They’re not exactly the Cleveland Baseball Team – the removal of the “Indians” nickname isn’t scheduled until after next season – but the longtime AL franchise must still make a name for itself in 2021.
Quite simply, it’s become harder to know the names on the roster.
The plan to drop the team nickname in the wake of a broad reckoning over racial and social injustice takes a lot of attention off difficult decisions being made with the payroll. That scenario may change, though, if shortstop Francisco Lindor becomes the next big-ticket player out the door, this time in what’s been a long-rumored trade before the final year of his contract. He’s expected to make about a team-high $20 million in salary arbitration.
Cleveland has been terrific under general manager Mike Chernoff, posting baseball’s third-highest regular-season winning percentage (.587, 415-292) through his first five seasons. Still, the Indians haven’t won a postseason series since advancing to the 2016 World Series in Chernoff’s first season – they were swept by the New York Yankees in the 2020 wild-card round after a 35-25 pandemic-shortened regular season – and manager Terry Francona’s roster may finally need time for maturation.
Credit the scouting and development within the organization because Cleveland has excellent young pitching despite the shedding of Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer in 2019, Mike Clevinger this past summer and 2020 major-league saves leader Brad Hand this offseason. Add first baseman Carlos Santana and outfielder Domingo Santana to Hand, and the Indians bought out $32.5 million of 2021 salaries, sending their payroll well below $100 million even with Lindor on the team.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the issues the Indians need to address this offseason.
CAN YOUNG HITTERS MATCH THE ARMS?
Lindor is considered a possible $200 million player on the free-agent market next offseason, so it appears Cleveland will trade the four-time All-Star to ensure returning parts. In 2020, he led the AL in plate appearances for the third time in the last four years and posted a Raw Value+ of 125, but many of his offensive statistics regressed.
Stats Perform’s Raw Value metric examines how a batter (RV+) or pitcher (RV-) performs throughout each pitch of an at-bat rather than just the end result, with a score of 100 considered average. In Stats Perform’s Adjusted Team Rankings, the Indians had an RV+ of 99, ranking 15th out of 30 major-league teams. Their problems included a .228 batting average (23rd in MLB), 59 home runs (tied for 27th) and 4.13 runs per game (tied for 25th).
Even staying average surely means the offense gets another huge season out of third baseman Jose Ramirez (142 RV), who led the team in batting average (.292), home runs (17), RBIs (46), runs (45) and stolen bases (10). His teaming with Lindor has been a constant, but, unlike Lindor, Ramirez is under team control for three more seasons.
Second baseman Cesar Hernandez (108 RV) may not be re-signed due to the payroll trimming, but youngsters are coming. Rookie Yu Chang could replace Hernandez at second if not Lindor at shortstop. It will be tough, though, for Jake Bauers or Josh Naylor to replace Carlos Santana offensively. Plus, designated hitter Franmil Reyes (107 RV) needs to get back to his 2019 form (37 homers between San Diego and the Indians).
Third baseman Nolan Jones, the organization’s top prospect, could arrive on the 2021 roster at a different position. The outfield is being considered after its members posted the majors’ second-worst batting average (.196) and lowest slugging percentage (.304). Center fielder Oscar Mercado, eighth in the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year voting, epitomized a sophomore slump, posting a dreadful RV+ of 1.
PLENTY OF SUPPORT BEHIND BIEBER
On the mound, the payroll is on Cleveland’s side, especially with 2020 AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber still at a pre-arbitration level. He anchored a staff that collectively led the majors in strikeouts (621) and finished second in ERA (3.29) and WHIP (1.11) – its RV- of 77 also ranked second.
Bieber (53 RV-, bested in the AL only by Minnesota’s Kenta Maeda) went 8-1 while leading the majors with a 1.63 ERA and 122 strikeouts, including at least eight in each of his 12 starts. He was in his age 25 season as were fellow starters Zach Plesac (70 RV-) and Aaron Civale. In addition, 22-year-old rookie Triston McKenzie broke in with 42 Ks to nine walks in 33 1/3 innings, and touted lefty Logan Allen appears next up.
The only high pitching salary belongs to Carlos Carrasco ($12 million), but he’s considered a strong clubhouse presence and is still quite the pitcher. With a 2.91 ERA over 12 starts, he posted an RV- of 88 just one year after earning 2019 AL Comeback Player of the Year.
The bullpen’s RV- of 67 was the best in the majors. The loss of lefty Oliver Perez on top of Hand stings, but James Karinchak (57 RV-) is a breakout star. After posting crazy-good strikeout totals in the minors in 2018 and ’19, his 53 Ks in 27 innings this past season tied for the majors’ best nine-inning rate (17.67).
STATS PERFORM’S VERDICT: REVOLUTION
It will say a lot about the direction of Cleveland’s 2021 season if Roberto Perez’s $5.5 million club option that was picked up is the biggest salary doled out this offseason. Either way, the Indians are shopping for veterans at bargain prices – a possibility given the free-agent market, which is especially rich in relief pitchers.
While the transformation of the pitching is enviable, the changing of the offense appears headed for growing pains. Positional signings would likely be under-the-radar – the likes of a Hanser Alberto or Tommy La Stella for second base and a Brian Goodwin, Steven Souza Jr., or Jonathan Villar in the outfield.
At best, Cleveland is a third-place team in the AL Central because they’re not as talented as the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox. A loss of Francisco Lindor will make it even tougher to return to the playoffs.
Data modeling and analysis provided by Lucas Haupt.
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