If Cleveland is going to approach anything resembling their best-case scenario for 2021, it’ll require a few breakouts at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
They can be a good team with what they have already in reigning Cy Young winner Shane Bieber and perennial MVP candidate José Ramírez anchoring both ends of the game, but if they want a real shot at competing with — and hopefully toppling — the Twins and White Sox, their established stars will need some help.
With a roster consisting of only a handful of players over 30, there is a lot of room for breakouts to occur. Young players either looking to make the jump from mediocrity or go from hyped prospect to proven major-leaguer.
There are, of course, more candidates than these five to break out in 2021, but here are just a few who I find are the most interesting Cleveland players to find their footing in the majors this year.
Daniel Johnson, OF
I hesitated to keep Daniel Johnson on this list after Friday’s news that he won’t be making the Opening Day roster, but if I’m being honest I never expected him to make it, anyway. He was always going to get bumped down the ladder for now. That doesn’t change the fact that he can still potentially overcome it and prove everyone wrong.
Why he can break out: Pure potential is on DJ’s side here. The 25-year-old has nothing left to prove in Triple-A, having slashed .306/.371/.496 there in 2019, and he can — in theory — play all three outfield positions. On a team such as Cleveland’s that lacks any kind of an outfield, it would make sense that Johnson gets playing time eventually.
Johnson has quick hands at the plate and a rocket arm on defense. Just give the man a chance.
Why it’ll be tough: Maybe he’ll sputter out once he gets his shot — the Greg Allen approach to prospecting — or maybe he’ll flourish. We’ll never know until he gets playing time, and he’s not going to get playing time right away, apparently. That’s his biggest hurdle right now. If his tools are good enough to produce a major-league player, they are already there. If not, he’s running out of time to develop them.
Aaron Civale, SP
Aaron Civale defines the methodical pitcher of the current era. He hasn’t had his time in the spotlight yet, and I doubt he even wants it, but sooner or later people are going to start noticing he’s a 25-year-old capable of throwing just about everything at will.
If his offseason adjustments work, he’ll also prove he can just up and retool his entire approach on the fly, which makes him next-level dangerous.
Why he can break out: After a disappointing 2020 campaign in which he carried a 4.74 ERA through 74.0 innings (12 starts), Civale decided that he wasn’t ready to settle in as a good-to-decent No. 4 starter. He worked this offseason on a new changeup grip in addition to a whole new arm angle.
Where he previously pitched with a familiar longer arm action, he’s shortened it to look more like a quarterback throwing a football than a traditional baseball hurler. It’s a similar change that Lucas Giolito made prior to 2019. You know, the one that turned him into a Cy Young candidate and helped almost double his strikeout rate? I’m not saying that’s guaranteed to happen with Civale, but he seems like the perfectly cerebral pitcher to come along and improve himself to that level.
If he can pull it off, the Bieber-Civale paring will start to have a striking resemblance to the Kluber-Carrasco of old.
Why it’ll be tough: Because pitching is hard. It’s easy to sit here and say that changing an arm angle and throwing a split-changeup will fix everything, but that’s not always the case. Civale still has to prove he can locate and maintain his deceptiveness through the six pitches he’s capable of throwing. So far in his career, he’s managed to limit hard contact even with a four-seamer that is lucky to hit 92 — that’s not going to be easy to maintain.
Emmanuel Clase, RP
Is he the closer, fireman, or something in-between? That’s the question for Emmanuel Clase right now. He wants to be the closer, but his ability to generate ground balls and not walk half of everyone he faces might make him better suited as a 2016-era Andrew Miller type.
Either way, the 100 mph flamethrower will get his first regular-season look with Cleveland next month after missing all of 2020 with a PED suspension. He proved a valuable reliever for the Rangers in 2019, with a 2.31 ERA, 3.43 FIP, and 16% strikeout-to-walk ratio. He rarely lets the ball in the air more at any level, and in his 23.1 major-league innings, he sports a 60.6% groundball rate.
