When the 2021 MLB season kicks off in just a tick under 72 hours from now, Cleveland’s baseball team will be imperfect. Every team will have its flaws, of course, but some of Cleveland’s are going to be more glaring than others. There will be growing pains, there will be big breakthroughs, and there will be José Ramírez.
Cleveland buttoned up the last few spots of their 26-man roster over the weekend by announcing that Logan Allen will make the roster, operating either as a starter or following an opener as soon as April 5, with Cal Quantrill shifted to the bullpen for now. Combined with the unsurprising revelation that they will be giving the optionless Jake Bauers one last shot at first base instead of losing him forever, we have a pretty clear idea of what Cleveland will look like heading into 2021.
This is a roster in flux like we have not seen at the Corner for almost half a decade now. Twenty-twenty-one is a retooling year, one of finding out what they have before more top prospects starting cropping up in 2022 and 2023. That is to say, what we see now is not what we will see in August. It probably is not even what we will see in May, but it’s what we’ll see as Cleveland opens the season against Detroit this Thursday.
So, with that in mind, I thought it’d fun to go around the horn and decide if each position is a strength, weakness, or push. Considerations will extend to the 40-man roster as they will surely be used as MLB ramps up to a full 162-game season following last year’s shortened campaign. Players are listed in the order of plate appearances they are likely to get at the listed position, and those in bold are projected to be on the 26-man Opening Day roster.
Roberto Pérez, Austin Hedges
Yeah, I said it. A position that features two players who will be lucky to hit .215 is a strength on this roster. Cleveland, like many teams around baseball, has concluded that defense, managing a staff, and framing are more important than a catcher who can hit. Roberto Pérez (and to a lesser extent, Austin Hedges) will be invaluable to Cleveland as they groom the next wave of young arms. It’s a position of strength for Cleveland.
If there is a weakness to be found here, it’s that there are only two catchers on the 40-man right now. Beau Taylor will probably pass through waivers, but it leaves Cleveland needing to make an emergency DFA decision if either Bebo or Hedges gets hurt.
First base: WEAKNESS
Jake Bauers, Bobby Bradley, Josh Naylor, Nolan Jones
You love dingers. I love dingers. We all love dingers. But home runs can only take you so far. Even if Jake Bauers flounders right away and Bobby Bradley takes over, he still is probably not the future at first base. The upside is fun (and is definitely there), but until he can prove the ability to not strikeout in a third of his at-bats, it looks like we’ll be twiddling our thumbs until Cleveland deems Nolan Jones ready to take over the position. And that’s if they don’t use him as an outfielder first.
It’s also realistic that, at some point, both Bauers and Bradley flare out and Josh Naylor is moved to first base before Jones comes up.
Second base: PUSH
Cesar Hernandez, Yu Chang, Amed Rosario, Ernie Clement, Gabriel Arias
This is a narrow push, leaning towards weakness. Cesar Hernandez is the potential saving grace here if he can be an above-average hitter again like he was in 2020. Yu Chang can hit some home runs, and Amed Rosario is at least depth if Ben Gamel is somehow the everyday center fielder and Rosario is shifted to a super-utility player.
Ernie Clement and Gabriel Arias are both on the 40-man, but longshots to contribute this season.
Andrés Giménez, Amed Rosario, Ernie Clement, Gabriel Arias
Can Cleveland really trade away a top-three shortstop in all of baseball and still have the position considered a strength? I think so. Andrés Giménez has really grown on me (he’s obviously grown on his coaching staff, too), and I think he has a chance to be a real breakout player for Cleveland this year. Unlike a lot of the young guys Cleveland is trying out this year, Giménez doesn’t have to learn a new position on the fly or have any kind of uncertainty about how the team values him. He is an excellent defensive shortstop and he has to know that he can play 140+ games if his bat can hold up in his sophomore season.
Just like with second base, I expect Rosario to be the primary backup when Giménez needs a day off, with Clement a long shot, and Arias outside of trebuchet range.
