The Cleveland Indians are at a bit of a crossroads. Their window to win isn’t likely to slam shut after 2018, but if a few key players regress without others taking their place, the quietly aging Indians roster could be in trouble. It’s like that for virtually every team, though — you need a few new faces to break out and fill in the cracks of the roster. Luckily for the Indians, they don’t need a lot of them.
The Indians roster is fairly established as-is; the most contentious battle in spring training is for who has to go get Jason Kipnis’ bombs every time one leaves the state of Arizona. Other than that, it’s hard to find any position on the Indians that needed a significant upgrade in the offseason, or one that needs someone to step up and really take hold of it. But here are a few, anyway.
I’ll try to avoid prospects in this list, because there are virtually limitless prospects who could come out of nowhere and contribute. Instead, I’ll be focusing on the 25-man roster to see who could breakout and solidify themselves in a potential World Series run. If you want something more prospect-heavy, I suggest this post from Always The Jake Baseball.
If that name looks familiar on a Let’s Go Tribe breakout players list, it’s because he was on it last year, too. He was the featured image and everything. My thoughts on the potential fireballer haven’t changed much in a year, and he showed a lot of progress last season. Just not enough to break out.
Clevinger’s failure to really take hold last season was due in part to being bounced around between the bullpen and starting rotation. He started a career-high 21 games and pitched 121.2 innings, but there was little consistency allotted to the 27-year-old pitcher. In 2018, he’ll have a real shot to beat out Josh Tomlin for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, especially if his wicked strikeout rate can stay in the double-digits per nine innings. There’s only so long you can deny that kind of raw talent, a potential No. 3 pitcher, over a pure innings eater like Tomlin.
No matter how many innings he gets, Clevinger has four above-average pitches to work with and a slider that came out of nowhere to become a wipeout pitch in 2017. The weighted value of his slider — or, how well it worked against opponents — was 9.3 last season, good for the 21st best slider in the league. That doesn’t seem like much, but it was ahead of Chris Sale, Jacob deGrom, and Zack Greinke, to name a few.
He threw the slider 417 times last year, and opponents slugged a mere .214 off it. His curveball has some disgusting break on it, too, so he if follows the trend of his fellow pitchers and starts leaning on it more, he’s got another great weapon in the holster.
Giovanny Urshela/Yandy Diaz
There is no use separating these two, as far as I’m concerned. They’re both in the same boat of needing a big 2018 to cement themselves on the roster, playing time will be sparse for both unless there’s an injury, and if one of them breaks out the other is left in the lurch.
In Giovanny Urshela’s case, his defense has carried him to where he is now, but his bat lags so woefully far behind that he hasn’t caught on any significant playing time in two seasons (2015 and 2017) with the Tribe.
His debut season in 2015 wasn’t impressive, with a .225/.279/.330 slash in 288 plate appearances, and he managed to get worse in 2017 with a .224/.262/.288 slash in 165 plate appearances. He’s not much of a breakout candidate, but until the Indians completely give up on him, I’m willing to keep including based on his Gold Glove-caliber defense alone.
As for Yandy Diaz, the muscle-bound Cuban didn’t get the results he probably wanted with the Tribe last season. Despite blistering the ball an average of 91.1 miles per hour (the eighth highest exit velocity in the majors), Diaz finished with a .263/.352/.327 and, bafflingly, zero home runs.
With the onset of the launch angle era of baseball, where everyone is uppercutting in hopes of hitting balls out of the park or forcing an outfielder to make a play, Diaz will serve as an interesting experiment: How hard is to “just hit up”? It’s clearly his only issue looking at the numbers, and if he could just have an average launch angle greater than zero he seems like he’d be a true power threat. But it hasn’t happened yet. You can bet Indians coaches know this already so he has to be working on it. My theory is it’s not just that easy to do. There is so much that goes into a swing that telling a player “just hit up” isn’t always going to work. Yandy Diaz is going to prove that theory one way or another in 2018. Either he challenges Aaron Judge for the Dad Strength award, or he keeps making divots in front of the pitcher’s mound.
Tyler Olson is less of a “breakout candidate” and more of a “keep breaking out candidate”. The 28-year-old reliever, who is known for a fun party pack of arm angles surprised everyone last season with a clean 0.00 earned run average in 30 relief appearances. More importantly, he also had a respectable 2.41 fielding independent pitching, meaning it wasn’t entirely luck. Just a lot of luck.
In his first round of breaking out, Olson kept the ball on the ground 52.9 percent of the time and struck out a career-high 23.4 percent of the batters he faced. That’s a good strategy when you have Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez behind you.
Now, here come the caveats.
Terry Francona used Olson sparingly in high-leverage situations, to say the least. Olson faced only nine batters in high-leverage situations, according to FanGraphs, and struck out two of them. Of the 77 total batters Olson faced last season, 19 of them came with no outs and the bases empty; 40 came with no outs, regardless of the situation on bases. So Olson wasn’t exactly Andrew Miller out there in terms of being a fireman, but he sure as hell did what he was supposed to.
The question remains if he can do it again, or at least something similar in 2018.
Hey, remember Bradley Zimmer? That guy who was needlessly platooned against left-handed pitchers and eventually broke his dang hand on a weird slide. Yeah, that’s the one.
For a while, Zimmer was impressive in the debut season. From when he debuted against the Tampa Bays on May 16 through the end of June, Zimmer used his tremendous speed swipe seven bases and he accumulated a .289/.362/.465 slash, good for a wRC+ of 121. And then he regressed in July and fell off a cliff in August. He went a full two weeks without tallying a hit, going 0-for-39 to start the month of August, with only one stolen base to his name.
Eventually, maybe mercifully, he dove headfirst into first base and broke his hand, ending his season.
Zimmer will have a chance at redemption in 2018, and if there is a baseball god out there somewhere, he won’t be platooned this time around. The guy has hit at just about every level against any type of pitcher, and he doesn’t even need balls to get out of the infield to reach first. The Indians’ weak outfield could work in Zimmer’s favor, because there really isn’t any else to replace him if he starts to struggle — he’s going to have to work it out on the field. And if he can, he’s got a real shot at being a top-flight center fielder with the glove, speed, and power he’s shown flashes of in the past. Just put it all together and for the love of everything stop swinging at pitches in the dirt.