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Cleveland’s biggest offseason moves and how they’ll impact 2021

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From trading Francisco Lindor, to signing Eddie Rosario, to signaling to younger players that now is their chance to seize a lineup spot

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Indians Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

It hasn’t been a great offseason for Cleveland, public relations-wise. On a national stage, it’s a low point somewhere between their owner going on tour to tell everyone to “enjoy” their superstar while they had him, and that time an entire movie franchise was born just to make fun of their ineptitude.

We’ve seen star players leave, old enemies become friends, and old frenemies be shown the door a couple years after they should have been. And with the regular season mercifully on the horizon, what better time than now to take a look back at the moves made in the past couple of months and see how they’ll impact the season?

We’ll be running a series of season preview posts here at Let’s Go Tribe to help get everyone up to speed on the comings and goings of the team, starting with Blake’s roster prediction earlier today, and this fella here.

Let’s hop in with something light and fun and —

Trading Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco

This list is not in any order, but if it was anything like “most significant”, “most heartbreaking”, or “least enjoyable”, this would be first anyway.

Back on Jan. 7, Cleveland made the inevitable trade of 27-year-old superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor. I say inevitable because they were never going to pay him, whether they could or not, and it’s even debatable whether or not Lindor wants to sign an extension before testing free agency. So far, he hasn’t exactly sounded committed to making a long-term pact with the Mets, either. Point being, that part of the deal was expected.

Heartbreaking, sure, but not shocking. The addition of Carlos Carrasco, on the other hand, was a gut-wrencher.

We can’t know for sure what the Mets were willing to part with without the addition of Carrasco — or if Cleveland threw him in as a last-ditch effort to trim even more payroll — but he was the heart and soul of Cleveland’s baseball team before the trade. A rare player who took a clear pay cut to stick around in the only major-league city he knew. In the absence of Lindor, a veteran leader like Carrasco seems like he’d be a must-have in a young clubhouse like Cleveland’s, but instead, he was tacked onto the deal in exchange for Andres Giménez, Amed Rosario, and a couple of prospects.

The prospects, outfielder Isaiah Greene and pitcher Josh Wolf, may make some noise in the future, but for the purposes of this article, I’m looking at 2021 impact only. For that, we look squarely at Giménez and Rosario.

As far as defense goes, Giménez shouldn’t miss a beat picking up for Lindor. Like Lindor, Giménez was considered a glove-first wiz coming up through the minors, with anything his bat could do as the cherry on top. Lindor’s offense, of course, exploded once he hit the majors. So far, Giménez hasn’t done quite that, but he hasn’t been terrible, either.

Giménez made the jump straight from Double-A in 2019 to the majors as a 21-year-old in the middle of a global pandemic and a chaotic 2020 season — somehow he still managed to finish the 60-game sprint with a 104 wRC+ and 0.8 fWAR. There will probably be an adjustment period as opposing pitchers learn how he managed to slash .263/.333/.398 while hardly barreling the ball and making a lot of weak contact. With any luck, he’ll keep hitting a bunch of line drives (he hit them 21.3% of the time last year), and with his excellent speed, he can probably sustain a BABIP higher than .318 once he can start putting the barrel on the ball more.

He’s played so well and acclimated to the team so quickly in his first big-league camp in Cleveland that Terry Francona seems determined to make him the Opening Day shortstop, even if he hasn’t explicitly said so yet.

Rosario, on the other hand, is not off to a great start in Cleveland. For the second time in two years, it appears his starting job is being stolen by Giménez, and now he is being pushed to either an outfielder or a super-utility role. Cleveland experimented with him in center field on Monday and it was a disaster, so we’ll see what happens going forward. There may be a trade on the horizon to get a true center fielder back, or maybe they’ll keep trying him out there. Either way, I don’t think he makes a huge contribution to the team in 2021 beyond the necessary depth.

Signing Eddie Rosario

After turning in a wRC+ over at least 103 in each of the last four seasons, Minnesota non-tendered the 29-year-old Eddie Rosario earlier this offseason. That left him to roam the open market, and eventually, he landed in Cleveland on a one-year, $8 million deal. A place he is very familiar with, and more importantly, a place where he hits so many dang dingers.

Rosario has 177 plate appearances at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario, and he has walked just 4.0% of the time. Wow, is he even trying? Talk about getting shut down by Cleveland pitching.

Oh, right, he also hit 11 home runs, 12 doubles, three triples, and had a .431 wOBA.

He’s made good use of Progressive Field’s 330-foot right-field porch by pulling the ball 43.8% of the time in his many visits to Cleveland (against everyone else, he’s pulled the ball 41.8% in his career), and hitting some truly absurd pitches a million miles. Now as a member of the Good Guys, he’ll hit there 81 games of the year, and there’s a decent chance he will be Cleveland’s best outfielder — and one of their best hitters — from day one.

That’s what ZiPS thinks, anyway. With a projected 1.8 fWAR and .335 wOBA, he is expected to be the team’s best all-around outfielder, even with his world-renowned bad defense. In fact, his .335 projected wOBA is third on the entire team behind José Ramírez (.384) and Franmil Reyes (.337). His 29 projected home runs are third behind those two, as well.

Rosario is never going to have a high walk rate (he peaked at 8.2% last year in 57 games), but he also doesn’t strike out a ton. That itself is a miracle considering how much he swings at pitches out of the zone. For his career, he has a 42.8% outside swing rate (seventh highest in the majors since 2015), but he’s made contact on those pitches 70.1% of the time (86th out of 359 batters since 2015). So not enough to make him a superstar, but enough that he can survive — and be above-average — as a free-swinger.

