The question of what the Cleveland Indians will do during the offseason is always a difficult one to answer. Last winter, many thought the organization would make moves to make the team championship caliber, given that they had come off of a 91 win season where they were eliminated in the division series. Instead, as we all know, the front office made moves that saved money at the team’s expense. Many of these moves ended up actually working to make the team better, as they won more games in 2019 than in 2018, but that’s not the point. At the time, these moves were seen as penny-pinching decisions that made the team worse. In the context of previewing this year’s offseason, this perspective is the only one that matters, because we of course do not know how new additions or subtractions will impact the team in 2020.
If we base our predictions off of past behavior by this organization, it is not likely that the Indians will be one to make a big offseason splash. However, just writing that the Indians will do nothing wouldn’t make for a very interesting preview, so let’s assume Cleveland is looking to make some moves to gear up for 2020.
While it would not be realistic to think Cleveland will land or even attempt to land any of the big free agents this offseason, they certainly could make national headlines through trades. The first name that comes to mind is Francisco Lindor, who has been the subject of trade rumors since season’s end. His case, however, is enough to write a whole article about, which I did, and you can read that here. Pulling the trigger on a Lindor trade could certainly be a harbinger of what is to come for the rest of the offseason. If the return were to consist of mostly prospects, it could signal a move towards a rebuild. There is also a possibility that the Indians trade Lindor and get major league level talent in the return. Regardless of what happens, the decision to keep or deal Lindor will almost certainly be the most important decision made by the Indians this offseason.
The other major center of trade talks for the Indians is starting pitcher Corey Kluber. His 2019 season could not have been much worse to generate trade value, as he had a 5.80 ERA in seven starts before getting hurt. His numbers were down across the board, including in many predictive measures. His Skill Interactive Earned Run Average (SIERA), which is likely the best predictive pitching metric, increased from 3.23 in 2018 to 4.68 in 2019. There is no doubt that Kluber was significantly worse in 2019, and there is evidence to show that he may never return to the form of 2014-2018 Kluber. However, he certainly was not as bad as his 5.80 ERA would suggest, as he posted a FIP of only 4.06. That figure would still have put him in the Top 30 among qualified pitchers in 2019. Top 30 is not what we usually expect from Corey Kluber, but it shows that he is likely due for a bounce back year of some sort in 2020. Trading Kluber now would not be horrible, as he would still net a substantial return, and could even be included in a Lindor trade if the Indians chose to go that route. However, Kluber will likely yield a better return for Cleveland as an early season or trade deadline deal, giving him 2020 starts to prove his value.
If the Indians were to trade for a big name, as opposed to trading one of their own big names away, they have some realistic options. The 2019 in-season acquisition of Whit Merrifield that many fans clamored for is still certainly on the table. The acquisition seems perfect for Cleveland on its face, as Merrifield is a well above average player who can replace Jason Kipnis at second base. Merrifield is also only owed $5 million in 2020, and is under club control through the 2023 season. It seems too good to be true- and that’s because it is. There are several factors that, in my view, make this trade one to stay away from. Merrifield is certainly a valuable player, but his fWAR dropped from 5.2 in 2018 to only 2.9 in 2019. The Indians were also not the only team with reported interest in Merrifield, and yet a trade was still not made by the rebuilding Royals. This shows that the price for Merrifield will likely be steep, and it isn’t worth the Indians mortgaging their future for a player who ranked below league average in exit velocity, hard hit rate, and xwOBA in 2019. Not only does it appear Merrifield might be headed for further decline, but his acquisition would be blocking Cleveland’s number one ranked prospect, Nolan Jones, assuming Jose Ramirez would be moved to second base upon Jones being called up. Overall, a deal for Whit Merrifield, or any infielder for that matter, is one that would likely not be worth it for Cleveland. It would be wise for them to invest in a second baseman, but not one that blocks their top prospect’s path to the majors for years to come.
