March 25, 2019. Outstanding Indians writer Zack Meisel of The Athletic got a sit-down interview with Cleveland Indians owner Paul Dolan. Two words stood out from that interview.
That was the response from Dolan when asked about the looming free agency of Francisco Lindor, a captivating homegrown talent that quickly ascended to be the face of the franchise and one of the faces of Major League Baseball. It is no secret that the Indians, or whatever they’re going to be called next season, operate on paper-thin financial margins. Paper might not be thin enough. Do what so many Indians fans have done and rip a few hairs out of your head. Maybe that’s a better representation.
The payroll purge for the Tribe was in motion long before January 7. It just so happened that was the day the Indians traded Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco to the New York Mets. The Indians might as well have traded a large portion of the fan base to Queens in the deal.
Apathy might not be the right word for it, but with a payroll projected to be under $50 million, a young, stellar rotation is likely to be dragged down by one of the league’s worst offenses. Only Jose Ramirez, Eddie Rosario, Cesar Hernandez, and Roberto Perez will make more money than manager Terry Francona.
That’s not to say that high-salaried players are the only ones that can perform well. It is simply to say that the Indians, who were first in the shortened season in pitcher fWAR and sixth in the full 2019 season, only spent enough money on Rosario to bolster a lineup that finished 27th in wRC+. Hernandez is back, and he was one of the better hitters last season, but, again, that was for one of the league’s worst offenses.
Hopefully Indians fans did “enjoy him”. Hopefully Indians fans enjoyed the two-game Wild Card Series against the New York Yankees that resulted in the most recent baseball heartbreak experienced by The Land. Because another trip to the playoffs may not be coming soon.
The 2021 season will be a year of transition for the Indians. Young players will be forced into action because there are no other options, much to the chagrin of Francona, whose allegiance to fringy Major League veterans has left many of the team’s up-and-coming youngsters in MLB purgatory. We don’t know if they can play at the top level. Neither does the team.
As the Indians focus on development from within, with guys like Nolan Jones, George Valera, Tyler Freeman, Daniel Johnson, and Josh Naylor, the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox are poised to leave Cleveland in the dust.
Or are they?
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win AL Central
|Team||Odds To Win|
|Chicago White Sox||-143|
|Kansas City Royals||+4000|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+26 (4.16/3.72)||+67 (4.74/4.33)|
|3rd Order Win%||32.8-27.1||86.7-75.3|
|Record in One-Run Games||8-6||15-16|
Additions: Harold Ramirez, Ryan Lavarnway, Blake Parker, Billy Hamilton, Ben Gamel, Bryan Shaw, Heath Hembree, DJ Johnson, Eddie Rosario, Amed Rosario, Andres Gimenez, Isaiah Greene, Josh Wolf, Trevor Stephan
Losses: Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, Adam Cimber, Tyler Naquin, Delino DeShields, Jefry Rodriguez, Sandy Leon, Oliver Perez, Carlos Santana, Brad Hand
That is an imbalanced list to say the least. The year of the non-tender around Major League Baseball had an impact, but so did an offseason of not picking up team options. The Indians lost several key contributors via trade or financial limitations, including Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, Carlos Santana, and Brad Hand.
Amed Rosario will play every day at shortstop and the return of Cesar Hernandez means that Lindor trade centerpiece Andres Gimenez appears ticketed for Columbus to start the season.
When the Indians added Eddie Rosario’s $8 million to the $5 million they gave Cesar Hernandez to return, that basically extended all of the financial resources they saved from trading Carlos Carrasco. It was at that point that we knew the Indians were done with guaranteed MLB free agent deals.
Usually the Indians scour the bargain bin for free agents and minor league deals. They’ve done that to a degree, bringing back Mike Freeman and signing Harold Ramirez, Ben Gamel, Bryan Shaw, Heath Hembree, and DJ Johnson, among others, to try out for roster spots. Lather, rinse, repeat.
|Batting Average (BA)||.228 (23rd)||.250 (15th)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.317 (19th)||.323 (15th)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.372 (26th)||.432 (14th)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.303 (26th)||.319 (15th)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||87 (27th)||94 (17th)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.277 (23rd)||.289 (25th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||23.0% (13th)||21.8% (10th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||10.6% (5th)||9.2% (10th)|
An average offense in 2019 became a well below average offense in 2020 and the outlook for 2021 does not look a whole hell of a lot better. Jose Ramirez will have to shoulder the offensive load in a huge way. The Indians projected to be below average at every offensive position except DH until the signings of Cesar Hernandez and Eddie Rosario.