Why he can break out: If you can touch triple digits, control it well, and also throw an upper-90s cutter with movement — you’re going to be okay. Clase checks all those boxes and is just waiting to prove that the PEDs were not what made him throw so hard. So far in spring, he’s touched 100 mph multiple times, and his cutter has the life that Cleveland expects from it. He’s given little doubt that he can handle the responsibility of pitching just about anywhere.
He does come with the oddity that he throws hard but doesn’t strike a lot of guys out. So expect a sky-high home-run-to-fly-ball ratio, but only because the few balls that get in the air probably going to go very, very far.
Why it’ll be tough: If batters aren’t fooled by his cutter or a slider that finds its way to the heart of the plate a few too many times, it could be rough going for the 23-year-old. As previously mentioned, he doesn’t miss a lot of bats, he just has to hope opposing batters can’t time him up and are left with a lot of weak contact and foul balls in the netting. Otherwise, he’ll be in trouble.
Josh Naylor, OF(ish)
When Cleveland traded Mike Clevinger to the Padres in August, questions were raised about how much they actually got back to help the major-league club. Cal Quantrill was interesting but an unknown, and Gabriel Arias is at least a year or more away from the majors. For a team that is supposed to keep competing, how could they deal away their second-best pitcher for no immediate impact?
That’s where Josh Naylor, hopefully, comes in.
Why he can break out: I mean, he has to, right? If he can resemble anything like he did in the postseason, going 5-for-7 with three doubles and a homer against the ALDS, then 2021 is the year for him to show it.
Matt Schlichting wrote about it at the time of the trade — Naylor has the track record of someone who can form major-league at-bats. There were times in the minors that he almost walked more than he struck out, and in Double-A in 2018 he hit 17 home runs and slugged .547. The potential is certainly there, we just need to see him put it all together at once.
ZiPS believes in it to an extent. Granted, 100 wRC+ isn’t exactly a “break out”, but maybe he can outperform that; walk more than his projected 8.1%, strike out a little less than 15.4% of the time (as he did in 2020). The raw power is certainly there.
Why it’ll be tough: If Naylor breaks out, he’s going to have to do it purely with his bat. He’s being shoehorned into right field to make room for either Bobby Bradley or Jake Bauers to win out at first base. It’s a position he’s played a handful of games at (he has more experience in left field), but he’s not a good defender by any stretch.
And, of course, there is the fact that he has yet to show any kind of spark outside of that one playoff series. For his career (all 383 PA of it), he’s slashed .249/.309/.383 with a 7.8% walk rate and 19.8% strikeout rate. He hasn’t blistered the ball, either, with a hard-hit rate of 35.6%. The bar is pretty low for Naylor to be considered a breakout, but we still don’t know for sure if he can cross it.
Franmil Reyes, DH
Unlike Naylor, the bar for Franmil Reyes is slowly growing out of control. Reyes is a big man who hits the ball extremely hard, and although he’s had a couple of decent seasons and hit 37 home runs in 2019, Cleveland needs him to turn into a consistent powerhouse. Start turning more of those hard hits into home runs, pull the ball more and launch 40 out of the park. That’s how he breaks out.
Why he can break out: Have you seen him? He’s a 6-foot-8, 225-pound behemoth of a man who looks like he’s holding a tree at the plate. He’s consistently been one of the hardest hitters in baseball, with an exit velocity and hard-hit rate in the 98th percentile in 2019.
For someone who probably fancies himself a power hitter, Reyes doesn’t pull the ball a ton — only 37.0% of the time in his career. That gives him the rare ability to slug his heart out, but also have no problem handling pitches on the outer side of the plate. He has the ability to hit homers anywhere, and if he can translate that into consistency, he’ll continue his ascension and anchor a lineup that so desperately needs him.
Why it’ll be tough: Reyes is on the razor’s edge of either being a dominant power hitter or “just another power hitter” who strikes out too much but doesn’t hit an obscene amount of homers to make up for it. He’s a master of crushing bad pitches, but it’s still unclear if he can catch up to great pitches. If he can’t, I worry that opposing pitchers will eventually figure out and shut him down in the long run.