The trend is not good. The Cleveland Indians lost the 2016 World Series in Game 7, blew a 2-0 series lead in the 2017 ALDS, were swept in the 2018 ALDS, and missed the postseason entirely in 2019. The Indians have the sport's longest championship drought -- they last won the World Series in 1948 -- and it's fair to wonder whether the current core's best days are behind them.
The good news: Cleveland had the best record (93-69) and the best run differential (plus-112) among non-postseason teams last year, so the team remains formidable, and most of its core is intact. Sure, Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer were traded away, but they've been capably replaced internally. In a short 60-game season, the Indians are as dangerous as any team in the game.
"We can either look at it that we're coming into August and we're tied for first place with four other teams, or you can shrug your shoulders and roll your eyes and be like, 'Yeah, there's nobody in the stands' and whatever," manager Terry Francona recently told reporters, including Cleveland.com's Joe Noga. "I can't imagine our guys acting like the second."
The changing of the guard is underway in Cleveland and the 2020 season might this group's last chance to make a run at a title together. Here's what you need to know about the Indians going into the abbreviated 2020 season.
Win total projection, odds
- 2020 Sportsline projection: 33-27
- World Series odds (via William Hill Sportsbook): 30/1
- 2019 record: 93-69 (missed postseason)
- SS Francisco Lindor
- CF Oscar Mercado
- 3B Jose Ramirez
- 1B Carlos Santana
- DH Franmil Reyes
- 2B Cesar Hernandez
- LF Domingo Santana
- C Roberto Perez
- RF Greg Allen
The Indians averaged 4.75 runs per game last season, below the 4.88 league average, though there's reason to believe they'll be better this year. Ramirez snapped out of his ugly slump in the second half -- he was hitting .198/.294/.292 as late as June 13 -- and they'll have full seasons of Mercado and Reyes. The pesky Hernandez should be an upgrade over Jason Kipnis at second base as well. Reyes and Santana have some swing and miss in their game, but they also have big time power, and that'll help. Spare outfielders Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer should factor into the mix at some point this season.
The emergence of Plesac and Civale last season made it easier to trade Bauer at the deadline and Kluber over the winter. Bieber is excellent and both Clevinger and Carrasco have been very good when they've been able to stay on the field (Carrasco battled a form of blood cancer last season but to date has not opted out of the 2020 season). Adam Plutko and Jefry Rodriguez are the next-in-line depth options. Logan Allen is another name to keep in mind. The Indians develop pitching as well as any team in the game, so don't be surprised if someone like lefty Scott Moss, a good but not great prospect, becomes a key contributor in 2020.
- Closer: LHP Brad Hand
- Setup: RHP Nick Wittgren
- Middle: LHP James Hoyt, RHP James Karinchak, RHP Phil Maton, LHP Oliver Perez
- Long: RHP Adam Plutko, RHP Jefry Rodriguez
Emmanuel Clase, the key piece in the Kluber trade, suffered a back injury in spring training and was later suspended 80 games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. The man with a 100 mph cutter will not pitch in 2020. Karinchak's minor-league numbers are outrageous -- he struck out 74 in 30 1/3 innings last year, or 59.2 percent of batters faced -- and he figures to get every opportunity to carve out a role in the late innings. Hand and Wittgren, who was sneaky good in 2019, give the Indians a strong closer-setup man tandem. Karinchak can make it a three-headed bullpen monster even without Clase.
The No. 1 on-field baseball story in Cleveland right now, hands down. Lindor is everything a team wants in a franchise player (incredibly productive, easy to love, etc.) and he's someone the Indians should want to keep in their uniform the rest of his career. The economic realities make that unlikely and that was true long before the COVID-19 shutdown.
Lindor was scheduled to earn $17.5 million this season, though that will be reduced to $6.48 million prorated during the 60-game season. His 2021 salary would have topped $25 million with a normal 2020. Things are a little more uncertain now, though Lindor will still qualify for free agency after next season. The Indians have him for 60 games this year plus next year. That's it.
Here are Cleveland's Opening Day payrolls the last three seasons:
- 2018: $134.9 million
- 2019: $119.6 million
- 2020: $92.6 million (full season payroll before the pandemic)
Not a good trend! The Indians consistently rank near the bottom of the league in attendance -- they drew 2,048,138 fans in 2017, the year after going to Game 7 of the World Series and the ninth-smallest attendance in the game -- and their television deal is not great, so money is always tight. The pandemic will force difficult decisions in the near future.
