The last few years have proven to be rather lopsided for the Indians. The pitching has been so overpowering that they’re contenders from day one, but with the slow bleed on offense as free agency and cost chase away established regulars, the ability to score runs has fallen into the toilet. This year was particularly terrible, as they notched a team-wide 86 wRC+. That’s the worst mark since 1968.
It was evident to anyone who caught even a couple innings of Tribe ball this year. After Franmil Reyes there was just nothing, no resistance at all for opposing pitchers. This needs fixing, the team can’t waste a pitching staff like this and feel good about themselves. There’s a sense I get, and maybe it’s just because I’m too optimistic about things for some reason, that Cleveland is going to find its rhythm again, and the lineup is going to get back in step with the rotation.
When Cleveland made the World Series in 2016, this was a pinnacle of a process that started somewhere around 2009 or ‘10. Trades, draft picks, and savvy moves created a well-balanced team that had hitters up and down the lineup, a strong rotation from front to back, and an unbeatable bullpen. The key to their rise to the top of the game was that timing. Everyone seemed to get good at the same time. As Michael Brantley was getting MVP votes, Corey Kluber was winning a Cy Young. They dumped the Bullpen Mafia and ended up with the three-headed monster of Shaw, Miller, and Allen. Everywhere you looked the team was just good.
Whether a big market or small, this is vital to any kind of a window being opened. Money helps stretch that window out, but internal timing is the first step. We’ve seen time and again where a team rebuilds but can’t get over the hump because the hitting and pitching aren’t in sync. The Pittsburgh Pirates of the last decade are a perfect example of that. They almost seemed like an NL version of the Indians. They broke their playoff drought in 2014 with an MVP in Andrew McCutchen, a bunch of youth, and a rotation that was supposed to be seeing a pipeline of talent flowing into it in short order. Due to bad luck, the Cubs showing up, and a cheap owner, this fell apart. The pitching didn’t get there in time, other teams got better, McCutchen left, and young guys didn’t pan out. Now they’re back to being the Pirates we’re sadly used to.
Luck is the big part of this, along with a good system that develops players and places them in a position to be successful with the big club. As our own Chris Davies noted the other day, that second part is where the Tribe has struggled the last several years. The young guys just aren’t panning out. I’ll get to that in a second. Things have to go right, both internally and with the league at large. Internally, they need a surprise or two to work their way. A player has to emerge from nowhere, a name we’d not heard even a year prior, and force themselves onto the team. That might have been Oscar Mercado last year, it could be Josh Naylor this year. These weren’t supposed to be anything more than solid role players, but who knows? Maybe one or the other will surprise us and prove to be something special
The other is the external. Part of what’s helped Cleveland to dominate the Central for most of the last decade is that everyone else was rebuilding. That’s not changing for the Tigers or Royals, though the Tigers at least seem to be behaving competently and could be back in a few years. The Twins have been incredible though, and the White Sox seem to be on the cusp. Both teams hit the crap out of the ball, and the Twins at least have a solid pitching staff to boot. That’s not good news for Cleveland, especially if the Sox decide to invest in more free agent pitching. Less Reynaldo Lopez or Dylan Cease starts is only good news for them. If they go nuts and get Trevor Bauer for a year or Marcus Stroman for several, suddenly they have a very good rotation to go with that dominant lineup and a stash of relievers that can throw it through a cement wall. It might not be a rotation on par with Cleveland, but everything else outstrips them comfortably.
So, if those things hold, that’s not great for Cleveland. They need things to not work out for other teams. Guys on the Twins need to regress or start showing their age. Jerry Reinsdorf needs to suddenly start feeling his pocketbook getting too light. Some kind of BABIP regression has to finally strike Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada. Luis Robert is going to be a problem for a long time, but one man can’t cause that much pain, unless you’re the Seattle Mariners and the one guy is Mike Trout.
As for the player development thing though, there’s a couple guys that are on the cusp of making the big club, and got screwed by not having spring training or the minors to show their mettle and prove that they fit on the big club. Guys like Daniel Johnson or even Jake Bauers, young guys who maybe needed more seasoning to really find a place. Not to become stars or anything, but even three-ish win players, guys who hit for an alright average, pop some dingers, and play good defense. That’s what’s lacking on this team, is those “other” guys. Losing a year of development could hurt, or maybe they’re figuring it out.
Nobody knows what was going on at the taxi squad site. It could be Bauers did learn how to not swing at shitty sliders in the dirt. Or Johnson started to put all the pieces of his supreme athleticism together and all five tools will be on display in Arizona next spring. It’s getting a bit reckless to hope these guys “figure it out”, but Johnson for instance just turned 25. When Michael Brantley was 25, he posted a .750 OPS. He and Jake Bauers had near-identical OPS’s in their respective age 23 seasons. Many of the stars of that last generation were not good early on, but we didn’t care then because the team stunk. Now we worry because the pitching staff is so good we don’t want to see it waste time, so we have this sense of urgency. Patience is needed with young players, even if we don’t want it to be.
Then there are things that should work out, all things being right and good. Specifically, Nolan Jones. Cleveland’s top prospect probably would have been in Cleveland if there were a minor league season this year, if only because the outfield was such dreck. The likely rationale this year was simply, “we’ll go with known quantities, and not burn service time at the same time” but come 2021 there’s not much holding him back. I can’t imagine he’s not better than most of the outfield hitters this past season. They don’t need him to be a breakout start right away like Ronald Acuña Jr. or anything, but a solid, above-average hitter? Why can’t that be an expectation?
A couple things, bits of development and promotion that I at least can’t discount as impossible, that’s all that separates the Indians from where they are now and at least a solid offense. There’s lots of other unknowns that toss this all into even more flux. Will Lindor still be around in 2021? Will César Hernández? Hernández was wonderful in his short season, playing a kind of second base defense we haven’t seen in a long time, and it would be really nice for him to stick around for a few years. Money being what it is though — a real hassle to have to deal with — Hernández, along with Lindor and Carlos Santana, might not be around. Which just tosses all my hopes and reckless dreams even further down a hole.
Things have to break the right way for Cleveland to be anything more than alright in 2021. The pitching is too good to be worse than that, so we need to look to a bright — and just slightly lucky — future. That hasn’t happened a lot the last couple years, whether because of injuries, ineffectiveness at key times, or players not panning out. The recent trades they’ve made, getting offense for the pitching they did have, and being patient with some young guys with good tools, these have to pay off eventually.
This is very much a team in flux right now, with a lot of questions about next year because of factors and influences, internal and otherwise. You gotta believe it’ll work out eventually though, right?