|Sportsbook||Win AL Central||Win AL Pennant||World Series|
|Over/Under Season Win Total: 86.5 (BetOnline)|
I cannot definitively say that starting the season with Eric Stamets and Max Moroff up the middle is the reason why the Cleveland Indians became the team with the most wins in the Wild Card Game era to miss the playoffs, but it certainly didn’t help. None of the injuries that the Indians endured last season helped the team, but the ones to Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez early in the season set the tone for what was a frustrating, yet silver-lined season.
Mike Clevinger and Corey Kluber both went down with injuries in April. Kluber wasn’t pitching well before the comebacker that fractured his arm and ended his 2019 season, so who knows how he would have turned out, but Clevinger was limited to 21 starts and still finished top-20 in fWAR if you lower the threshold to 120 innings pitched.
Twelve different pitchers made starts for the Indians, led by All-Star Game MVP and fourth-place Cy Young Award finisher Shane Bieber, whose breakout campaign is one of many reasons why the Indians were a contender for the playoffs into the final week of the season. The Indians traded Trevor Bauer. Carlos Carrasco was limited to 80 innings because of leukemia. Adam Plutko and Zach Plesac combined for 41 starts. Jefry Rodriguez made eight.
It was quite a season for the Indians. It was the type of season that is a massive disappointment in the present, but a major positive for the future.
The doom and gloom surrounding the fan base and the Lindor trade talks have obscured the fact that this is still a good team. Let’s put it this way. Lindor’s 4.4-fWAR season was the worst full season of his career. It ranked tied for 29th out of all qualified position players. Ramirez’s 3.3-fWAR season was his lowest output since 2015, when he only played 97 games. Bieber and Clevinger were top-20 in fWAR and a full-season of Clevinger would have likely given the Indians two starters in the top 10. Brad Hand’s late-season injury is a major concern going into 2020, but he was a top-15 reliever by fWAR.
Ownership groups around the league are under fire for crying poor and cutting costs, even though TV revenues and team valuations have never been higher. It is an annual thing in Cleveland, where Paul Dolan did extend the payroll during the Indians run from 2017-19, but the Kluber trade has been viewed as a cost-cutting measure by many and the Indians did very little to improve the team. The Indians have a lack of MLB-caliber depth going into this season as well and spent very little money to improve the 26-man roster.
Is what they have enough? The Indians have two of the 15 best position players and starting pitchers in baseball. They have the makings of a dominant back end of the bullpen with Hand, trade acquisition Emmanuel Clase, and young fireballer James Karinchak. Is that enough, though? Is the supplemental cast good enough?
Because that’s the thing with the Indians. They’ll be good. They have been. They’ve won at least 91 games each of the last four seasons. They’ll contend to go over their win total. They’ll contend for the AL Central crown. Where will they end up?
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+67 (4.74/4.33)|
|3rd Order Win% Record||86.7-75.3|
|Record in One-Run Games||15-16|
|Additions: Domingo Santana, Cameron Rupp, Dominic Leone, Cesar Hernandez, Beau Taylor, Emmanuel Clase, Delino DeShields, Sandy Leon|
|Losses: Kevin Plawecki, AJ Cole, Cody Anderson, Danny Salazar, Tyler Olson, Tyler Clippard, Yasiel Puig, Dan Otero, Jason Kipnis, Eric Haase, Corey Kluber, Adenys Bautista, Andrew Velazquez, Nick Goody|
That isn’t the offseason you want to see when a team is coming off of three straight division titles and came up eight games short of a fourth. The Indians needed a second baseman and got a clear upgrade with Cesar Hernandez. They also, apparently, needed to clear some money, so they traded Corey Kluber for Emmanuel Clase. Clase is widely-regarded as one of the best relief pitcher prospects in baseball, but the return seemed light for a two-time Cy Young Award winner in the eyes of most.
