From now until Opening Day (and a little bit beyond) Let’s Go Tribe will be previewing the 2020 season for the Indians from every angle — position previews, a look at the AL Central, players you should know, and more. See the full preview here.
The class of the American League Central and the destroyer of balls and bases, the Minnesota Twins are a legitimate threat to the Indians for the second year in a row. Not only did they retain most of their stellar offense from a year ago, but they also went out and added a three-time All-Star and former American League MVP in Josh Donaldson.
The Bringer of Rain, a bonafide Cleveland legend, took a one-year “bet on yourself” deal with the Atlanta Braves in 2019 and it’s fair to say he won that bet. He wasn’t quite at the MVP level as he with the Toronto Blue Jays, but a .259/.379/.521 slash and 37 home runs is nothing to scoff at.
The results might have dipped a bit, but Donaldson was hitting the ball just as hard as he did when was the best player in baseball. Last season Statcast measured his hard-hit rate in the top 3% of baseball and his exit velocity was in the top 2%. He also seemingly picked up a new skill in the National League in the form of hitting balls out of the zone. He didn’t chase anymore than usual at 23.1%, but he made contact on balls out of the zone 60% of the time — a career-high since Statcast started to measure chase contact rate in 2015.
If there’s one weakness in Donaldson’s offensive game, it’s that he still doesn’t elevate the ball all that well, at least not at an elite rate. Nobody tell him that if he aimed for a slightly higher launch angle he might hit 50 homers instead of 40. I think he’ll manage either way.
Believe it or not, though, Donaldson is not the entirety of the Twins offense. Designated hitter Nelson Cruz, outfielder Max Kepler, first baseman Miguel Sanó, and catcher Mitch Garver all hit 30 homers for the Twins last season and all return to presumably crush baseballs once more in 2020.
Cruz and Sanó are your typical big burly 1B/DH types (although Sanó was miscast as a third baseman prior to Donaldson’s signing), but Garver is a rare breed of an absolutely offensive horse at catcher.
Garver stunned just about everyone out of the 612 area code with his 155 wRC+ season in 2019. Obviously he led all catchers, and by a wide margin — Will Smith of the Dodgers was the next closest at 132 wRC+, and that was with 16 fewer home runs. He didn’t qualify for overall leaderboards given that he only played in 93 games, but among batters with a minimum of 100 plate appearances in 2019 Garver ranked ninth in all of baseball in wRC+ and led the league in isolated slugging percentage.
Like his rain-bringing teammate, Garver was in the top 3% in terms of hard-hit hate and he was in the top 6% of expected slugging percentage (aka how much he slugged without the influence of defense).
Seemingly the biggest change that took Garver from a 104 wRC+ hitter to one of the best overall hitters in baseball was an unabashed willingness to pull the ball. He did so nearly 48% of the time in 2019 and went opposite field just 23.5% of the time. Frankly, if you’re going to hit it as hard as Garver does, who cares? It’s similar to José Ramírez letting the idea of “beating the shift” get into his head so much that it caused a year-long slump. Garver found something he’s good at it, and it’s blistering baseballs over the left field wall.
One of the more intriguing players to watch — and damnit I’ll call him intriguing until the day he retires or puts it all together — will be Byron Buxton. Once a top prospect with the potential to take over baseball as a speedy outfielder who could hit anything anywhere, Buxton has fallen out of the spotlight and into the recycle bin of post-hype prospects. After hitting rock bottom with a pitiful 2018 in which he went 14-for-90 with just three walks, he rebounded in an injury-shortened 2019 to post a .262/.314/.513 slash with 10 home runs and 14 stolen bases. He accumulated 2.7 fWAR in a relatively short amount of time (87 games), mostly carried by his ability to lockdown center field as few can.
Buxton easily has the ability to be a top-flight defender, even if his offense never catches up, but right now his biggest hurdle will be staying healthy. He’s played in just 393 games over his five-year career, and only once has he played more than 100. Personally, I would prefer he be traded far, far away from the AL Central before he reaches his potential, but the Twins have enough sluggers in their lineup to cover for him while he tries to figure it out.
Luis Arraez was merely a rookie in 2019, but it’s already apparent he’s going to be an issue for many, many years. He quietly put up an excellent rookie campaign: 366 PA, .334/.399/.439, 4 HR, 9.8 BB%, 7.9 K% (!!!), 125 wRC+. The cacophony of dingers drowned out his success a bit, but he’s such a fascinating hitter from a bygone era, relying more on bat-to-ball skills and the ability to put the ball anywhere. As basically the antithesis to Mitch Garver, he went opposite field (36.7%) more than he pulled the ball (29.0%) in his rookie campaign. Even with a hard-hit rate in the fourth percentile (that’s bad), he still finished with an expected batting average in the 88th (that’s good).
That brings us to the pitching staff, which is the Indians’ biggest edge in winning the AL Central. They’re all ... not great. Jose Berrios is electric, but behind him, it’s a lot of maybes (Kenta Maeda, Rich Hill, and Jake Odorizzi) and a few oh noes (everyone else). Forty-year-old Rich Hill was their biggest free-agent pitching get of the offseason if you don’t count bringing back Michael Pineda. They also acquired Maeda in a deal that almost that didn’t happen and held up the Mookie Betts blockbuster. Maeda is projected to be a perfectly fine three or four pitcher, but he’ll be relied on as a No. 2 if Jake Odorizzi is anything but outstanding. Old friend Tyler Clippard will be in the bullpen, but he’s not exactly a threat.
Even with their pitching deficiencies, PECOTA projects the Twins to win around 93 games with an 81.9% chance of winning the AL Central. Seven games behind them are the Indians with less than a third of a shot at taking back the crown. It can happen, but it’ll be a battle all year long. The Twins are legit.