All offseason, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s 2020 season and looking forward at what moves each team might have to make to set themselves up for improvement in 2021. Today, Peter Khayat takes a look at the Cleveland Indians!
In 2020, the Baseball Team located in Cleveland, Ohio once again produced an utter disappointment when it mattered the most. After a promising regular season, a swift playoff exit gave fans a feeling with which they are all too familiar. But that’s over! Now, we go into the only part of the year more disappointing to Clevelanders than the playoffs. This is the season of financial flexibility, trade rumors, and “enjoy him.” Welcome to the Cleveland Indians offseason.
2020 Record: 35-25, 2nd Place in AL Central
Team MVP: Jose Ramirez
Team Cy Young: Shane Bieber
Biggest Positive Surprise: Phil Maton
Biggest Negative Surprise: Jordan Luplow
Although it might’ve felt like a complete failure of a season, the 2020 regular season was in many ways a success. Shane Bieber had a 12 start season of pure dominance en route to becoming the 5th different Indians pitcher to win the Cy Young Award. Jose Ramirez raked his way to being the best player in baseball over MLB’s 60 game sprint (even if BBWAA doesn’t agree with me, he was the best). However, it was truly a tale of two teams. As far as pitching goes, the Cleveland Pitching Factory didn’t miss a step. The staff as a whole accumulated 11.2 fWAR, enough to lead the league by over a full win. Indians pitching also led the bigs in FIP and xFIP, while finishing behind only the Dodgers in team ERA. The bullpen, which has been a bit of an issue in years past, was mostly lights out. To compliment dominant seasons from James Karinchak and Brad Hand, Phil Maton came out of nowhere and posted a 2.22 FIP in 21.2 innings pitched. The offense told a bit of a different story, to say the least. Cleveland hitters finished 27th in wRC+ and 26th in wOBA, easily performing the worst at the plate of any team that made the postseason. Even after I spent the entire offseason growing the Jordan Luplow fan club, he had the nerve to follow up his 137 wRC+ 2019 season with a mark of 80 in 2020. Cleveland’s short postseason stay was disappointing, but postseason disappointment and Cleveland baseball are one and the same. The reality is that anyone who had reasonable expectations of the club going into the season would not have been surprised by these results. If anything, they would be impressed that the pitching staff was able to perform so well after trading Mike Clevinger (a promising rookie showing by Triston McKenzie certainly helped). I’ll admit that the offensive production was bad even for Cleveland standards, but I also wouldn’t expect it to get too much better without some serious changes.
2020-2021 Offseason Preview
Key Losses: Carlos Santana, Cesar Hernandez, Brad Hand
Areas of Greatest Need: Outfield, or really anyone who can hit
Unfortunately, some of the club’s best performers are likely headed out the door for 2021. Carlos Santana has played 10 of his 11 Major League seasons in Cleveland, and it’s difficult to imagine the team without him (he wasn’t with the team in 2018, and we all saw how that went). He’s a fan favorite, and I’m sure the team wouldn’t be opposed to bringing him back for the right price (for Cleveland, $7.50 per hour would fall right in that range). It will be interesting to see how much Santana will be able to get in the free agent market after a subpar 2020. 2019 was easily the best year of his career, but he turns 35 years old in April and his most recent showing is not terribly encouraging. I still think he gets an offer that exceeds what Paul Dolan is willing to pay, but of the team’s key losses I’d be least surprised to see Santana remain in Cleveland.
Cesar Hernandez was an pleasant surprise in 2020, as he was one of the few bright spots in a lackluster offense. Posting his highest wRC+ since 2017 to go along with a stellar defensive season, Hernandez has likely earned himself some cash this offseason. It’s difficult for me to see a scenario where the club re-signs him, but I actually think they ought to look elsewhere. Nolan Jones is set to be called up sometime during 2021, which would likely move Jose Ramirez to second base. Hernandez’ defense is good enough that it would be unwise to play him out of position, so keeping him would probably not be worth it given what he’ll cost (he’s not making superstar money obviously, but to this team he may as well be). Additionally, it’s unclear whether his 2020 season is repeatable. His walk rate increased to 9.2%, but it’s still quite a bit below the 13.4% mark in his stellar 2017 season. He also slightly overperformed his xwOBA in 2020, which for an aging player can be a source of concern. Overall, re-signing Hernandez doesn’t seem to be the best course of action for the current state of this franchise, but it’s unclear what the team will do in regards to him.
The apparent departure of Brad Hand is no surprise. Although he’s been quite good over his stint in Cleveland, that financial flexibility was always going to be too attractive to keep him. It’s possible the club could try to re-sign him for less money, but for a guy who posted a 2.05 ERA, 1.37 FIP, and 1.1 fWAR in 22 innings last season, I don’t see that being much of an option. This obviously is not as much of a concern as the offense, as this team has never struggled to fill an empty pitching void. I wouldn’t count on Hand coming back, and I would be surprised if the team even pursues him this winter.
