would be lower with the 2020 roster. I don’t mean to discount the team’s performance last year, because they did perform a high level (well, the pitching did at least). In fact, there are some factors that would lead me to believe this team underperformed in their 60 game season. The biggest examples are the production of their two biggest departures. Is it realistic to assume Francisco Lindor and Carlos Santana would both be leave average hitters (102 and 96 wRC+ in 2020, respectively) over a full 162? I would argue no, and I would argue the 2020 offense performed worse than their true talent. Lindor and Santana obviously won’t be on the team in 2021, but the fact they were average hitters in 2020 makes that production easier to replace.
In regards to the offense, the assertion I am making is essentially that the lineup won’t actually produce that much worse than the 2020 lineup. Again, I’m going off of that 2020 number of 95 wins, so Lindor and Santana’s past production is irrelevant for this comparison. With the pitching, I think the opposite is somewhat true. While the rotation and bullpen are undoubtedly great, I think the return to a normal schedule will have a bigger impact on this side of the ball. Not to mention most of the pitchers in the rotation have relatively small career sample sizes. All signs point to Bieber continuing to be a dominant force, but the same is more difficult to say for Plesac, Civale, and McKenzie. The numbers suggest that each of these three will continue to be very good (Plesac posted a 3.41 SIERA in 2020, with Civale at 4.11 and McKenzie at 3.25). However, their limited experience creates a bit of concern. I still expect this unit to be top 10 in baseball, but it would surprise me if they successfully defend their title as ERA leaders. All of these factors considered, I decided I think this team should finish anywhere between 7-15 wins below that 95 number, and perhaps it is just my optimism that led me to choose a higher number on this spectrum as my prediction.
The way 2020 ended, along with the way this offseason has gone, has created a lot of anger and despair for fans, myself included. This team is unarguably worse than that of last season, but that also doesn’t mean they’re already dead and and buried. I’m as sick and tired of the way this organization operates as anyone, but I am willing to see what this year’s group of guys can do on the field.