Domingo Santana has been thrown into the glut of OF/DH that the Indians have, which also features Delino DeShields, who was acquired in that Kluber/Clase trade.
Otherwise, the Indians cried poor, the owner pissed off everybody that doesn’t own a suite, and everybody that will miss Francisco Lindor. Maybe fans were directing the vitriol of the boring offseason at Dolan for a quote said in the company of people that weren’t average fans, but perception is clearly lower on the team than it has been in previous seasons and has never been lower on the ownership group.
There is a snowball effect in the betting markets to those types of things. The appearance is that the Indians were one of the losers of the offseason, while the Twins seemingly got better and the White Sox clearly got better.
I watch the Indians virtually every day and somehow it never occurred to me just how pedestrian last season’s offense was. It did not help whatsoever that Francisco Lindor was hobbled most of the season by an ongoing ankle injury and wasn’t quite himself. His numbers cratered in September with a 72 wRC+ and a .286 wOBA, but he was pretty good prior to that. He just wasn’t the Lindor that we’ve come to expect.
Lindor’s 2019 season was more like his 2017 season and the Indians needed 2018. In 2017, Lindor slashed .273/.337/.505 with a .353 wOBA and a 116 wRC+. In 2019, Lindor slashed .284/.335/.518 with a .349 wOBA and a 114 wRC+. In 2018, which stands as his career-best season offensively, Lindor slashed .277/.352/.519 with a .368 wOBA, a 130 wRC+, a career high in BB% and also career-bests in home runs, stolen bases, runs scored, and RBI.
The Indians are very dependent on Lindor and Jose Ramirez to provide their offensive punch. It would be unfair to say that 2019 was a complete throwaway for Ramirez, but he, too, was hurt early in the season and then suffered a broken hamate bone. He slashed .255/.327/.479 with a .334 wOBA and a 104 wRC+. Across the board, his numbers declined after consecutive seasons with a 146 wRC+.
There may be bigger bounce back candidates in baseball, but none that mean as much to their teams as Ramirez means to the Indians. Had it not been for a career year at age-33 for Carlos Santana, the Tribe offense would have been downright bad. Santana slashed .281/.397/.515 with career highs in all three categories, a .380 wOBA, and a 135 wRC+ in a more comfortable setting back at home. Santana set a career high in fWAR with 4.4.
With Santana very likely to regress towards his career averages, the Indians absolutely need Lindor and Ramirez to shoulder as much or more of the load. Roberto Perez had a breakout offensive season with regular playing time to hit 24 home runs. Jordan Luplow pummeled lefties with a .320/.439/.742 slash in 155 plate appearances, but the Indians seem poised to play him full-time, despite a .207/.276/.320 slash in 225 PA against right-handers at the MLB level. Oscar Mercado had a 15/15 rookie season over his 482 plate appearances, but he doesn’t walk much and ranked in the 16th percentile in average exit velocity and 24th percentile in Hard Hit% per Statcast. He is a tremendous defensive center fielder, though, with some of the highest Outs Above Average and Sprint Speed metrics in the league.
Cesar Hernandez is a league average or better bat at second base, which is a dramatic upgrade to Jason Kipnis. The infield looks fine, but the outfield is a mess. Mercado will bring defensive value, but his offensive ceiling seems rather low. Tyler Naquin is recovering from a torn ACL. Jake Bauers is recovering from reality slapping him in the face repeatedly over his 423 plate appearances with a .226/.312/.371 slash. Franmil Reyes has light tower power, but also strikes out a ton and may be tasked with playing more outfield out of necessity. Reyes will hit 40 home runs. What he provides in the other stat categories is anybody’s guess. Domingo Santana will assume a lot of DH responsibilities as another guy with pop and some Grand Canyon-sized holes in his swing.
