While the Reds have largely been irrelevant for the last six seasons, their neighbors to the north have become one of the most consistent teams in baseball. Since losing 94 games in 2012, the Indians have had seven straight winning seasons, making the playoffs four times and playing in the World Series in 2016.
Cleveland hasn’t been able to get over the hump to win its first championship since 1949, however. And there are reasons to believe their window is closing. Superstar Francisco Lindor is a free agent after 2021, Jose Ramirez is a free agent after 2022, and Carlos Santana turned 34 earlier this year. Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jason Kipnis have departed over the last couple of years. But with a formidable offensive nucleus still in place and a strong pitching staff that rivals any other in baseball, the Indians are still contenders in 2020.
Record: 93-69, 2nd in AL Central
It’s not often that a team with 93 wins misses the playoffs, but that’s exactly what happened to the Indians last season. Cleveland saw its three-year reign as AL Central champions come to an end thanks to the 101-win Twins. The Indians faced an uphill battle early in 2019. Despite ending with 93 wins, the team actually had a losing record (28-29) at the end of May, putting them 10.5 games behind the Twins. Cleveland managed to crawl its way back into the race and were tied for first place as late as August 11 after going on a 44-18 run from June 1 onward. Ultimately, the Indians couldn’t overcome a barrage of injuries and disappointing performances and were beaten out for the wild card by the Rays and Athletics.
That the Indians were able to win 93 games was a minor miracle. Lindor missed nearly the first month of the season with a sprained ankle. Although he had a better second half, Ramirez was a shell of the player who nearly won the American League MVP award in 2018. A starting rotation that was expected to be the best in baseball was also ravaged by underperformance and health issues. Trevor Bauer couldn’t replicate his 2018 season after finishing second in AL Cy Young voting, eventually getting traded to the Reds in July. Mike Clevinger hurt his back in his second start of the season and missed over two months. Former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber missed most of the season with a broken arm after being hit by a line drive on May 1. Carlos Carrasco was diagnosed with leukemia in June.
Thanks to a breakout season from Shane Bieber and solid contributions from rookies Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac, the Indians overcame the injuries to maintain one of the best starting rotations in the American League, finishing third in ERA, FIP, and xFIP. The bullpen, anchored by closer Brad Hand, was slightly above average.
However, Cleveland had some issues scoring runs. This wasn’t entirely unexpected after losing Encarnacion, Brantley, and Josh Donaldson to free agency. With a questionable outfield and Ramirez struggling, Lindor and Santana — who had a career year at age 33 — helped the Indians stay afloat offensively. The club also traded for Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes at the deadline to boost the offense. But just as Ramirez returned to his 2018 form in August as the Indians were surging to the top of the AL Central, he was hit by a pitch that broke his hand and missed nearly the rest of the season as the Twins pulled away to win the division crown.
It’s difficult to say Cleveland got better in the offseason. The club traded away Kluber and lost Puig to free agency. They did receive a solid defensive centerfielder in the Kluber trade (Delino DeShields Jr.) and an underrated second baseman (Cesar Hernandez) to replace Jason Kipnis, but the team largely moved forward with in-house replacements.
- CF Delino DeShields Jr. (acquired from Texas Rangers)
- 2B Cesar Hernandez (signed as free agent)
- C Sandy Leon (acquired from Boston Red Sox)
- RF Domingo Santana (signed as free agent)
- SP Corey Kluber (traded to Texas Rangers)
- RF Yasiel Puig (free agency)
- 2B Jason Kipnis (free agency; signed with Chicago Cubs)
- RP Tyler Clippard (free agency; signed with Minnesota Twins)
- RP Dan Otero (free agency; signed with New York Yankees)
(2019 statistics used)
The main components from last year’s team return for Cleveland in 2020. Since 2015, no shortstop has a higher fWAR (23.2) than Lindor, and only two shortstops (Trevor Story and Manny Machado) have more homers than Lindor’s 120 in that span. After briefly leaving Cleveland, Santana returned in 2019 to have the best season of his career, trailing only Pete Alonso and Max Muncy in fWAR.
The third member of the Indians’ formidable trio is Ramirez, who will be key to getting Cleveland back in the playoffs. His struggles were well-documented last year, as he carried a 65 wRC+ into July and saw huge dips in his batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage (.214/.309/.325). From July onward, he slashed .321/.356/.722 with a 156 wRC+ until his season-ending injury. The Indians are hoping that version of Ramirez shows up in 2020, and he has so far; he has a 177 wRC+ through 42 plate appearances.