Be prepared to watch some very high highs from Rosario’s bat, but also get ready for some deep lows. His 15-game rolling average on wOBA since he became a full-time starter in 2017 eerily resembles what your heart rate will be with him up in a big moment.

FanGraphs

Depending on how he’s feeling in any given 15-game span, he might be on the verge of hitting a key three-run homer, or he might swing at three-straight pitches in the dirt. Either way, he’s an easy plus for a lineup desperate for thump. Just hope that he’s on the upswing late in the year.

Putting Brad Hand on waivers

In a year of rapidly shedding payroll, it’s easy to lump this transaction in with the rest of their cost-saving moves. And it would be wrong to ignore that at a large part of Cleveland’s decision to decline Brad Hand’s 2021 option was financially motivated, but it’s the easiest to not get too upset over.

Everything about Brad Hand’s results in 2020 were phenomenal. He did not allow a single home run in 22 innings of relief work, he struck out 29 batters, walked only four, and allowed five earned runs en route to another vintage Handian season as Cleveland’s closer.

But there was also something looming. Even while he kept hard hits down, spun his fastball like the devil, and continued to strike guys out, one important thing continued to decline: velocity.

Hand’s four-seamer lived in the mid-93 mph range from 2016 to 2018, but dropped a full mile-per-hour to 92.7 in 2019. That continued in 2020 as it dropped further to 91.4. The velocity on his slider went with it, down from 82 in 2018 to 81.2 in 2019 and 79.5 in 2020. There’s more to pitching than slinging fireballs out there — especially when you only sit 93 on a good day to begin with — but Hand’s is pretty clearly declining. It’s at least part of the reason they didn’t want to pay him $10 million in 2021, and it’s probably why they couldn’t find a trade partner to give them a lottery ticket prospect in return for the privilege of paying him $10 million.

Once he cleared waivers and was free to sign, he did end up landing in Washington for $10.5 million, so he’s still getting his due. Just not in Cleveland.

As for his old home, they aren’t exactly hurting for relievers. James Karinchak, Emmanuel Clase, Phil Maton, and Nick Wittgren are going to eat up a lot of relief innings in Cleveland this season, and they also brought in old friends Bryan Shaw and Oliver Pérez, as well as veterans Heath Hembree and Blake Parker. There’s potential for a pair of 100-mph hurlers — Anthony Gose and Sam Hentges — to contribute at some point, too.

Cleveland could have kept Brad Hand — just like they could have done a lot of things differently this season — but they bet on the guys they had and his own decline coming. It’s hard not to trust their judgment on when pitchers are about to fall off a cliff.

Trading Mike Freeman and releasing Billy Hamilton

Let’s call this one addition by subtraction. In the past month, veteran outfielder Billy Hamilton was released from camp (and has since signed with the White Sox), and utility player Mike Freeman was traded to the Reds for a sack of cash.

Surely these are both good guys and clubhouse members, but neither should be getting major playing time on a contending team. Yet there was a time when Freeman racked up 213 plate appearances in a full season and played in 24 of a team’s 60 games in 2020. And don’t doubt Cleveland’s desire to play a speedy veteran outfielder instead of giving any of their young players a chance.

This year appears to be different, however. Maybe it’s them admitting that this is a retooling year and they want to see what they have for an earnest run in 2022 and 2023, but by not holding onto Freeman and Hamilton, it sends a signal that Oscar Mercado, Bradley Zimmer, Yu Chang, Andres Giménez and any other young player you want to name has a chance to grab significant playing time. They just have to prove they can do it.

Re-signing César Hernández

César Hernández chose Cleveland as the destination for his “bet on myself” season last year with a one-year, $2.5 million deal and he could not have asked for better on-field results. He finished with his best offensive season since 2017, a .283/.355/.408 slash (110 wRC+), 1.9 fWAR, and his first Gold Glove.

Then he hit the open market and ... nothing. He entered a relatively weak second-base free agent pool topped by DJ LeMahieu destined to return to New York, Ha-Seong Kim entering free agency from Korea, Jurickson Profar looking to cash in on years of post-hype play, the versatile Tommy La Stella, and Kolten Wong.

He ultimately landed back in Cleveland on a one-year deal worth $5 million with a club option for 2022. He turns 31 in a couple of months and last year’s mini-renaissance did come on the back of a short season and .364 BABIP, so maybe that’s enough to give other teams pause about a big contract. I’m thrilled he’s back in Cleveland, either way.

If Andres Giménez is the team’s shortstop on Opening Day (or a convenient number of days after), he couldn’t ask for a better double-play partner than Hernández. The second baseman ranked in the 91st percentile in Statcast’s outs above average last year as he displayed great range in Cleveland.

Projections understandably have Hernández’s offense coming back down a bit, but ZiPS’ 90 wRC+ seems especially harsh. He has only slugged below .400 once in the last three seasons, but no system has him slugging over .390 in 2021. All do see him striking out less than he did in 2020, though, so maybe they can cancel out and he can remain an average bat with some solid defense. If that’s the case, he’s worth the cheap price tag and then some.

The structure of his contract is also ideal for Cleveland beyond 2021. If Tyler Freeman, Gabriel Arias, Owen Miller, or one of their dozen other middle infield prospects look ready to take over second base in 2022, they can decline his option. If not, they can pick it up and continue to use him as a stop-gap until they are. Heck, if someone looks ready really early, they can dangle him as trade bait in June with a year-plus of control for another team that has a hole at second base.

The name of the game with Hernández’s signing (and, really, all of Cleveland’s offseason) was versatility.