It’s been less than a week and the spring training fatigue is already setting in.
I’ve had enough of pretend baseball, I want to see the Cleveland Indians playing to win games (and the rest of the league doing the same when they’re not playing the Indians). It’s time to hit the sim button to get us to April and whoops I pressed it too many times and now we’re in 2021.
Luckily, Let’s Go Tribe reader Matt McFee asked about this very scenario earlier this week for the Let’s Talk Tribe podcast, giving me a reason to do all the legwork for such a mishap and a reason to make this post. What a crazy coincidence. Mr. McFee’s exact question — or demand, more accurately — was to predict the Indians’ 2021 lineup and starting rotation. With no other guidance, I am going to go as direct as possible and with my own interpretations where necessary.
I assume 2021 was chosen because of one very simple reason: Most of the current core will gone by then. Roberto Perez, Jason Kipnis, Jose Ramirez, Abraham Almonte, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco, and Edwin Encarnacion will all be off the team in 2020 or earlier without a contract extension of some kind.
It’s also five years in the future, which is enough time for a couple current prospects to have established themselves, but not far enough away where we can realistically say the team will be populated by players who have not yet been drafted. Francisco Lindor was a sensational talent from the beginning and he still spent four-and-a-half years working his way up from Low-A, where his career began in 2011.
Before we get into the actual team, allow me to set the scene.
I am trying to take a realistic approach to this, but I’m still going to say the Indians are coming off at least one World Series win between 2017 and 2021. The current core wins one in the early years and maybe a prospect or two pans out to help in 2019 or 2020. Either way, the 2021 Indians are in kind of a victory lap for their recent success. It’s clear the team is breaking up, but they are doing what they can to stay competitive during this transition phase into what will hopefully be the next crop of World Series winners.
So come, take a trip with me to 2021; see what the future holds. And for everyone in the real 2021 who fell victim to my excellent SEO skills from five years ago, please let me know you found this post, assuming baseball still exists in the post-apocalypse, and let me know how accurate it is.
C: Francisco Mejia
Catcher is pretty simple for me. Mejia has panned out into a decent-enough receiver. Not the same catcher that had a 165 wRC+ in Single-A in 2016, but he’s good enough of as a switch-hitter to be an established 26-year-old catcher in 2021.
Roberto Perez, still as patient and defensive-minded as ever, remains on as the team’s veteran presence and backup to Mejia. Maybe Mejia struggles at times and Roberto steps in, but the job is Mejia’s for the immediate future.
1B: Brad Miller
It would be easy to just take the current top Indians prospect at each position and plug them into the vacancies. In fact, that’s exactly what I did to start my imaginary list. Bobby Bradley was at first base, but let’s try and be realistic here: Not every prospect is going to pan out. Some had to pruned in exchange for veterans.
For me, one of those prospects to not pan out ends up being Bradley. Maybe his power fades in the upper levels of the minors, or maybe he is just stuck in Triple-A as another Jesus Aguilar type. Either way, he’s not contributing in 2021. Instead, the Indians opt for veteran first baseman Brad Miller. At 32 years old, Miller is coming off a few seasons that prove his 30 home run season in 2016 was not a total fluke. He never quite reaches 30 dingers again, but he is consistently in the low- to mid-20s, which is plenty enough for Indians fans.
We all sort of miss Edwin Encarnacion and the World Series MVP he won with his spectacular showing in 2018, but we understand that the Indians don’t have much in their system at first base, so Miller is better than nothing.
2B: Jason Kipnis
As mentioned above, Kipnis is one of the players who would be gone by 2021 without an extension. So let’s just give him one to keep him around.
I don’t know what it is, but Kipnis is one of those players who feels like he has to be a lifelong member of the Indians. At this point, heading into his age-34 season, Kipnis’ play at second base has degraded a bit — enough that he did not need a groundbreaking deal to stay in Cleveland — but he’s the wily old vet is still holding on. The tandem of Kipnis and Lindor has become the stuff of legends for Indians fans.