Rounding out the infield is Hernandez, who was signed after being non-tendered by the Phillies. The 30-year old has little pop (.381 career slugging percentage) but possesses strong on-base skills (9.9% walk rate) and a slightly above-average glove. Roberto Perez is the normal everyday catcher, but he’s currently on the injured list with a shoulder strain. Offseason acquisition Sandy Leon — who is one of the game’s best pitch-framers over the last two years but had the second-worst xwOBA among players with at least 150 plate appearances in 2019 — is now the primary catcher.
The outfield is the biggest question mark for the Indians, finishing 12th in the American League in wRC+ last season (94). Jordan Luplow emerged out of nowhere to have a career season in 2019, and Cleveland is hoping he can replicate that in 2020. He’ll split time in left field with former top-100 prospect Bradley Zimmer, who has missed large portions of the last two seasons with injuries and is hoping to put it all together at age 27. Oscar Mercado started his big-league career red-hot last summer but slumped down the stretch. The Indians are hoping the red-hot version of Mercado shows up in 2020, as he’ll be the center fielder while DeShields recovers from COVID-19.
Cleveland also traded for Reyes — a Statcast darling who finished fifth among all players in average exit velocity (93.3 mph) — at last year’s deadline. In the offseason, they signed another slugger in Domingo Santana. They’ll likely split right field and DH duties in 2020. Both players have immense power but are poor defenders and have a ton of swing and miss in their game. Among qualified hitters in 2019, Reyes had the second-worst swinging-strike rate in baseball (17.8%) while Santana was 14th-worst (14.1%).
Just like the Reds, the Indians are staking a claim to baseball’s best starting rotation. Shane Bieber broke out in his second year in the big leagues, representing the Indians at the All-Star Game in Cleveland and finishing fourth in Cy Young voting. With Kluber gone, Bieber earned the Opening Day start for Cleveland this season. He’s been the best pitcher in baseball through the first week-and-a-half of the season allowing no runs in 14 innings while maintaining a ridiculous 27-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Mike Clevinger has become one of the best pitchers in baseball in his own right. The 29-year-old has a 2.96 ERA (7th among qualified starters), 3.69 xFIP (29th), and 28.3% (18th) strikeout rate since 2017. He fully broke out in 2019 after returning from injury, trailing only Gerrit Cole, Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, and Max Scherzer in strikeout rate while also bringing down his walks. Behind him is a feel-good story in Carlos Carrasco, who was diagnosed with leukemia last June but returned to pitch out of the bullpen in September. One of the most underrated pitchers in the game since 2015 (11th in fWAR), Carrasco returns to a starting role in 2020. Rounding out the rotation are two more promising young pitchers in Plesac and Civale. Neither were top-100 prospects, and only Civale was a top-20 prospect in the Indians organization, but both posted strong rookie years and are off to hot starts in 2020.
The bullpen is Cleveland’s biggest weakness on paper. Brad Hand dominated in the first half of 2019 before struggling in the second half and eventually missing time with arm fatigue. Nick Wittgren had an impressive ERA but mediocre peripherals. The side-winding Adam Cimber regressed in his second season after losing fastball velocity and seeing a dip in strikeouts. Oliver Perez may lose some value with the three-batter minimum; he has a career 3.34 xFIP as a reliever against lefties, but that number jumps to 4.87 against righties. Adam Plutko will serve as the team’s long reliever.
The rest of the relief corps consists of relative newcomers, the most intriguing of whom is James Karinchak. The right-hander struck out a ridiculous 59% of batters he faced in the minor leagues last season and boasted a 36.5% strikeout rate in a brief cup of coffee with the Indians; if he can figure out his control, he could become the Indians’ best reliever. Rookie Cam Hill saw a huge uptick in his strikeout rate last season, which helped the 26-year-old break summer camp with the big-league roster in 2020. The bullpen is rounded out by a pair of veterans in Phil Maton and Dominic Leone, who were two of the worst relievers in baseball last year.
- C Roberto Perez (right shoulder strain)
- OF Tyler Naquin (broken toe)
- OF Delino DeShields Jr. (COVID-19)
Current W-L Projections
FanGraphs: 31-29, 2nd in AL Central
PECOTA: 32-28, 2nd in AL Central
The projection systems expect the Twins to repeat as AL Central champions (and they’re out to a fast start at 7-2) with the Indians again coming in second place. While that would leave Cleveland fighting for a wild card spot in most years, getting to 31 or 32 wins may be all that’s necessary to make the postseason due to the playoffs expanding to 16 teams in 2020. The offense is a bit top-heavy, but the Indians’ new-look pitching staff gives the team the potential to do some damage if they reach October.
Photo Credit: Erik Drost