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AL Central Preview: Cleveland Indians Edition

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The Cleveland Indians are set up to win another AL Central title. But is that enough to compete with the other heavy hitters around the league?

Chicago White Sox v Cleveland Indians Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images

Welcome to Opening Day! It’s the day that we’ve waited for for months. And now that it’s here, hope springs eternal. Everyone starts at 0-0 and everyone has a chance to make this a special season. Will the Cleveland Indians do just that? Their first task will be to win the AL Central, and that’s looking like a safe bet. But this Cleveland Indians team is much different than the team that got bounced from the ALDS a few months ago. What should we expect from the Tribe in 2019?

Key offseason transactions

Acquisitions

  • Acquired 2B Max Moroff in trade with Pittsburgh Pirates
  • Acquired OF Jordan Luplow in trade with Pittsburgh Pirates
  • Acquired 1B Carlos Santana in trade with Seattle Mariners
  • Acquired 1B Jake Bauers in trade with Tampa Bay Rays
  • Acquired C Kevin Plawecki in trade with New York Mets
  • Signed INF Brad Miller
  • Signed 1B Hanley Ramirez

Departures/Injuries

  • RF Lonnie Chisenhall became free agent (signed with Pittsburgh Pirates)
  • DH Edwin Encarnacion traded to Seattle Mariners
  • C Yan Gomes traded to Washington Nationals
  • CF Melky Cabrera became free agent (signed with Pittsburgh Pirates)
  • 3B Josh Donaldson became free agent (signed with Atlanta Braves)
  • CF Rajai Davis became free agent (signed with New York Mets)
  • LF Michael Brantley became free agent (signed with Houston Astros)
  • LHP Andrew Miller became free agent (signed with St. Louis Cardinals)
  • RHP Cody Allen became free agent (signed with Los Angeles Angels)
  • RF Brandon Guyer became free agent (signed with Chicago White Sox)
  • RHP Danny Salazar placed on 60-day DL (out for season)

We all knew that the Indians didn’t really do too much this offseason in terms of filling the holes on the team, but when you lay it all out like this, it’s really startling just how many players were lost to free agency and how little the Indians did in response. Obviously it wasn’t likely that the Indians would sign a huge superstar like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, but at least some free agent splash would have been nice to offset the loss of some of the guys on this list. The biggest hit is probably the loss of Michael Brantley. Brantley had struggled with injuries for the better part of the last three seasons, but he was able to come back in 2018 and hit like his old self again. But now, instead of suiting up for the Cleveland Indians on Opening Day, he’ll be taking the field for the Houston Astros. Ouch. The Indians also traded away their All-Star catcher Yan Gomes for prospects who likely won’t contribute significantly in 2019. Josh Donaldson, who was the front office’s Hail Mary attempt at the end of last season, signed just a 1-year deal with Atlanta for 2019. It was a large 1-year deal ($23 million), but it was disappointing that the Indians didn’t even want to do that. I understand not wanting to tie up a ton of money in one player, but 1-year deals are easier to stomach since a bad contract won’t continue to be a bad contract at the end of the season.

On the flip side, the biggest addition to the 2019 squad is the reunion with Carlos Santana. Lando returns and gives the Indians lineup some desperately needed length. He’s still got one of the best eyes in baseball, so expect him to get on base a ton while occasionally smashing a ball into the stands. The Indians also have Brad Miller who can play the middle infield positions and has some power that he can tap into if he isn’t injured. Max Moroff is now also on the Opening Day roster, and he’s been pretty bad so far in his major league career (he slashed .186/.284/.356 last season in just 67 PA, wRC+ 73). Basically, it seems that all of the players that the Indians acquired over the winter all come with various asterisks attached to them; no one really stands out as a clear upgrade (aside from Santana).

Oh, and if you remember last season, you’ll remember that the bullpen was somewhat of a raging dumpster fire. No one was added to fix that. But more on that later.

Lineup

Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez need no introduction. They are two of the best players in all of baseball and they are going to be the driving forces behind the Cleveland lineup this season. Well, Jose Ramirez will be to start the season. Lindor is dealing with an ankle sprain that will sideline him for an unknown amount of time. And while Jose Ramirez was one of the absolute best hitters in all of baseball for most of last season, he completely disappeared from the beginning of August throughout the postseason. If the Indians are to make a deep playoff run, the Angry Hamster will need to keep the production up into October. Jason Kipnis is also dealing with an injury, so the hope is that Brad Miller will be able to step in, be healthy, and mash some dingers. Will that happen? Who knows! Thankfully, Carlos Santana should be an upgrade over an aging Edwin Encarnacion. But Roberto Perez, who will get the lion’s share of at-bats as the starting catcher in place of the recently departed Yan Gomes, still has yet to prove that he has a major league capable bat to compliment his stellar defense.