The saddest part about all of this for me as an Indians fan is that there were a plethora of reasonably-priced outfielders in free agency and the Indians wound up with none of them. Five of their hitters grade out around average or better from last season. None of the outfielders do if we assume Luplow to cut into his overall numbers by facing more right-handers. The outfield could be a complete failure and any long-term injury to Lindor or Ramirez would be catastrophic.
This group looks league average-ish again, but a higher ceiling with Lindor and Ramirez can convince me that the Indians wind up somewhere around the top 10 or 12 offensively. Whether or not that’s good enough hinges on the pitching staff.
The nice thing for the Indians is that they really only need an average offense to be a factor in the AL playoff chase. Despite all of the doom and gloom about the Indians going into 2020, they won 93 games last season with Lindor hobbled, Ramirez out of action for about 35 games, and neither of those guys really themselves for most of the year.
How was that possible? The pitching depth within the organization. As mentioned in the intro, the Indians lost Corey Kluber to a freak injury, Carlos Carrasco to cancer, Mike Clevinger for six weeks with a back strain, Trevor Bauer for the last two months of the season, and still finished top-five in ERA, FIP, and BB%, while finishing up sixth in K% with a bullpen that was relatively low on the strikeout totem pole at 13th in the league.
When Clevinger was out there, he was dynamic. Shane Bieber morphed into a legitimate ace. Aaron Civale rode some luck and elite command to a 2.34 ERA (we will talk more about his 4.61 xFIP later). Bauer was awful for the Reds, but good enough for the Indians with a 3.79/4.15/4.29 pitcher slash. His loss goes beyond his on-field performance, as he was instrumental in the development of the breaking balls of Bieber, Clevinger, and to lesser degrees Civale and Zach Plesac.
The room to grow for the Indians rotation is staggering. It feels like we’ve just started to scratch the surface with Clevinger, whose K% peaked last season at 33.9% with a K%-BB% of 26.5%. When Clevinger made his Indians debut, he ran walk rates of 12.5% and 12.0%. Now he is above average in that department with an outstanding strikeout rate. The increased strikeouts were a contributing factor, but we also saw Clevinger’s BABIP go up from .280 over 200 innings in 2018 to .306 in 126 innings in 2019. Clevinger ranked in the 91st percentile in average exit velocity against and in the 70th percentile in Hard Hit%. That doesn’t translate to a BABIP over .300. His xwOBA, xBA, and xSLG ranked in the 92nd, 89th, and 89th percentiles.
Of course, after I wrote the first draft with my glaring review of Clevinger, he suffered a torn meniscus that will likely cause him to miss at least some of April. The Indians are a team with a limited margin for error and missing more than a few Clevinger starts makes a tall task even harder to reach.
In his first full-season, Bieber was a top-five finalist for the Cy Young Award, won the All-Star Game MVP by striking out the side in his only inning at home, and posted a 259/40 K/BB ratio. In 277 minor league innings, Bieber struck out 260 and walked 19. He allowed just 12 home runs. His elite command and control in the minors eventually played up at the MLB level to translate to more strikeouts. The Indians have two top-15 starting pitchers in Clevinger and Bieber to lead this rotation.
Bieber, though, has fallen out of favor to a degree with some analysts because his exit velocity and Hard Hit % against were rather poor last season. Bieber ranked in the 4th percentile in exit velocity and the 5th percentile in Hard Hit%. This will be something to watch closely as the season goes along.
It wasn’t always the sexiest stat line for Aaron Civale, who did tire and lose his control a bit late in the season, but Civale allowed two earned runs or fewer in his first nine starts. Like the rest of the staff, he exhibited plus to plus-plus command. He just didn’t have the strikeouts that the others had. Given how the Indians have developed pitching, and with Ruben Niebla now on the Major League staff, it is far from a stretch to see Civale as a guy that takes a big leap this season. Civale was in the 83rd percentile in average exit velocity, the 78th percentile in Hard Hit%, and the 84th percentile in xwOBA. His raw stuff isn’t as flashy or dominant as Clevinger or Bieber, but the tools are there.