SS: Francisco Lindor
Lindor has completely ascended into superstardom. There is no longer any doubt of his offensive ability, and his defense has only gotten better into his late-20s. After multiple Gold Gloves, an MVP award, and some October heroics, it’s clear that Lindor is going to absolutely bust the bank of whatever team signs him as a 28-year-old free agent after the 2021 season.
The Indians front office, still led by Chris Antonetti, has not outright confirmed the fact that they are not going to re-sign Lindor, but they’re saying things like “we’ll talk about it at the end of the season,” and “he sure has had a great career in Cleveland, you guys” while trying to hold back tears.
Indians fans know what is coming — if the team isn’t competitive at midseason, one of the Tribe’s best-ever players is going to be traded for a package of prospects that will launch the franchise into its next big run of successful seasons. At best, this is a full-season farewell tour for Lindor.
3B: Nolan Jones
The 2021 Indians aren’t just plugging in a bunch of old veterans, a couple extremely young prospects are popping up as well.
Twenty-three-year-old Nolan Jones was prematurely called up and Indians fans are worried his development is in jeopardy. A couple Let’s Go Tribe headlines include “Why is Nolan Jones up already?”, “Nolan Jones looks overmatched against powerhouse Minnesota Twins”, and “Is Nolan Jones the next Matt LaPorta?” We’re all clearly disappointed in the prospect, but we know it’s not his fault — the Indians clearly blew it.
And where’s Jose Ramirez? In 2021, he has either played well enough to outprice a return to Cleveland, or his 2016 outburst was a bit of a fluke and he is not much more than a journeyman utility player. Indians fans remember him fondly, but his successful years with the franchise are a distant blip.
LF: Starling Marte/Will Benson
The Indians thought they had one more year to compete in 2020, so they went out and traded for Starling Marte, who is still a really good left fielder, though not one of the best in the league. In exchange for Marte, the Indians sent over Bradley Zimmer — who is an okay left fielder, but never quite panned out — and some prospect who they drafted in 2019.
Now, heading into the last year of a deal he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2014, Marte is paired with up-and-coming prospect Will Benson.
Benson ends up similar to Tyler Naquin, in that he has some good tools, but strikeouts are an issues and he may need to be platooned. The 2021 season is his chance to prove he can play on his own when Marte is gone — hopefully he can hit high fastballs.
CF: Greg Allen
Greg Allen turns into a pretty good center fielder. He is not the next Kenny Lofton, as some 2016 Indians fans would have you believe, but it’s hard to be upset with a guy who consistently starts 150+ games at center field with speed and a decent hit tool.
At 28 and in his third full season in the majors, Allen has a real shot to be the face of the franchise during this transition between cores.
RF: Charlie Blackmon
Indians fans in 2016 are always clamoring for Charlie Blackmon and it continues through 2021 — except he’s 35 and not very good anymore. This is one of Blackmon’s final seasons and his defense is atrocious but the Indians really needed a right fielder.
Rotation: Corey Kluber, Triston McKenzie, Mike Clevinger, Julian Merryweather, Michael Pineda
Pitchers are so volatile that picking the rotation in 2021 is pointless. Yes, even more pointless than the rest of this post.
Corey Kluber is still around as the old veteran who isn’t very effective anymore, but fans still love him for his past accolades. Think 2013 Matt Cain. Triston McKenzie nearly reaches his full potential — he’s clearly a No. 2 pitcher, and is probably a No. 1 pitcher on a team like the 2021 Indians. Mike Clevinger is a solid No. 3; he finally found the edge of the plate. Julian Merryweather is 2021’s version of Josh Tomlin. He’s 30 and you’re constantly surprised that he’s still around and has been with the Indians his whole career.
And Michael Pineda. Well, the Indians were desperate and he used to have a kind-of good fastball so why not.
I envision this team winning around 80 games. Fans are still in the afterglow of a World Series or two, so there’s no real animosity towards the team losing more than half their games. Knowing Lindor is about to leave is hard, but the future is still bright in Cleveland. Mainly because the Browns were retracted in 2019.
Is it April yet?