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The 2020 Cleveland Indians were not a contender

Watching that World Series put a lot of things in stark relief

MLB: Wild Card-New York Yankees at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

We just got through what was, ultimately, a pretty good World Series. Despite being at opposite poles financially, the Rays and Dodgers represent the cutting edge of team construction, player development, and talent optimization. Whether or not this hyper-commodification and financialization of the game is good is a story for another day. If there’s one takeaway from the series, and pretty much all of October, it’s that in 2020, despite what their schedule suggested, the Cleveland Indians were not a contending team.

Of course they weren’t, you’re probably saying. They got absolutely obliterated by the New York Yankees in the first round. And while they didn’t actually benefit from the expanded playoff setup, it took a triumphant effort by a couple guys and some good luck to sneak into that four seed. It felt really good at the end of September and felt equally as bad when they got so thoroughly outclassed by the Yankees to end the season with a thud.

After seeing the Rays and Dodgers go at it though, after looking at the various gauntlets those teams had to run through to even get to the World Series, I’m almost happy that Cleveland got bounced so unceremoniously, and nobody had to watch it too closely. The Yankees were a flawed team in 2020, their starting pitching falling off a cliff after Masahiro Tanaka, but they were still a fright to behold offensively, and Gerrit Cole was unspeakably good in October. That the Rays were better than the monster that came to Progressive Field and dispatched the Tribe so effortlessly is almost unsettling to behold.

Tampa was unrelenting this postseason. For the life of me I couldn’t name more than half their lineup coming into October, and even those four or five picks would have been half guess. Their rotation is obviously better known, with a Cy Young winner and a handful of former first-round picks, but watching them throw after seeing the Indians buzzsaw through lineups, and also seeing them get knocked around by the Yankees so seemingly easily, would they have even stood a chance?

I love watching Shane Bieber. He’s marvelous, and was unhittable this season, right until the games counted the most. The rest of the rotation ranges from amazing to intriguing to just plain neat. The Rays though, man. How do all of them throw 100 god damn miles an hour? One of the arguments people made for Kevin Cash pulling Blake Snell was his velocity was starting to drop. To just 94 mph. Carlos Carrasco can knock on 96 sometimes, but the Indians just don’t have that kind of velocity. The Yankees savaged the starting pitching in those two games. Can you imagine having to face the Dodgers for four, if it even got that far?

On top of the sheer pitching on display, and the way it was made to seem merely mediocre, the one big strength Cleveland struts out there was heavily mitigated each and every game. I know the Rays lean heavily on the bullpen, but it’s not like Glasnow, Snell, Kershaw, or Walker Buehler were going seven innings. We grew to expect seven-plus out of Bieber and even Plesac by the end there, but that’s not the game in the playoffs. Bieber didn’t even make it out of the fourth, and even if he’d been on, the quality of the offenses just doesn’t allow for a comfortable third time through the order. It’s rough when you see the basic construct of what your team has been defined by so dismantled, it’s disheartening.

Offensively, forget about it. The Rays weren’t an incredible offense, but even with a team-wide 109 wRC+ they still ranked ninth in baseball and they still seemed stymied for most of the World Series. Seeing that, I can’t imagine anyone but Jose Ramirez getting more than a hit or two had they snuck into the World Series. How they’d have gotten there, I don’t know. With a miserable 86 wRC+, one of the worst in playoff history, they were not prepared. they looked generally pedestrian at best against some of the worst rotations in baseball, so what are we going to expect when they have to go from Clayton Kershaw to Dustin May’s 100 mph sinkers to Brusdor Graterol’s also 100 mph fastballs to Kenley Jansen. Never mind the other guys the Dodgers roll out.

The pitch velocity was out of control in this series. The offense, especially the Dodgers, made that same velocity look like slow-pitch softball. Meanwhile, Cleveland is essentially half a team, two thirds if Lindor, Ramirez and Reyes are clicking. Just trying to imagine Naquin, Perez, and Mercado making contact against Buehler or May gives me a big “DOES NOT COMPUTE” notice flashing in my head. It was a fun season, and the run at the end was exciting, don’t get me wrong. But seeing what a truly great, championship contending team looks like, it throws into stark relief where the Indians really stand, and the gulf between them and what it takes to win. The Rays are one of those teams they’re chasing of course, so it’s not all resources that push Cleveland out of the running. There’s a talent gap though, and while Cleveland has made efforts to trade from a position of strength to bolster the offense, there’s gaping holes.

They’re not miles away from being a real contender, they were still a good team and in 162 games starting pitching will be the great leveler. They can make the playoffs; they’re just not going to make a good showing. Billy Beane’s shtick didn’t work in October, why would what Cleveland is doing be any different? They’re just aching to be exposed when the game tightens up and the talent level makes that leap. They need more hitting, they need more bullpen arms, and they need the rotation to stay good. Not an easy list to have to deal with, but the standard has been set.

Every year since 2016 we’ve seen them slip further and further from that pinnacle. If that’s still the goal, we’re going to have to expect some moves and hope they learned how to develop hitters. No big deal.