Nothing against Jose Abreu, who turned in a terrific season on the South Side, but Jose Ramirez should have been the MVP. While Abreu slashed .317/.370/.617 with a .411 wOBA and a 166 wRC+, Ramirez slashed .292/.386/.607 with a .415 wOBA and a 164 wRC+ while playing a much harder defensive position. Ramirez led all of baseball in fWAR among position players with 3.4. Abreu, with the positional adjustment, had 2.6 fWAR.
The huge season for Ramirez marked an emphatic bounce back from an injury-riddled 2019 season and gave a lot of Indians fans hope that the JRam they all know and love was here to stay. He’ll have to be now that Francisco Lindor is gone. Ramirez is signed through 2023 because something catastrophic would have to happen for his team options in 2022 and 2023 not to be picked up. The Indians could trade him and buttress their on-the-fly rebuild, but that won’t come until next winter, if it happens at all.
Ramirez accounted for nearly half of Cleveland’s team fWAR on the position player side last season. The second-most valuable player is back in Cesar Hernandez. Hernandez racked up 1.9 fWAR with a .335 wOBA and a 110 wRC+ to go along with Gold Glove defense at second base. I wouldn’t bank on a similar season from Hernandez, who ran a .364 BABIP and a career high in exit velocity, but for a team in dire need of above average bats, Hernandez could still fit the bill, particularly if his strikeout rate regresses back to his career average.
It is such a delicate situation with the Indians offense. Hernandez’s 2020 was not really the baseline in a lot of ways, but he also had three straight seasons in double digits from a BB% standpoint from 2016-18. While BB% across the league increased, he finished at 9.2, which ranks fourth in his career. Perhaps he walks more this season to offset the BABIP decreases.
There are a lot of important parts of the equation for the Indians offense. They’ll lose Carlos Santana’s elite plate patience and Francisco Lindor’s all-around offensive skill. That means needing something similar from Ramirez and Hernandez. It means needing what we’ve seen from Eddie Rosario with a ton of contact and good power numbers. Rosario hit at least 24 homers each season from 2017-19 and then 13 in 57 games last season.
I do think we are seeing something of a paradigm shift for the Indians. While Ramirez walks at a high rate and Hernandez has OBP skills, the Indians are taking more of a contact-based approach. I’ve talked about this in other team previews and will continue to do so, but it is my belief that walks will decrease in value as we go forward. Hitting is already hard with increased K% and a lot of defensive advances. Shifts and improved scouting reports are taking hits away.
For a long time, BABIP was consistent. Batting average on balls in play from 2010 to 2019 was never higher than .300 and never lower than .295. Until last season. The BABIP last season was .292. Now, this could be a byproduct of the weird season and may prove to be an outlier. I don’t see it that way. Shifts, lot of two-strike counts, and just the overall landscape of hitting with increased pitch velocity and improving pitch sequencing are all going to be factors in how offense plays out over the next few seasons.
To me, the way to counteract that is to get more aggressive. Make more early-count contact. Teams used to try to run up pitch counts for starters to “get into the bullpen”. That strategy no longer carries as much weight as it once did. Running up pitch counts is irrelevant. Teams will pull their pitchers before the third time through the order whether they have 90 pitches or 60.
When I look at the Indians lineup, not to mention the draft profiles on offense over the last few seasons, I see an increase in bat-to-ball skills. I see more emphasis on making contact. That is true of trade acquisitions Josh Naylor, Owen Miller, and Andres Gimenez. I would expect that the Indians are a little more aggressive offensively this season.
Whether or not they have the personnel to have success with that approach is a fair question to debate. It would be great if Franmil Reyes’s power returns after slugging 37 dingers in 2019. He only hit nine last season, though he did maintain high contact quality and added a few more walks. He just pounded way too many pitches into the ground.
This offense isn’t as bad as most pundits and prognosticators will tell you it is, but this was a bottom-five offense with Lindor in it, so the team will need a lot of players to perform at or above their baselines to get better in the run-scoring department. I’m not expecting miracles. A league average offense would be quite a leap.
