From 2016-2018, the Cleveland Indians quite easily walked away with the American League Central crown. 2019, however, was different. After finishing eight games worse than the Minnesota Twins, Cleveland is now fighting an uphill battle to return to the postseason in 2020. While that is true, anything can happen in 60 games. As many have noted, the World Series Champion Washington Nationals would not have even made the postseason in 2019 if the season had only been 60 games long. It will still take outstanding play for the Indians to take the Central, but a shortened season makes it all the more likely (or unlikely, for the pessimists in the room) for that to happen. So, does Cleveland have the tools to return to the postseason and even maybe make a run at the Commissioner’s Trophy? I would argue they do, but lets break it down.
Nothing has changed in this department for Cleveland, as the Indians will play their eighth season with Terry Francona as manager. Francona has been adored by fans for his entire tenure in Cleveland, but at this point it’s unclear as to whether Tito is helping or hurting the club with his managing style. The most problematic aspect of Francona’s strategy is the archaic practice of the bunt. In the age of advanced analytics, most agree that bunting (unless a pitcher is batting) is almost never a good idea, as it typically decreases run scoring probability. Francona, throughout his entire Cleveland tenure, but specifically 2019, used the bunt at an extremely alarming rate. The Indians finished top five in baseball in total bunts in 2019, with no other American League team in the same zip code. Fans also became frustrated with the relatively frequent use of the second spot in the lineup (where many teams put their best hitter) to bunt. The drastic use of this counterproductive tactic along with questionable lineup making seriously calls Francona’s effectiveness as manager into question. However, a manager shouldn’t have a terribly large impact on team success anyway, so it’s probably nothing to dwell on at this point. As far as the upper levels of management go, it is also more of the same. Given the budget constraints of known cheapskates Paul and Larry Dolan, Chris Antonetti and the rest of the front office have largely done a quality job recently. Also, Antonetti has shown in past seasons that if a deal needs to be made mid-season to put the team over the top, he’s willing to bring the chips to the table. As much as I despise the team’s ownership, I feel confident in the front office going into the season.
With 31 year-old Roberto Perez coming off of a career year behind the plate, Cleveland’s catching situation is as sound as ever. Perez established himself as one of baseball’s premier defensive catchers in 2019, racking up 30 defensive runs saved to lead all backstops. This, combined with his league average hitting ability (he posted in a 98 wRC+ in 2019), makes him arguably a top five catcher in the game going into 2019. His 3.0 fWAR slotted him in as baseball’s sixth most valuable catcher in 2019, ahead of some notable names such as Willson Contreras, Gary Sanchez, and Buster Posey. Perez is sure to get a serious workload behind the plate, especially with a shortened season, and Indians fans should feel good about the position going into opening day. As far as depth at the position goes, former Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon is slated to be Perez’s backup for this season after he was acquired via trade in December. Leon has played at just about replacement player level (0 WAR) since 2016, so he shouldn’t be one expected to make a big impact on the club this year. However, for a backup, he’ll likely be sufficient. Overall, Cleveland has a better catching situation than most teams, and this is a bright spot going into the season.
Coming as a surprise to many (including myself), franchise cornerstone Francisco Lindor is set to start opening day at shortstop for the tribe. Lindor has been nothing short of consistently excellent in his five year career, never recording a season of less than 4.0 fWAR. However, last season he appeared to take a step back from his monster 7.6 fWAR campaign in 2018. At 114, his wRC+ lagged 16 points behind the career best of 130 he set the year before. His defense also slightly regressed, going from 13 defensive runs saved to 11 in 2019 (although a difference this small is likely nothing to worry about). If there is any concern about Lindor going forward, it is his offense. According to Baseball Savant, Lindor’s Barrel % (essentially a measure of how often a player crushes a ball) and Sweet Spot % both took significant hits in 2019. This is refected in his xwOBA- or expected weighted on base average, which uses exit velocity and launch angle to estimate how good a player should have been- as it dropped from .375 in 2018 to .329 in 2019. The worst part about this is that Lindor overperformed that xwOBA in 2019, posting a wOBA of .349. This means that even though his wRC+ dropped by 16 points, it actually should’ve dropped by more. Another red flag would be Lindor’s below average walk rate of 7.0% in 2019, the lowest since his rookie year. If he continues to walk at a low rate, he could incur even greater regression than what his xwOBA might suggest. This could, of course, be a large overreaction, as I am only drawing from one season while he’s only two years removed from his best season to date. However, it is very possible and I might even say likely that Lindor’s offense further regresses in 2020, and he might not be the consensus top 10 player that he has been for most of his career. With the departure of longtime fan favorite Jason Kipnis in the offseason, the other half of the middle infield will be played by free agent acquisition Cesar Hernandez. For a more in-depth analysis of what Hernandez brings to the table, see my article on his signing here. Put simply, however, he projects to be an upgrade at the position from 2019. While his 1.7 fWAR in 2019 is rather unimpressive, it’s still better than Kipnis. Neither is particularly good defensively, but Hernandez led Kipnis in DRS last season with -3 to his -5. Hernandez is also easily the better offensive player, posting a wRC+ 10 points higher than Kipnis and a wOBA 14 points higher. Francisco Lindor still obviously carries this unit, but middle infield overall is not an area of weakness for the club this season.
