A large thanks to Patrick Andres, who also contributed to this article.
The Indians’ 2018 performance left a sour taste in the mouth of many fans. As the 2019 season is set to begin, little about that taste has changed. Cleveland is still a good team, and the hopes are that they can make a playoff run in the coming year, but previous obstacles still remain. Since their World Series appearance in 2016, this team’s championship window has been open. However, 2019 signifies a closing of this window in the eyes of many, with three returning powerhouses in the American League. Does this team have the makings of a contender? That question cannot be answered now, but we can try.
Once a shining example of small-market team-building acumen, the Indians surprised and bemused with a glacial offseason that saw the team eschew possible free agent splashes in the bullpen and outfield for no-name stopgaps. Because of this, the roster the Tribe have built around their core looks incongruous and downright strange, less the fault of general manager Chris Antonetti, who has done well making low-risk trades in back-to-back seasons (Jay Bruce and Josh Donaldson) than owner Paul Dolan. Dolan stunned fans just days before the season opener by cryptically urging them to “enjoy” the final years of Lindor’s contract in an odd interview with The Athletic. Whether he will loosen the purse-strings or continue to penny-pinch will be the single most important question in Cleveland sports the next half-decade. On the field, Terry Francona remains a reliable, comforting presence as he enters year seven in Cleveland, although there were moments of shakiness last year, including a handful of bullpen management hiccups encapsulated by an embarrassing midseason incident in which “Tito” inadvertently summoned the wrong reliever from the bullpen. In summation, Cleveland’s front office is full of familiar faces who somehow appear enigmatic.
After trading all-star catcher Yan Gomes to Washington in November, a real vacancy was left at the position. Roberto Perez tops the tribe’s depth chart at the position, being last year’s backup for Gomes. The Indians also made a trade to acquire Kevin Plawecki from the New York Mets. Both are certain to get some time behind the plate, and neither shows much potential to adequately fill the hole left by Gomes’ departure. Perez has been solid behind the dish during his time with Cleveland, and could fill the gap defensively. Plawecki is clearly the worse defensive catcher of the two, and at a position where defense is so important it will likely keep him from recording a lot of innings. It is offensively where Plawecki provides value over Perez. Plawecki hasn’t shown much to impress in his limited major league career, but he has been better than Perez. Plawecki slashed .210/.315/.370 in 277 plate appearances in 2018. By no standard is that good, unless it is being compared to Perez, who slashed .168/.256/.263 in 210 plate appearances. Neither of the two are close to what Gomes was offensively, and Plawecki doesn’t come close to what Gomes was defensively. After a career year for Gomes in 2018 and his first All Star Game appearance, Cleveland will take a substantial step back at the position in 2019.
The heart and soul of the Indians’ roster and a pillar of Cleveland sports, Francisco Lindor has fully established himself as the dynamo the Tribe imagined when they drafted him eighth overall in 2011. 2018 marked Lindor’s third straight trip to the All-Star Game and there is no indication his ceiling has been met. His 7.9 WAR was a career-high, synthesizing ultra-productive years at the plate, in the field, and on the base paths. There is slight concern about his future with the Tribe in the short-term (he suffered a calf injury in spring training) and in the long-term (see Management), but he is undeniably the cornerstone of baseball in The Land. Second base is less settled, as Jason Kipnis will attempt to return to All-Star form for the 386th consecutive year. The Indians’ best player the last time they missed the playoffs, Kipnis has been shopped invariably over the last calendar year and is facing a reckoning. If needed, Jose Ramirez is able to play second base, although he is more accustomed to third.
Fan favorite Carlos Santana, in an extremely poor man’s LeBron James move, returns to the Indians after spending one lonely, horrendous (.229/.352/.414) year in Philadelphia. Tribe fans know well the former catcher’s strengths, which include generating power and drawing walks, both on a consistent basis. In the Indians’ fluid lineup, Santana can also DH. On the other side stands Jose Ramirez, who raked for a substantial part of 2018 before all but disappearing after August. After a 1.164 OPS July, Ramirez cratered to .637 in September and October. This abrupt short-circuit may have cost him a shot at the Indians’ first MVP award since 1953.
The major departure from this unit was former MVP finalist Michael Brantley, who signed with Houston this offseason. In 2018, the outfield was rather dismal outside of Brantley, and the front office has done almost nothing to improve it. With Bradley Zimmer on the injured list to start the season, it appears as though five players will comprise the unit for the most part. Offseason acquisition Jake Bauers could potentially get some time in left field, but his primary position is first base. Leonys Martin, who was acquired from Detroit at last season’s trade deadline, will most likely start in center field on opening day. Martin was sidelined for almost all of his 2018 Indians campaign due to a bacterial infection that seriously threatened his health. That being said, he accumulated more fWAR than any other player on the outfield depth chart in 2018. The fact that Martin headlines this outfield indicates the depressing state of the rest of it. Another player who will likely see a lot of time, mostly in left field, is 25 year old Jordan Luplow. Luplow posted an fWAR of 0.1 in limited time with the Pirates last year, but as a young player certainly has room to improve. It is reasonable to think Luplow will progress, but regardless, he is no way good enough to be an MLB starting outfielder right now. A familiar face from 2018 for fans will be Greg Allen, who will likely get a lot of time in center and right field. He is mostly remembered for his memorial day walk-off homerun against Houston in 2018, and that is mostly because the rest of his season was very forgettable. In 291 plate appearances, Allen was exactly a replacement level player. A rare outfield acquisition was made recently of longtime Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez to a minor league deal. Gonzalez posted 1.7 fWAR in 2018, which actually ranks second among Indians outfielders. The 33 year old has shown he can still be productive, but it remains to be seen how he will perform without the Coors Field Effect. Another familiar face is Tyler Naquin, who originally was called up in the Indians pennant year of 2016. It looked at that point that Naquin would be the center fielder of the future, and he showed some promise in his rookie year. Since his 2.1 fWAR rookie campaign, Naquin has built on that by adding 0.0 to his career total. Yes, another replacement level player to add to this outfield that already has an abundance of them. The problem is, this is not a replacement level team, or at least isn’t expected to be one. This team won 91 games last year, and still has playoff expectations for 2019. Every team has weaknesses, but this was a weakness going into the offseason that got worse.