The Indians are hoping to get a return to normal for Carlos Carrasco the person and the pitcher. Carrasco made 12 starts with some unlucky peripherals before returning in September for 12 emotional relief outings. Plesac flashed some signs and he’s another Indians talent that exhibited elite command in the minor leagues.
The Indians will have one of the better Triple-A rotations with Logan Allen, Sam Hentges, Triston McKenzie, Scott Moss, and Eli Morgan, all of whom have MLB ceilings, in Columbus. There is plenty of starting pitching depth in the organization.
As great as the rotation is, I do have bullpen questions. Brad Hand was good until the wheels fell off last season when he worked five games in six days in late June and never really bounced back. The Indians have a ton of young arms knocking on the door, but Emmanuel Clase and James Karinchak are the only ones penciled into the Opening Day bullpen. They’ll rely on the Nick Wittgrens and Oliver Perezes of the world. Perez and Cimber are mostly matchup type guys that could be badly impacted by the three-batter rule. The Indians bullpen should get better as the season goes along if they are aggressive with their relief prospects, but it could be cobbled together early in the year.
You see a big gap for the Indians between their actual record and the other metrics. The Indians led baseball in LOB% at 9.4% with runners in scoring position. The next-highest team was the Diamondbacks at 6.6%. The Indians were sixth in K% in that split. They got very fortunate with balls in play in high-leverage spots and it helped to hide a lackluster offense. I wonder if they get that lucky again.
Positives & Negatives
And that concerns me. The Indians were challenged in the AL Central for the first time in four years and they came up short. They made history as the team with the most wins to get shut out of the Wild Card Game, which has probably had something to do with the lack of activity this winter, but they have to stop punting the early part of the season.
Under Terry Francona, the Indians are 84-89 in March/April, 341-294 in the first half, and 297-200 in the second half. Imagine if this team could figure it out early. A big part of that has to do with the offseason complacency of the front office and the tight payroll constraints. The front office has opted to take the change rolled by ownership to the bank at the Trade Deadline to improve for the stretch run. I’m not sure how having a player for two months instead of six months makes sense with a division that is more competitive now, but it is easy to see why people are pessimistic about the Indians in the early going.
Pick: Over 86.5
Full disclosure here is that everybody knows I’m an Indians fan, so take this with as many grains to a full shaker of salt as you wish. This is not a ruined team. Should this team have done more to improve its playoff chances? Absolutely. But is there still a path for the Indians to win the Central Division? Absolutely.
I’m a big believer in Civale and a believer that Bieber and Clevinger can continue at the same levels and possibly even improve in certain areas. Healthier and more motivated stars in Lindor and Ramirez have all the incentive in the world to come back stronger and better after last season’s disappointing ending. The outfield situation will work itself out, as the Indians still have Daniel Johnson in the minors and enough options to cobble together something resembling a useful group. If nothing else, the Indians should get 70 home runs or more from Reyes and Santana and you don’t need a ton of margin for error with a rotation like this.
The reason why this is just a pick and not a bet is because the Indians have such a small margin for error. They already have the Clevinger injury that will wipe out his April for a team that annually starts slow anyway. Winning 93 games last year was something of a miracle, as the alternate standings metrics show, but this is also a team that lost its last five games to finish with “just” 93 wins. I think a healthier Indians team is better than last season’s version, but the good fortune may not be as strong, which puts this team likely somewhere in that 85-90 win range.
More often than not, I think the Indians go over this number, but I cannot lock it in as one of my favorite win total picks. The top-tier talent on this team is right up there with the best in the league. Unfortunately, the supporting cast will determine the ceiling for the Indians and I am not sure how high it is. This is a team that has a very high floor. I just don’t know how much wingspan it would take to reach the ceiling.
For that reason, this is a pick, not a bet, but I do think the sensationalism about this team from the mainstream media has been over the top.