This is all just the infield. When you move to the outfield, the situation looks even more dire. The Cleveland outfield in 2018 was a nightmare, but it had a bit of stability with Michael Brantley manning left field and being an excellent source of offense. He’s gone now. And the outfield, as it stands now, is a mixture of Jake Bauers, Leonys Martin, Greg Allen, Tyler Naquin, and Jordan Luplow. Leonys Martin survived a life-threatening bacterial infection, and the fact that he’s back playing baseball at all is a minor miracle. When healthy, Martin can put together passable offensive production to go with stellar center field defense. But oh boy does the rest of the outfield look rough. Greg Allen showed some promise in 2018, but it remains to be seen if he can continue to improve and sustain any level of decent production over the course of an entire year. The same could be said about Tyler Naquin, I suppose. But the point here is: more asterisks. And for a team competing for a championship, there are a lot of asterisks.

Pitching

Alright, a section (well, half a section) that won’t sound so “old man yells at cloud”-y. The Cleveland Indians have one of the best if not the best starting rotation in all of baseball. It’s led by 2-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and it’s rounded out by Shane Bieber, the 2018 rookie who held his own in his first season in the majors. Between them are three legitimate Cy Young candidates in Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Mike Clevinger. Carlos Carrasco is coming into the 2019 season having just signed a 4-year contract extension that will take him through 2022 with an additional option for 2023. Trevor Bauer had a legitimate case for the AL Cy Young award last year before a line drive hit him in the leg and took him out of the season prematurely. And Mike Clevinger, acquired from the Angels for a broken down Vinnie Pestano, hit the 200 IP mark for the first time in his career last season and he did it while allowing just 67 earned runs, walking 67 and striking out 207 (ERA+ 145). Yeah, he’s the #4 starter for the Indians. The Tribe will be competitive in every single game this year because of the strength of their starting pitching.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled frustration. The Cleveland bullpen. Andrew Miller was injured for a good portion of last season, and when he was “healthy” he wasn’t the same pitcher that we had seen in 2016 and 2017. Cody Allen, the longtime closer for Cleveland, also struggled last year and put up his worst numbers to date. If both were still on the team, there would be concern because of their recent struggles, but there would be a tiny shred of hope that they would be able to channel their former glory. But they’re both gone. And instead, we’re left with Brad Hand and another collection of asterisks.

I have hope that Adam Cimber can have a better year than his 2018 rookie campaign, but his numbers when he got to Cleveland (FIP over 6.00, WHIP over 1.600) indicate that he may have some serious struggles. Neil Ramirez, Tyler Olson, and Dan Otero have all shown instances in which they are effective, but their overall bodies of work have not been good as of late. Oliver Perez was lights out last year for Cleveland, but that sudden burst of effectiveness was completely out of line with basically every other year of his career. As he enters his age 37 season, will he be able to repeat the anomaly that was 2018? I hope so, because the Indians need him to. And Jon Edwards, a converted outfielder, has pitched in a grand total of 33.2 major league innings since taking the mound in 2014. Reports say that he’s got a good fastball and a good curve, but there isn’t enough of a track record to say whether or not they will hold up over a full season.

Summary

If this preview sounds a bit more irritated than the other ones, I apologize. With the other AL Central teams, there seems to be a very clear direction. Whether they are inching towards a rebuild (Royals), finishing up a rebuild (Tigers, White Sox), or getting ready to compete for the AL pennant (Twins), I can look at the moves that each of those teams made and determine the team goals. With the Cleveland Indians, I can’t. Yes, on paper they should win the AL Central, but that’s more of an indication of the state of the division itself rather than the strength of this Cleveland team. And with the Twins, there’s enough there to envision a scenario where they take the assumed Central crown away from the Tribe.

This preview also is more frustrated because it’s the team I care about the most. Like all of you, I want the Indians to win more than anything. But the Cleveland Indians have not been put in the best position to win. Baseball is a game of inches. It’s the most statistically driven sport. Every team is going to look to the margins to gain a small advantage here or to mitigate a disadvantage there. For a team with a small market like Cleveland, that’s where they have to thrive in order to compete. And the worry is that where other teams have found those areas of incremental improvement, the Indians have not. All we have to do now is wait and see how the games play out. I’m hopeful, but I’m not convinced. With Opening Day just a few hours away, I’m hoping that the 2019 Cleveland Indians show me just how wrong I am.

Poll

Where will the Indians finish in the AL Central this season?

This poll is closed

  • 77%
    First place
    (133 votes)
  • 18%
    Second place
    (31 votes)
  • 2%
    Third place
    (4 votes)
  • 0%
    Fourth place
    (0 votes)
  • 2%
    Fifth place
    (4 votes)
172 votes total Vote Now