Designated Hitter and Bench
The Indians do not go into 2019 with a clear cut designated hitter. Carlos Santana has filled the role effectively in the past, but he will also play a lot of first base. The other first baseman is Jake Bauers, who may also get some time in the outfield. It is probable that those two split the majority of games at DH, but Cleveland also signed veteran Hanley Ramirez to a minor league deal in the offseason. The question isn’t where Ramirez would play, but if he does play at all. He doesn’t bring much value to any position defensively, and at this point in his career is most definitely a designated hitter. If Ramirez gets significant playing time, that is almost certainly where he’ll fit in. However, that is a big if, and Santana and Bauers would be probable to fill that role in his absence. The Indians bench going into 2019 raises some question marks. As far as outfielders go, who will be an everyday player and who will be on the bench remains to be seen. The infield however, is much more clear cut. For first basemen, if both Santana and Bauers went down, Cleveland would probably look to minor leaguer Bobby Bradley if they were unwilling to convert another player to the position. The middle infield has its clear cut starters, although the tribe will start the season without either of them. Assuming Lindor and Kipnis return in a timely manner, which they are expected to, three main players make up the bench middle infielders. Eric Stamets has been in Cleveland’s minor league system since 2015 and is Lindor’s backup at shortstop. Max Moroff was added from Pittsburgh in the offseason, following a season where he only logged 59 major league plate appearances. Moroff is a utility man, and is able to play the middle infield as well as third base. Finally, the recent acquisition of Brad Miller adds some depth to this infield. Miller played for Tampa Bay in 2018, and was roughly a league average player in 254 plate appearances. The bench for Cleveland is largely inexperienced and overall not very good. Fans should hope for good health among the starters, and with injuries to Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, that is a problem before the season has even started.
Perhaps no team in baseball possesses a rotation with firepower to match the Indians. Four viable candidates to contend for the American League’s Cy Young Award comprise Cleveland’s staff, and the fifth may well be on his way. The heart and soul of the rotation remains Corey Kluber, who posted a fifth consecutive top ten finish in the Cy Young voting. The Tribe shopped him in the offseason for needed outfield help but opted to keep him; he is coming off of a campaign that saw him post career marks in wins and walks per nine innings. His WAR of 5.9 was his highest in a non-Cy Young winning season. Trevor Bauer was also shopped but kept; his off-field antics aside, he has risen to become one of the most dangerous pictures in the bigs. A leg injury derailed what might have been a Cy Young campaign, but he set career highs in almost every major advanced statistic as well as strikeouts. Contrast the rapid rise of Bauer with the consistency of Carlos Carrasco, who has posted a WAR between 3 and 6 for five consecutive seasons. Mike Clevinger, Cleveland’s fourth starter, could be some teams’ first. He set career lows in ERA, FIP and WHIP in his first season qualifying for the ERA title and could make the leap to Cy Young contender this year. Shane Bieber was very briefly shopped for Bryce Harper at last year’s trade deadline but kept; the decision was wise, and Bieber is the wild card that could take the Tribe staff from great to historic. Danny Salazar remains in purgatory and will open the season on the 60-day injured list.
A bullpen that ranked at the bottom of the league in ERA in 2018 lost two of its best arms over the offseason. 2016 ALCS MVP and All-Star Andrew Miller signed a two year, 25 million dollar contract with St. Louis, and franchise saves leader Cody Allen signed a one year, 8.5 million dollar deal with the Los Angeles Angels. Those two departures left few bright spots in the struggling unit. Brad Hand will have the closing duties, as there is really no other pitcher who could challenge him for that role. Adam Cimber, who came to Cleveland along with Hand in a 2018 trade involving former Indians top prospect Francisco Mejia, is also expected to log a large amount of innings. Cimber underperformed during his time in Cleveland last season, and a rebound from him could mean a much better unit for Cleveland. One advantage the Indians have in their bullpen is that their starting rotation is so deep, some quality arms will not make the rotation and be relegated to the pen. Headlining that potential group would be Adam Plutko, who spent most of his season with the major league club in 2018, but will most likely start the season in Columbus. With Shane Bieber securing the 5th spot in the starting rotation, Danny Salazar will also pitch out of the pen upon his activation from the 60 Day Injured List. The rest of the unit will most likely be filled out by the following:
The bullpen undoubtedly got worse from 2018, where it was already among the league’s worst. For the second straight year, the Indians will rely on their starters going very deep into games in order to win.
Peter Khayat: The team will dramatically regress, going 83-79 and finishing 2nd in the AL Central behind Minnesota. This record will not be good enough to make the postseason. Jose Ramirez will be Team MVP.
Patrick Andres: The Indians will slightly regress and finish with a record of 87-75. This record will still be good enough to win the AL Central, but Cleveland will lose in the ALDS. Team MVP will be Francisco Lindor.
Feature Image: Flickr