The Indians are a small-market team. They operate on thin financial margins. One thing that they’ve had great success with in the past is the utilization of platoons. They find flawed players on the Island of Misfit Toys and bring them back to Santa to transform them into sought-after commodities.
Last season, left-handed batters against right-handed pitchers batted .239. Dating back to 2010, three of the four lowest seasons in batting average have been the three most recent seasons, with 2020 as the official bottom. The 2020 season marked the first time dating back to at least 2002 (as far back as FanGraphs goes) that the wRC+ for left-handed batters against right-handed pitchers was below league average. That was even with the highest BB% in that split over that time period.
The platoon advantage is dead in my mind. If it’s not dead, it is at least on life support. Exit velocity in that split dropped last season. Pitchers that had platoon issues have corrected them by throwing more elevated fastballs and more offspeed and breaking stuff to the outer half of the plate.
On a given day, the Indians will have six or seven left-handed batters out there against right-handed pitchers. If the platoon advantage does not return, and I don’t anticipate that it will, the Indians could struggle badly on offense again.
The Indians were one of two teams with over 1,000 plate appearances with a left-handed batter against a right-handed pitcher. They had 1,149. The Diamondbacks had 1,005. The Indians were 17th in wOBA in that split at .315.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||3.29 (2nd)||3.79 (4th)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||3.55 (1st)||4.06 (5th)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||3.73 (1st)||4.30 (10th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||28.5% (2nd)||25.1% (6th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||7.2% (2nd)||7.5% (5th)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||78.5% (1st)||76.0% (2nd)|
The Indians made the playoffs for one reason and one reason only. The pitching staff. The Tribe did benefit from the all-Central Division schedule. With a White Sox lineup that was decidedly better against lefties than righties and a Twins lineup that regressed from 2019, the Indians padded their numbers against the Tigers and Royals while still performing well against the best teams in their division.
As bad as the Indians offense was, the pitching staff was that good or better. The Tribe finished with 11.3 fWAR as a pitching that. That was 1.5 wins better than the Twins, who finished second in that department. Shane Bieber accounted for 3.2 of that in his Cy Young season with ridiculous numbers. He struck out 122 batters in 77.1 innings. He probably wouldn’t have maintained a 41.1% K% in a full season, but Gerrit Cole’s all-time record of 39.9% among qualified starters set back in 2019 would have been at risk. If nothing else, second place would have been his ahead of Pedro Martinez’s 37.5% mark in 1999.
Carlos Carrasco’s rebound from a hard and emotional 2019 season was a huge development for the Indians, but his 2.91 ERA and 3.59 FIP over 68 innings are now in Queens. That leaves it up to the continued development of Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale. Plesac was limited to eight starts because the Indians played service time games with him after he broke COVID protocols. They hit him where it hurts…financially. Now the Indians have an extra year of control before Plesac hits free agency.
You will see conflicting thoughts out there in the baseball community, specifically on the fantasy side, about Plesac and Civale. Plesac had a huge leap in the K% department from 18.5% to 27.7%. He threw fewer fastballs and mixed in more sliders and changeups and had great success commanding the zone. He had a 2.28 ERA with a 3.39 FIP and a 3.50 xFIP. While I wouldn’t expect a .224 BABIP again, Indians pitchers have made big year over year leaps with regularity.
That is why Aaron Civale is the one I’d focus in on this season. Plesac’s leap seemed to come last season. Civale wound up with a 4.74 ERA, but a 4.03 FIP and a 3.92 xFIP, so he got a bit unlucky to bounce an ERA that high. Civale is the one with better spin rates and a better command profile between the two. He’s just not as hard of a thrower, but the Indians can and have added velocity.
I haven’t done as much individual player evaluation in the win total previews this season, but it is worth it with the Indians because they’re going to have a top-five rotation again in all likelihood, even without Carlos Carrasco. Bieber, Plesac, and Civale all have wide-ranging skill sets and don’t walk a lot of guys. The Indians are going to excel at limiting run-scoring opportunities against, which is what they absolutely must do to enhance their limited offensive upside.
There may be some worries at the back of the rotation. Triston McKenzie did lose velocity late last season, pitching for essentially the first time in two calendar years. Cal Quantrill will probably be the fifth starter. His under-the-hood metrics are really promising, but his track record as a MLB starter is more or less non-existent. If Quantrill finds himself in relief, the Indians could turn to Logan Allen or any number of guys knocking on the door like Sam Hentges, Scott Moss, or Eli Morgan. They’re also said to be high on San Diego left-hander Joey Cantillo, who was acquired in the Mike Clevinger trade last August.
