After that offseason, it’s pretty hard to pin down exactly what the upcoming season of baseball will bring for Cleveland.
Not that 2020 really set the bar high, but anytime you have “the crown jewel” in the “golden age of shortstops” plying his trade for your team — plus the reigning Cy Young and the fifth-best position player in all of baseball since 2016 (yes, José Ramírez has been better than Francisco Lindor the last five seasons) — fans should rightfully expect to be in contention in October.
With Lindor gone, and Carlos Carrasco in New York with him, Cleveland is cobbling together a club on a shoestring budget that looks a lot like a full-on rebuild. FanGraphs projects them to fall right in the middle of the AL Central pack at an even 82-82, and PECOTA likes them a little more at 85-77 in second. But the answers do not seem as the machines would have us believe. There’s promise in the young kids taking over the team, but there’s also the threat the empty coffers of the offseason hurt more than the models predict.
Where does the truth lie? Maybe somewhere between the two poles.
Beyond Shane Bieber, the Cleveland rotation is full of promise, but promise is not something on which you can build a foundation. In the worst-case scenario, injuries bite Bieber and keep him shy of his projected 5.2 fWAR and 192.0 IP.
But perhaps losing Bieber for a stretch is not the worst thing that could happen to the rotation; rather, having to rely on unproven or semi-proven arms for extended stretches could be even more harmful. After the ace, the pitcher with the most experience on the roster is Zach Plesac, who has logged all of 171.0 IP at the big league level. Aaron Civale is next with a scant 131.0 IP.
With that lack of experience in the rotation, regression or stumbles are to be expected, but put the weight of carrying the team in the absence of Bieber upon those untested shoulders could take things from bad to worse. Depth is obviously the name of the game for Cleveland’s pitching, and even in the worst-case scenario some of the team’s arms are bound to meet or exceed expectations, but even the collective could never replace what Bieber provides and would be hard-pressed to come up with the 5.9 fWAR projected from all starters not named Bieber.
As Michael Hattery wrote at Everyone Hates Cleveland, it's likely in any scenario that Cleveland’s pitching staff regresses to an average strikeout rate in 2021, but if Civale, Adam Plutko, Eli Morgan, or Sam Hentges — command artists not known for eye-popping strikeout numbers at the major-league level — are forced to pick up significant innings, then the defense will be tested.
While infield defense hardly seems an issue with Ramírez-Andrés Giménez-César Hernández around the horn, the outfield will be a different story. Eddie Rosario and Josh Naylor will see ample time in the corners and have track records that are, um, adequate at best. Meanwhile, the team is trying Amed Rosario, an infielder by trade, in center because none of the better defensive candidates have hit the ball with any authority. If this trio were to see the majority of innings behind a rotation that allows a fair amount of contact, it’s easy to see how the bullpen might then get taxed.
A bullpen that gets taxed is likely to result in over-the-hill guys like Bryan Shaw or Blake Parker or Heath Hembree pitching a significant number of innings. While those veterans will have their good innings, they may not be enough to overcome the bad ones. And when the bad ones add up the team’s record sinks, and when the record sinks the trade market opens up, and then we get to the absolute worst part of the worst-case scenario: trading José Ramírez.
If the Cleveland baseball club is mired in the middle-bottom of the AL Central by midseason and the young players are doing what young players do (i.e., needing adjustment time to have an impact in MLB), then the last best cost-controlled asset the team possesses will almost certainly be dangled in front of every interested party. Given the team’s track record, this is inevitable, and maybe it does lead to a promising return. But the promise the rotation was built on didn’t help in this scenario, and any promising return for Ramírez will not help for 2021 either.
The only thing that will help in 2021 is if the deals of the past start to pay off.
Worst-case scenario: Bieber misses more than a month injured and no one can pick up his slack, Ramírez is traded mid-July and Cleveland finishes the season 69-93 in fourth place in the AL Central, behind Carlos Santana and the Royals.
There’s really no reason for national media to care about Cleveland after the team got rid of its two costliest contracts and cut the budget to pennies. At the same time, it seems entirely possible the national narrative shifted too far in the other direction, toward ignoring baseball at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
Cleveland barely shows up on the league’s social media account. Based on how the team has been marketed in the past this isn’t really a surprise (Lindor is the face of baseball now that he’s in New York, but Fernando Tatis in San Diego — a smaller market than Cleveland — has man national ad campaigns, go figure), but even when there’s a compelling reason to include Cleveland players in the national narrative they are not getting any love. For instance, Ramírez and Franmil Reyes are a pretty great lineup duo. If he even improves to 50% worse than league-average offensively, Roberto Pérez is a top 10 catcher. After the trades and roster cuts Cleveland almost certainly has more than two players among the 100 best in MLB right now.
This lack of attention could be a truly great thing, however. Without the attention, the scrutiny, and the expectations, perhaps this iteration of the Cleveland baseball team can thrive.
Take Ramírez, for example. After two seasons of top-five MVP finishes and more fWAR than anyone not named Trout or Betts between 2017-18, José fell back to earth and had a pedestrian (for him) season of just 3.4 fWAR and a 105 wRC+. Then, in 2020, with the weight of expectation off his shoulders, he rebounded to post the same fWAR in less than half as many games. As the undisputed star of the team in 2021, no one can say the spotlight isn’t on Ramírez, but with so many observers disillusioned with the state of the club, he could find room to put up MVP numbers again.
Those same low expectations could also work wonders for the young players Cleveland is looking to aggressively promote this season. We’ve already seen the team part ways with veterans Billy Hamilton and Mike Freeman, who in previous years might have been significant role players. That certainly bodes well for the likes of Daniel Johnson or Nolan Jones who could play a significant role and perhaps even challenge for rookie of the year honors.
Likewise, although the hole in our hearts won’t easily be filled after Carlos Carrasco’s departure, the hole in the rotation has many promising candidates. Logan Allen has been making a strong claim in spring training and has nothing left to prove in the minors. Ditto Cal Quantrill, whose increased slider usage has coincided with better results.
If the rotation requires little manipulation, it will directly affect the bullpen as well. With guys like Sam Hentges, Cam Hill, Scott Moss, and Nick Sandlin beating down the door for an opportunity, Cleveland will have many options to find the best combination of arms. Even if James Karinchak has a sophomore slump or Emmanuel Clase is not all he’s been reputed to be, that depth could keep Cleveland among the best bullpens in the league. If the rotation is thriving and the bullpen is strong, the over on projected records seems likely.
In a best-case scenario, I see Cleveland in competition right down to the wire. Minnesota and Chicago are both good teams, but they’re not the Dodgers or Padres, slam dunk picks for the postseason. Based on the overall weakness of the AL Central, seeing the team challenging for a title might be far-fetched in the wake of the Lindor trade, but it’s not out of the realm of possibilities.
Best-case scenario: Ramírez gets in the MVP conversation with an 8.0 fWAR season, supported by 3.0 fWAR from Reyes and 2.0+ fWAR seasons from Eddie Rosario and Josh Naylor. The pitching staff comes through, with Triston McKenzie proving surprisingly durable and notching a dozen wins, while Emmanuel Clase wins the reliever of the year award as a rookie. Low expectations keep the heat off the team and they win 91 games, tying the White Sox for first but winning the division by head-to-head record.