While speaking to MLB Network Radio’s Jim Duquette, the usually tight-lipped Chris Antonetti was open about the offseason plan for the Cleveland Indians going forward. Namely, finding relievers capable of getting left-handed batters out and signing a first baseman, with a preference for bringing back Mike Napoli.
If I have to type Edwin Encarnacion’s name one more time (starting now) I am going to scream, so let’s forget the discussion about signing a first baseman for a minute. We know they want to, we know the options, and if you want to know more look here. But the idea of the Indians targeting lefty relievers has been mostly overlooked as the unsexy option for the offseason. Let’s explore that instead.
As of now, December 11, nearly all of the Tribe’s moves this offseason have revolved around finding the left-handed version of Dan Otero: A small acquisition that turns out to be dominant when he needs to be. They grabbed Tim Cooney off waivers from the St. Louis Cardinals and Edwin Escobar off waivers from the Arizona Diamondbacks, then selected Hoby Milner in the Rule 5 draft. Of those three, only Cooney has more than 25 innings of work in the majors. Milner just barely reached Triple-A last season, and Cooney missed all of 2016 with a shoulder injury. I get that finding the next Dan Otero requires digging deep, but the Indians are going to need a backhoe if they go any deeper.
Either way, that’s a months worth of transactions, and they are all to address one thing: Getting out left-handed hitters. The Indians were not actually terrible against lefties last season, despite all this hand wringing from the front office. In fact, Indians relievers held opposing left-handed batters to a .296 wOBA, best in the American League, with a .233/.295/.394 slash. They also struck out 620 left-handed batters, well ahead of the second-place Houston Astros, whose relievers struck out 602 lefties.
So why all the concern? Well, for one, Andrew Miller exists. In just a half season with the Indians he faced 31 left-handed batters and struck out 11 of them, allowing just five hits and two earned runs. Any time you are including Andrew Miller in a running average, it’s going to be slanted. Dan Otero is another reliever who tilted the scales, although his success is not as likely to carry over into 2016 as Millers. Otero faced 128 lefties in 2016, striking out 29 and allowing 23 hits.
The Indians had no true lefty killer in 2016, and it did not really cost them much in the regular season. But it did in the biggest game of the season. Looking back the game log for Game 7 of the World Series (click away now if you have to), Bryan Shaw — one of the Tribe’s relievers who had the most trouble against lefties last season — was left to face Kyle Schwarber-Buck, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Miguel Montero, and Jason Heyward in a gauntlet of bad matchups. It didn’t go well.
Teams do not generally make moves based on one inning of a game, but when it comes to cheap relievers — especially the kind who are acquired to eliminate one type of opponent — if you can use them effectively in one meaningful playoff game you probably get your money’s worth out of them. The Indians just didn’t have that reliever when it mattered.
The good news is these cost-effective relievers are always plentiful in the offseason. Mike Chernoff and Chris Antonetti clearly never had an interest in chasing after the uber-expensive reliever market (that they helped create with Andrew Miller), but they have a lot of options in their own pool of players.
There are so many names that could be randomly plugged in here with the expectation that the Indians would take at least one in their search. They are probably not going to go for someone like Boone Logan, who I would have loved to take a flier on but his value is going to suddenly go through the roof with the other reliever contracts this offseason. Instead, it will most likely be another half-dozen Tim Cooneys with one of them hopefully sticking around on a roster spot and pitching when it matters in November.