Third base: STRENGTH
José Ramírez, Amed Rosario, Yu Chang, Nolan Jones, Ernie Clement
I mean, come on — José Ramírez is going to get MVP votes again unless something goes terribly wrong in this cursed world of ours. ZiPS projects him to finish with the third-most position player fWAR in the American League and hit 32 home runs. There is zero reason to doubt the GOAT right now.
Granted, the depth isn’t great, unless Nolan Jones is some kind of utility player when he comes up, perhaps spending the majority of his time at first base and spelling Ramírez when and if he needs it. Though I would put more money on Jones being consistent at another position and Chang getting the third base duties if Rosario is busy in center field or somewhere else.
Designated hitter: PUSH
Franmil Reyes, Josh Naylor, whoever needs a day off
I believe in
Harvey Dent big Franmil Reyes dongs, but until he proves he can be an elite hitter, this has to be a push for me. The lack of depth of great hitters (again, Naylor needs to prove he can break out) is also concerning if Franmil either gets hurt or struggles. Closer to a strength than a weakness, but still push.
Eddie Rosario, Ben Gamel, Josh Naylor, Amed Rosario, Jordan Luplow, Bradley Zimmer, Oscar Mercado, Franmil Reyes, Harold Ramirez, Daniel Johnson, Jake Bauers, Nolan Jones
This isn’t a total disaster because of Eddie Rosario and only Eddie Rosario. He’s hardly been discussed this offseason because he’s obviously going to be the team’s starting left fielder, but boy is it going to get ugly if he can’t bring his Cleveland-killing bat over to the Good Guys and start almost every game out there. I guess Jordan Luplow could take some at-bats against lefties to give him a breather, maybe? After that, Terry Francona is going to have to get creative to move Ben Gamel out to left for a day, or they’ll have to start optioning people to get Bradley Zimmer and/or Oscar Mercado up.
Cleveland seems determined to not give Daniel Johnson playing time, — either because they love him so much that they want to ensure he’s around for another year down the road, or more likely they just don’t see him as a star — but he is technically a backup option somewhere in the outfield.
Josh Naylor is likely to be a butcher defensively in right and will be first in line to take over first base if Bauers and Bradley can’t cut it. Harold Ramirez could end up being the guy who gets a surprising number of at-bats in the outfield once we get into the grind of the season and more depth is required.
None of this is enough to make the outfield anything but a weakness, however.
Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, Cal Quantrill, Logan Allen, Triston McKenzie, Scott Moss, Sam Hentges, Eli Morgan, Jean Carlos Mejia
This is where I inject a bit of my own hot take because I still think Cal Quantrill will finish with more starts and innings pitched than Logan Allen, even if the former is starting the year out of the bullpen.
The rotation is obviously a strength, though, with Bieber looking to repeat his Cy Young season, Zach Plesac potentially building off an electric 2020, and Aaron Civale retooling his already promising repertoire to include a new arm angle and split-finger changeup.
Depth in the rotation is a bigger question mark than it has been in recent years, but I’ll doubt Cleveland’s ability to build pitchers out of nothing when I see it not work. Until then, I’ll buy into Sam Hentges’s big-man velocity, Triston McKenzie’s health, and Eli Morgan’s changeup to work in the majors at some point.
James Karinchak, Emmanuel Clase, Nick Wittgren, Phil Maton, Bryan Shaw, Oliver Pérez, Trevor Stephan, Kyle Nelson, Carlos Vargas, Logan Allen, Triston McKenzie, Cal Quantrill, Eli Morgan, Jean Carlos Mejia
I’m already on record as believing in the potential of this bullpen, and that hasn’t changed with Opening Day mere days away. The “big three” of Karinchak-Clase-Wittgren is going to eat up a ton of innings, and Phil Maton and Trevor Stephan are going to be Statcast darlings — the only question will be if they can match their results to their measurements. I think Carlos Vargas gets a shot at some point this season and goes out there approaching 100 mph.