Nothing changes from last season for Cleveland on the corners. With Jose Ramirez on the left and Carlos Santana on the right, the Indians have one of the best corner infield tandems in baseball going into 2020 (they’re no Matt Chapman and Matt Olson, but they can certainly hold their own). Santana was probably the biggest surprise for the club in 2019, as at age 33 he put together what was undoubtedly the best season of his career. The season was no fluke either, as he appears to be getting better in his advanced age. While his superb walk ability makes him a prime candidate for the leadoff spot in the lineup, Terry Francona has shied away from using him there in the past. My prediction would be that he remains a middle-of-the-lineup bat and the everyday first baseman. Santana will have to contribute if the Indians are to make a run at the postseason, and all signs point to him doing that this season. As far as third base goes, there is no player I am more excited to watch this season than Jose Ramirez. Similar to Lindor, Ramirez is two years removed from his best season in 2018, where he posted 8.0 fWAR and was one of the best players in baseball. 2019 was a tale of two halves for Ramirez. In the first half, JRam was one of the worst offensive players in the game. In the second half, however, he posted a mammoth 176 wRC+ en route to salvaging what appeared to be a lost season for him. I would argue that no player is more important to the Indians this season than Ramirez, and their success will depend on which version of Jose Ramirez shows up on opening day. I personally think that Ramirez will be in 2020 what he was in 2017 and 2018, a superstar. According to sources around the team, Ramirez made a swing adjustment in the offseason preceding his 2019 campaign in order to spray the ball to all fields more evenly. He had been a serious victim of the shift when hitting left-handed before, so the team pushed him in this direction. As any analytical baseball fan knows, this is an extremely lame and boring way to fix this problem. His 2019 first half was evident of this, as he, for lack of a better word, stunk. However, in the second half he returned to his “chicks dig the long ball” mindset and saw a return to his former self. Ramirez is certainly a streaky player, but I think it might be unfair to hold the first half of his 2019 against him in that regard. I fully expect him to come out of the gate on fire when games start this week, and to make it more interesting, I predict that Jose Ramirez will win the American League MVP Award.
Even when the Indians were one win away from winning the World Series in 2016, the outfield has always been the weakness of this team. However, I think this season provides more promise than years past. Fangraphs predicts that Oscar Mercado and Domingo Santana will be everyday starters in center field and left field respectively, while Tyler Naquin and Jordan Luplow split time in right field. While this is by no means great, it has the potential to be good enough. The infield is clearly the strength of this team, with the best three position players (Lindor, Ramirez, Santana) all playing there. The reality is that the outfield doesn’t have to be that good for the lineup to be good. That being said, the unit is nothing to celebrate. Oscar Mercado became a fan favorite in center field during his rookie campaign in 2019. While he was actually quite good defensively, posting 10 defensive runs saved in center field, his offense doesn’t exactly warrant excitement. With a 95 wRC+ in 482 plate appearances, he was just about average at the dish. This rounded out to 1.7 fWAR in 115 games, meaning over a 150 game spread (typically considered a “full” season) he would have roughly 2.2 fWAR. This is certainly good enough, but his offensive peripherals in 2019 put into serious question whether he’ll be able to obtain that league average hitting ability. Firstly, Mercado vastly overpeformed his expected statistics. He overperformed both his xBA (expected batting average) and xwOBA by at least 10 points respectively, and overperformed his xSLG (expected slugging percentage) by almost 50 points. Again, these expected stats are derived from exit velocity and launch angle, meaning Mercado simply doesn’t hit the ball very hard. All of these numbers indicate likely regression in 2020, from a level of production that was already below average. Secondly, his ability to walk is depressing. With a BB% of only 5.8%, Mercado is even more vulnerable to regression. Players who walk often are much more likely to sustain their level of production, because that form of getting on base is not susceptible to things like BABIP luck. While his defense is probably enough to keep him in the lineup for this season, don’t be surprised if Mercado becomes one of the worse hitters the Indians have. Projected left fielder Domingo Santana is just about the opposite of Mercado. Santana has proven himself to be a capable hitter, and should probably be in the lineup because of this, but he posted an absolutely dreadful -16 DRS in the outfield in 2019. The predicament here is that the other option to put in his place is Franmil Reyes, who had -10 DRS in only half a season with the Padres last year. Defensively, whoever is playing left field is probably going to be very bad at it. For right field, platooning Naquin and Luplow is probably the correct decision. While I am probably Jordan Luplow’s number one fan, he simply can’t hit against right handed pitchers. With a 137 wRC+ in 2019, if Luplow can get up to even just league average against right-handers, he should be the everyday starter. Until that happens, however, platooning is really the only option the team has. It is also worth noting that Jake Bauers is a possible option off the bench to fill in any of these spots, but after his 2019 I’m not sure fans want to see his face again.