I said going into last season that I had questions about the Indians bullpen. Emmanuel Clase wound up being suspended for the season for a positive PED test and he was thought to be the guy with the most upside as the centerpiece of the Corey Kluber trade with the Rangers. Without Clase, the Indians had the best bullpen FIP and would have probably had the best fWAR had they not been so far behind the others in innings pitched, as WAR is ultimately a counting stat.
The Indians wound up fourth in fWAR, even though they had the second-fewest relief innings pitched. Brad Hand is gone after a dominant 2020 season, but James Karinchak is back to build off of his performance with 27 innings pitched and 53 strikeouts. He gave up the grand slam to Gio Urshela in Game 2 of the Wild Card Round that helped propel the Yankees to the win, but he was virtually unhittable otherwise, allowing 14 hits in his 27 regular season innings.
The Indians have tried to fashion a bullpen with a lot of different looks. I’d be a bit surprised if this season’s bullpen is as dominant as last year’s, despite a lot of the same guys, but they do get Clase back.
However you slice it, the Indians will easily be a top-10 pitching staff this season. Whether or not that is good enough with the offense remains to be seen. The staff was first or second in lots of categories last season.
Positives & Negatives
You cannot take a position on the full-season Indians without keeping in mind their financial situation. While they don’t really have many parts left to sell off that cost money, Jose Ramirez would net a king’s ransom if the team did look at his market prior to the Trade Deadline.
My initial thoughts on the Indians were much lower than this, but they did re-sign Hernandez and then inked Rosario to a one-year deal. They aren’t tied to any risk with those guys, though, so if the bottom falls out on the season, they will have the luxury to spin those guys for more developmental talent.
Also, as you’ve already read and will continue to read, I give the teams that are well-versed in the metrics a lot of leeway. The Indians aren’t shopping at Whole Foods. They’re not really using premium ingredients. But, they’re going to Aldi, buying products that are cheaper, and are seasoning them well enough to make a tasty dish. To further this food analogy, it’s like they are pairing the best spices with the correct flavor profiles to enhance the culinary experience.
Few teams do that better than the Indians. They’ve milked a lot of production out of guys that that they probably weren’t supposed to and have relied on their superstars to perform as expected.
One problem area, at least in my mind, is with Terry Francona. Francona’s health issues kept him away from the dugout for long stretches in 2020. The team played well enough in his absence, but this is something of a rebuilding job on the fly. Francona’s reluctance to let young players try and fail at the big league level has led to a lot of placeholder veterans in his years in Cleveland, like Mike Aviles, Mike Freeman, Ryan Flaherty, and Rajai Davis at the expense of at bats for young players.
Cleveland Indians Pick & Prediction: Over 81.5
I’m jaded and cynical as an Indians fan. Perhaps the pitching staff can be the salve that soothes all the pain provided by a well below average lineup. It is also entirely possible that the baseball plays like a waterlogged softball and it will be a down year for offense, which may help or hurt the Indians.
Any Jose Ramirez injury, and there have been some of those in recent years, would cripple the offense to an even greater degree. There is good pitching depth in the organization, but any sort of Shane Bieber hiccup, even something like an oblique that costs six weeks, would leave us needing a microscope to see that aforementioned thin margin for the Indians.
However, all of that being said, along with the extremely pessimistic profile I penned about the offense, this pitching staff is going to keep the Indians in virtually every game. To me, the floor for the Indians is to be somewhere in the 79-80 win range and the ceiling is a lot higher than that. If the offense somehow comes together and resembles league average, a top-10 pitching staff paired with an average offense equals a lot of wins in today’s game.
I don’t think league average is in the cards, but the pitching staff will balance it out. I don’t model out the season, but if I had to guess where I would put the Indians, it would be around 84-85 wins.
This is not a bet. This is a scenario in which the bottom could fall out and I don’t think I would be very surprised. The Indians just feel scrappy enough with a high degree of proficiency in the pitching department to win more games than they lose, which is what would be required with a win total of 81.5.
I’d be pretty shocked if they flew over the number. I think this is a sweat deep into September. I make a pick on every team and believe that the Indians have enough pitching to stave off their first losing season since 2012, but I don’t have a high enough degree of confidence to put money on it.