The second base spot will be crucial for Cleveland in 2020 if they intend to compete for a title, and they will certainly need someone better than Jason Kipnis to fill it. The best option for the Indians may be Mike Moustakas, who played both third base and second base for Milwaukee in 2019. This is a good fit in terms of positional versatility, as Jose Ramirez can also play both second and third base. The market for Moustakas is also not likely to become very expensive. After a 2.4 fWAR season in 2018, a lack of interest by teams on the free agent market forced him to re-sign with Milwaukee on a one-year, $7 million contract, and that price range is just what the Indians are looking for. Not only would he be a short-term option until Nolan Jones is MLB ready, Moustakas would provide serious value to this team. In 2019 Moustakas posted a 113 wRC+ to go along with 2.8 fWAR. While those numbers are very similar to what Merrifield did in 2019, the Indians would not have to trade for Moustakas. Moustakas also projects to be much better than Merrifield, as he was well above average in hard hit rate, xwOBA, and xSLG in 2019. The infield is already a strength of this team, but adding Moustakas would fill what was its only weak spot in 2019. One potential holdup with signing Moustakas to fill this role is the anticipation that he is now seeking a longer term deal after settling for two consecutive one year contracts. If this is the case, it may be difficult for Cleveland to land him on the type of short term deal that would be most beneficial.
In terms of free agents possibly leaving the Indians this offseason, the bullpen is the main concern. The unit over performed in the eyes of many in 2019, and much of their success was due to their depth. Free agents out of the bullpen this offseason include Tyler Clippard, Dan Otero, Cody Anderson, Tyler Olson, and A.J. Cole, who has already signed with Toronto (Nick Goody would also be included on this list, but Cleveland has already designated him for assignment). Nobody on this list in particular is necessary to retain, but they must be replaced if not retained. None of these players are likely to come with a high price tag either, so it is realistic that Cleveland could bring most of them back. If the Indians wanted to upgrade, however, there are several options. Will Harris and Daniel Hudson are some of the best relievers still available on the market, but the Indians would likely have to cough up more than they are comfortable with giving to a relief pitcher in order to bring any of them to Cleveland. This may be evident in Drew Pomeranz‘s signing elsewhere, which also shows that the Indians must be active in the bullpen market to land the necessary relievers. Ultimately, as long as Cleveland does not just sit and watch this offseason, which is definitely not guaranteed, the bullpen should not be a major concern.
The glaring problem of the 2019 Cleveland Indians was undoubtedly the outfield. The emergence of rookie Oscar Mercado and acquisition of Yasiel Puig kept the unit from being a complete disaster, but if there is anything Cleveland needs to remedy this offseason, this is it. The first decision the organization will have to make is whether they want to re-sign their mid-season acquisition of Puig. Puig is certainly an interesting case, as he had only 1.2 fWAR in 2019 and hasn’t posted a mark above 3 since 2014. Depending on the price tag, it may be better for the Indians to let the slugger walk this offseason. This would of course leave a hole that needs to be filled. Without Puig, the Indians do not have the pieces within the organization to build a viable outfield. Both Oscar Mercado and Jordan Luplow showed to be capable in 2019, but that still leaves Puig’s right field vacant (and the team hasn’t demonstrated that they trust Luplow to be anything resembling an everyday player). Additionally, the Indians top outfield prospects, George Valera and Daniel Johnson, both have a long way to go before being MLB ready. This means the Indians would likely turning to free agency to fill their outfield.
If we’re looking at the cream of the crop in this free agent class, the Cardinals’ Marcell Ozuna is probably the best option on the market, but he may come at a steep price for Cleveland’s standards. His two seasons in St. Louis have been nothing close to his 2017 in Miami, where he had a 143 wRC+ and 5.0 fWAR. However, he is near the top of the league in all major expected statistics, with an xwOBA in the top 8% of all hitters and a hard hit rate in the top 4%. This projects well for him going forward, and for any team looking to sign him. Depending on how his St. Louis decline affects his stock, Cleveland may be able to afford him.
Perhaps a more realistic option for the Indians is former Angels right fielder Kole Calhoun. At 32, Calhoun is coming off of a major comeback year, where he increased his fWAR from 2018 by 2.5 (in 137 games in 2018, Calhoun posted 0.0 fWAR). Being three years older than Ozuna, Calhoun will probably be cheaper for the Indians to acquire. He would be able to provide much needed offensive value from the outfield, and would put Cleveland in a good position to compete in 2020.
As long as Paul Dolan owns this team, the Indians will never be the one to sign the big fish in free agency. For Indians fans, dreams of Gerrit Cole or Anthony Rendon are dreams that will remain dreams. However, if the Indians play their cards right, they can put themselves in a much better position to contend next season than they did last offseason. This team won 93 games in 2019; they are already a good team. Making the appropriate moves to address needs, even without bringing in the top of the free agent class, will put them where they want to be in 2020.
Featured Image: Erik Drost on Flickr