Designated Hitter and Bench
The designated hitter position seems to be a bit up in the air at the moment, depending on who you ask. Team lineups and depth charts all point to Franmil Reyes being the everyday DH. If you ask me, I think it is still very possible that Domingo Santana fills this role often, even though the team seems adamant about playing him in the field. Assuming it is Reyes, Indians fans have something to be excited about, as Reyes has the potential to be one of the best bats in the lineup. After getting traded midseason in 2019 he struggled, but the first half of his season featured a 129 wRC+ with San Diego. “Franimal” also hits the ball harder than almost anyone, finishing in the 98th percentile of all players in both Hard Hit Rate and Exit Velocity in 2019. Unlike some players previously mentioned, Reyes underperformed his xwOBA by 20 points in 2019, indicating possible progression in 2020. Fangraphs predicts that Cleveland’s bench will consist of Sandy Leon, Christian Arroyo, Jake Bauers, Mike Freeman, and Greg Allen. It is possible that Allen gets significant time as a defensive replacement, but it otherwise seems unlikely that any of these players will get a large workload this season.
With the departure of fan favorite Trevor Bauer during last season, and the trade of former ace Corey Kluber in the offseason, some fans are left concerned about the state of the starting rotation. However, with the young talent that has recently come up through Cleveland’s farm system, the Indians’ rotation projects to be as strong as ever. Fangraphs predicts that the rotation will consist of Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco, Aaron Civale, and Zach Plesac. The first three names of this bunch require no introduction (but I’ll give one anyway, I suppose). 2019 All Star Game MVP Shane Bieber is set to the be the ace of the staff (although it could very well also be Clevinger), and coming off of a year with a 3.28 ERA, 3.32 FIP, and 3.36 SIERA, Bieber shows no signs of being anything less than that. Clevinger, while making less starts because of injury, was better with a 2.71 ERA, 2.49 FIP, and 3.31 SIERA. The only concern for both Clevinger and Carrasco going into 2020 should be injury, as both of them have been excellent when on the field. The wild cards of this rotation are the two coming off of great rookie campaigns, Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac. Both of them produced well in 2019, but their small sample size makes it hard to predict how they’ll perform going forward. Civale was lights out in his 10 starts with an ERA of 2.34. However, he had an xFIP that was more than a run higher than his FIP, suggesting serious regression in the future. While this is true, it would be unfair to draw this conclusion from only 10 career starts. Plesac’s 2019 was similar, although his ERA was higher at 3.81. All we can really say at this point about these two is that while they’re production early on is extremely promising, we’ll just have to wait and see. Either way, it is unlikely that their variability in performance is what makes or breaks this rotation. The top three starters for Cleveland are good enough that even if Civale and Plesac have ERA’s in the high 4 run range, this will probably still be a top rotation in baseball.
The Indians bullpen has been turbulent in the last few years to say the least. It seems as though from year to year the unit goes from carrying the team to being its downfall. Last season, the bullpen was quite good, and there aren’t many changes among the group going into 2020. According to Fangraphs’ projected depth chart, here’s what the pen is slated to look like:
Closer Brad Hand headlines the group after his productive 2019, and James Karinchak is probably the newbie to look out for with his electric pitching repertoire. Adam Plutko will likely be the main option for long relief, along with possibly Oliver Perez. As we know with the Indians, bullpen production can vary severely from year to year, but the expectation going in should be that this unit will perform similar as to how they did in 2019.
Now it’s time for me to make my personal predictions for the club this season. If you read my 2019 Season Preview, you would see that I tend to be quite pessimistic. However, this year I have a slightly more positive outlook on the team.
Record: 34-26, First in AL Central
Playoffs: Lose in ALCS, probably blowing a 3-1 lead.
Team MVP: Jose Ramirez
Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons