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Indians need Jake Bauers to figure it out in 2020

Jake Bauers has the physical gifts of a good major-leaguer, he just needs to find out how to unlock them

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Indians are quite proud of their ability to find small guys that turn into power producers. Look no further than their pair of MVP caliber players José Ramírez and Francisco Lindor, as well as further down the line in Brayan Rocchio. Mike Chernoff said as much in an interview:

“We have a lot of young international players who, when we signed them, were sort of undersized,” said Chernoff. “(Brayan)’s one of those guys. But we see a ton of potential in his bat-to-ball ability, and in his defensive capabilities. He’s also held his own while super young for his level, and to us that’s a huge indicator of future success. We feel that as Brayan matures, as his body gets stronger and can handle the demands of a full season, he has a chance to be an impact guy.”

Projecting talent into the future is a crapshoot in the best of days, and when you’re trying to guess whether a willow thin 15- or 16-year-old will turn into anything of value to major league club you’re just shooting at birds in the dark while blindfolded. You can hope they grow up and fill out, but you just never know, do you?

Size, at least, is a real thing. You don’t have to project 6 foot, 200 pounds. The Indians have guys like that who are also still incredibly young for where they find themselves. Like Jake Bauers, for instance. Bauers knocked the luster off his “shiny and new” vibe pretty quick last year, never even flirting with league average at the plate and ultimately found himself in Columbus for most of August. It was disappointing, but luckily we got another big boy to root for in the interim with Franmil Reyes launching bombs to Neptune to close out the season.

Those two are really the antithesis of that whole thing about tiny guys turning into something good later, but the key point is the whole “holding their own” part of it all. Reyes is turning 24 in July, Bauers just did in October, meaning in the grand scheme of things they’re still just youngsters, both four or so years younger than the major league average. Not everyone debuts at 19 and has a meteoric start to the career, so we still have to strap into the hope machine and trust that it’ll bring us to the promised land.

For Reyes, you have to assume it’ll be a nice improvement in 2020. He more than held his own in his second season, posting 112 OPS+ between San Diego and Cleveland while knocking 37 homers; all he needs is a bit more plate discipline. Which might or might not occur, but it could. Either way, believing in his giganticness and just holding true to what we’ve seen so far is a solid bet.

Bauers, though: that’s the big question-mark on the Indians offense this year (if we had to pick just one, anyway). He’s not Reyes in stature, but at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds he’s a solidly built guy, and like with Rocchio or Lindor or Ramirez he has a lot of room to grow. Projecting hope onto a guy’s ability to fill out is a tale as old as time, and like I said it’s a crapshoot. But what does “holding your own” really mean? Bauers has been pretty underwhelming, and even if he had a big leap and saw a 20% boost to his 2019 numbers, we’d only get to a 94 OPS+. And that’s a pretty big leap. Ramírez pulled more than that off from 2015 to 2016, but he was barely a bit player before 2016. It’s just hard to quit on Bauers, and maybe it’s easier to go from bad to mediocre than mediocre to great. The writing on the wall is getting clearer by the day, however.

I would think the Indians front office (to say nothing of the fans) would be a bit gun-shy to quit on a guy prematurely. Twice in the last few years now they’ve let an impact corner infield bat leave and see them flourish, first with Jesús Aguilar — 127 OPS+ (over 2017 and 2018) then Yandy Díaz (116 OPS+ with Tampa this year). You don’t want that to happen again, not when you still worry about another half-season slump from Ramírez and have one of the least deep lineups among any level of contender. That patience is hard though when they’re in their early 20’s and it’s time for results now. Bauers has the look of a good hitter with his all-fields approach and surprising pop at his age, but like so many flame-outs before him the results say otherwise.

The Tribe’s chance of competing is slipping away every day, even without their cutting $60 million from the payroll. If Rocchio does turn into another stud middle infielder, it will be out of phase with this current window. It’ll still be great, and if the Indians suddenly start churning out slugging shortstops and second basemen like they have top end starting pitchers, suddenly we have an amazing vein to build a juggernaut. That has to actually happen.

It feels more safe to hope that Bauers really does figure it out, and at this point that alone feels like a long shot. When is it not in Cleveland, though?