Lindor was on the trade block all winter and, to be fair, the Indians would not be doing their job if they didn't at least listen to offers. You never know what team will blow you away. At this point it feels like a matter of "when" the Indians will trade Lindor, not "if," because money is tight, and because a trade could net the team multiple young players.
The Indians have four options with Lindor, realistically, and each presents its own set of problems:
- Trade him at the Aug. 31 deadline. Teams can only trade players on their 60-man player pool, limiting the available return.
- Trade him over the winter. One year of Lindor is not as valuable as two postseason runs of Lindor (i.e. an Aug. 31 trade).
- Trade him at next year's deadline. Little leverage equals an even smaller return (see: Manny Machado trade).
- Keep him through 2021. The only return is one dinky 2022 compensation draft pick.
In the Before Times, the Indians could play out the start of the season, see how things go, and then make a decision with Lindor at the July 31 trade deadline. If they were in the race, they could keep him and try to make a run at a World Series title. If they were out of it, they could have traded him, and every player in every other organization would have been eligible to be traded.
Now the Indians will have a month of games before the Aug. 31 deadline and a month of games won't tell us much at all. If they're in it, they can keep Lindor and hope they stay in it. If the Indians are out of it, they have to find a trade partner with a) the financial means to afford Lindor following the shutdown, and b) players on their 60-man pool worth trading Lindor to acquire. Not the easiest needle to thread.
The Indians have made difficult decisions before (trading CC Sabathia, etc.) and they'll make difficult decisions again, but I do not envy them right now. Lindor is beloved in Cleveland and he's the epitome of a franchise player. At some point though, the Indians will have to trade him or else risk losing him for nothing but a draft pick. An already complicated and undesirable situation is now that much worse because of the pandemic.
The uncertain outfield
The Indians won 93 games a year ago and they stayed in the postseason race until the final weekend of the regular season, and they did that despite fielding one of the weakest outfield units in the game. Eleven different players started a game in the outfield for the Tribe last season, including seven players with at least 40 starts. The outfield's combined numbers:
- Batting average: .253 (19th in MLB)
- On-base percentage: .318 (22nd)
- Slugging percentage: .417 (24th)
- OPS+: 89 (24th)
- WAR: 4.6 (19th)
Mercado was called up in mid-May and was worth more than one-third of the team's outfield WAR by himself (1.7 WAR). He'll be back this season and so will Luplow, a certified lefty masher (.320/.439/.742 vs. LHP in 2019). Mercado's a fine young player and if the Indians pair Luplow with a good lefty bat, it could be a whale of a platoon.
The outfield is pretty rough otherwise. Allen runs well but doesn't do much else. Domingo Santana will put a mistake in the seats and that's about it. Naquin and Zimmer are coming back from injuries and Bauers is a natural first baseman who didn't hit enough to earn a longer look last year. There's even talk the Indians could put Reyes in the outfield more regularly this year.
Cleveland's approach to building the outfield seems to be cobble together as many second division starters as possible and hope a few stick, and hey, it might work in a 60-game season. Santana had 10 homers and an .804 OPS in the first 60 games last year. Naquin and Zimmer have had success at the MLB level in the past and Bauers is a former top prospect. It can work.
Clearly though, the outfield is a glaring weakness for the Indians. In a normal 162-game season, a team has enough time to cycle through internal options, then go out and make a trade at the deadline if nothing works. The Indians did that last year with Reyes and Yasiel Puig. In a 60-game season though, forget it. You need to figure out what you have quickly, and Cleveland's outfield is very unsettled at the moment.
Built for a 60-game season
The Kluber trade, the Bauer trade, Michael Brantley's departure, and the seemingly inevitable Lindor trade tell us this core's days are numbered. That doesn't mean the Indians are guaranteed to be bad in a year or two. It just means the roster will look very different than it does now and especially compared to a season or two ago. C'est la vie.
Even with all that turnover looming, I think the current version of the Indians is built for a 60-game season. They're going to send a good to great starting pitcher to the mound every night, Karinchak is a potential difference-maker in the bullpen, and an offense built around Lindor, Ramirez, and Santana won't be a pushover. Reyes offers big power potential as well.
Mostly though, it's the pitching. The Indians have impressive depth beyond their top three starters and top three relievers, and they consistently churn out quality contributors. Weird things can and will happen in a short 60-game season, but when you have this much pitching depth, you have a chance. I don't think the Indians are getting enough recognition for being a bona fide World Series contender.