Desired Targets: OF Joc Pederson (2 yrs, $25M), 1B Eric Thames (1 yr, $6M), OF Jurickson Profar (2 yrs, $15M)
This is the section where I try to straddle the fence between being realistic and also making this remotely interesting. As much as I’d love Paul Dolan to shock the world and hand out nine figures to George Springer, I think everyone can agree that is not going to happen. The boldest I’ll go with my targets here is Joc Pederson, who would be a great addition to Cleveland’s struggling outfield. His 2020 down-year is what puts this deal in the realm of possibility, as he likely lost himself some money with an 88 wRC+ and -0.1 fWAR in 43 games. Whether or not this deal becomes realistic is dependent on what direction the team decides to go this offseason. All reason would tell us that this will not even be considered, because the club will sign no free agents of consequence. If this were to happen, however, Pederson would immediately become an everyday player and middle-of-the-order bat for the Indians.
If Santana does end up finding greener pastures in the free agent market, Cleveland might want to look into a short-term replacement. With Bobby Bradley not making a major league appearance in 2020, it’s unclear how the club feels about their current options at the position. Thames, 34, is coming off of a season from which there are nearly zero positive takeaways. This potential signing is only attractive because it costs nothing. It’s actually something I could see the club doing, whether it’s Thames or some other aging first baseman this kind of deal is a Cleveland specialty.
Lastly, we have perhaps the most intriguing option of this list purely because it’s more realistic than the Pederson deal. Jurickson Profar had a very solid 2020, hitting his way to a 111 wRC+ and 1.3 fWAR in 56 games. Like Pederson, Profar would instantly become an everyday outfielder for the Tribe. If the team cares at all about being competitive in 2021, then this is the type of deal I’d anticipate they would consider.
As far as trades go for the Indians this offseason, there is much more focus on who might be heading out than on who could be coming in. It only makes sense to dedicate this section to Francisco Lindor, and what a return for him might look like.
Trade 1: Indians trade SS Francisco Lindor to Mets for SS Andres Gimenez, OF Pete-Crow Armstrong, INF JD Davis
With Point72 founder Steve Cohen completing his purchase of the Mets, they’ve quickly risen to the status of top suitor for Lindor. Essentially every mock trade between these two teams has been headlined by Andrés Giménez, the former top 100 prospect who accumulated 0.8 fWAR in 49 games with New York in 2020. I agree with this headliner, as Giménez is major league ready and a very enticing prospect. After filling the hole left by Lindor, the second order of business should be addressing the outfield. 2020 first-round draft pick Pete Crow-Armstrong does this, even though he’s several years from making it to the bigs. Finally, a somewhat proven major league piece in JD Davis tops it off. A utility player, this would provide the team with an immediate contributor who can occupy left field. This would obviously be quite the haul for a rental, but if the Mets are trading for Lindor an extension is as good as done.
Trade 2: Indians trade SS Francisco Lindor to Yankees for OF Clint Frazier, OF Mike Tauchman, RHP Albert Abreu
This trade follows essentially the same skeleton as the Mets trade, except for actually replacing Lindor at shortstop. Unfortunately, the Yankees do not have an MLB ready prospect at the position like Giménez, and I don’t think they’d be thrilled to part with Gleyber Torres. Frazier is the obvious piece in this deal, as he’s struggled to find playing time despite performing quite well. Tauchman had a down-year in 2020, but would be a great long-term option in center field for Cleveland. It does not seem like the Yankees want to part with Tauchman, but for a player like Lindor they might make an exception. Lastly, Albert Abreu is the Yankees #12 prospect according to MLB Pipeline and would likely be a fairly easy piece to acquire in this deal. Again, for a player with one year of control this would be quite a return, but that’s why Cleveland should only make a deal with a team that’s looking to extend Lindor.
2021 Projected Roster
1) Andrés Giménez, SS
2) Jose Ramirez, 2B
3) Carlos Santana, 1B
4) Franmil Reyes, DH
5) Nolan Jones, 3B
6) JD Davis, LF
7) Daniel Johnson, RF
8) Roberto Perez, C
9) Delino Deshields, Jr., CF
1) Shane Bieber
2) Carlos Carrasco
3) Zach Plesac
4) Aaron Civale
5) Triston McKenzie
1) Adam Plutko, RHP
2) James Karinchak, RHP
3) Phil Maton, RHP
4) Cal Quantrill, RHP
5) Cam Hill, RHP
6) Nick Wittgren, RHP
7) Logan Allen, LHP
8) Emmanuel Clase, RHP
I decided to make the projected lineup assuming Cleveland makes the aforementioned trade with the Mets, because I think at this point it is unlikely that Lindor is with the Indians on opening day and the Mets are the most likely destination. There isn’t much to expand on in terms of the pitching, as the rotation projects to have no changes from last season barring any unforeseen moves (if the team really wanted to sell, we might see Carlos Carrasco on the move. However, if that’s the case I’ll be wrong about a lot more than just that). The same can be said for the bullpen, with the exception of the addition of Emmanuel Clase. Clase was suspended for PED use after he headlined the return of the Corey Kluber trade with Texas. The team is very high on him, as his fastball easily touches triple digits. Even though he’ll still have to serve some of his suspension into 2021, he might be the most heavily anticipated “new” addition.
At the end of the day, we really have no idea what the Cleveland Baseball Team will pull out of their sleeves this offseason. This is something I’d say if I rooted for a different team. For this one, however, I think I’ve got a pretty good idea. The Dolans have never cared about winning, at least not to the extent that it might damage the bottom line. It’s fun to speculate all of the things the Indians could do, but I’m fairly confident the only thing they will do is try to save money. While this overview might seem pretty dull, it’s probably still more interesting than what will be reality.