2021 Cleveland Baseball Preview: Learning to Fall in Love Again

(I call the Cleveland team the JRams in this post, in the tradition of when we used to be called the Naps for Napoleon Lajoie, now making our team named after our best player, Jose Ramirez).

As the 2019 season had finished up, I had a chance to take our 4 month-old son, Elliot, to a Cleveland JRams' game and it was one of the highlights of my life. We were sitting right behind home-plate, thanks to some generous friends, and Elliot was locked in the whole game! There were like 12 walks in the game and it took forever, but he was mesmerized. As my wife and I walked back to the car with him, I was already dreaming about going to games with him in 2020, teaching him to sing along during the 7th inning stretch (we sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame every time I give him a bath), and thinking maybe, just maybe, he would start to get excited when he saw Franmil Reyes hit a home run. I wondered if his first favorite player might already be on the roster... maybe Shane Bieber, or even my personal favorite, Jose Ramirez, the Bat from Bani.

Like so much of our lives, my plans to take Elliot to games were interrupted by a deadly pandemic. And, while we did get to watch some baseball, I haven't even taken time to write-up my highlights of the 2020 season, because it just didn't really feel like a season. In the meantime, even more has developed with the team I love - they are changing their name, but not yet. Turns out they had employed a sleazy human being in Mickey Callaway and were (at best) evasive about how much they knew about his sleaziness and who was hurt by it. AND, they traded away the best shortstop in Major League Baseball, a lovable, local hero who beat leukemia in Carlos Carrasco, and are currently set to have one of the lowest payrolls in the game. And, that's not even to mention the larger issues in MLB... owners and executives who have no interest in growing the game, only growing their pocketbooks, a looming strike for 2022 if labor strife does not get resolved, scandals involving pine tar on balls and video-cheating schemes for hitters, blackout restrictions and copyright laws that make it harder and harder for people to access MLB content in a content-loaded time. Baseball is not in a great place as a sport, right now and that's part of my fatigue.

I'm odd, I suppose, in that I have never had an emotional attachment to the name of the team. I do not have a First Nations identity, so I was never offended by it, but I just thought it was very limited in its scope. Doing a war whoop or painting your face and wearing a headdress is obviously wrong, so what can you do when you root for the Indians? And, I like cartoons in baseball logos, but the bright-red faced, bucktoothed grin of Chief Wahoo was pretty obviously a caricature... and did the people that Wahoo caricatured really agree to it being a fair representation? These were all questions I asked myself until one day I heard a speaker who is in tribal leadership with a First Nation community explain the harm these names and symbols cause to her and her people. As soon as I heard her and got the opportunity to talk to her, I knew that I was in favor of changing the team name and ditching the Wahoo logo. Not because it offends me, but because having a name or logo isn't worth causing a community pain. So, I am in favor of the name change, but I also sympathize with those who mourn its loss. SO many precious memories and treasured moments in our lives as fans are connected to the Cleveland Indians. When they are no longer the Cleveland Indians, it feels like those memories will be gone, or at the very least tarnished. That adds a feeling of uncertainty and grief to watching the team this year for many. And, for me, I am frustrated that the franchise was not willing to be called "Cleveland Baseball Club" until they find the new name. To come out with a statement saying the name is no longer appropriate and causes harm and then say we are still going to use it for a year (or two!) seems very silly and hypocritical to me. All of those emotions swirl as I approach this year.

The Mickey Callaway situation is even harder to discuss. I get that there are no documented cases of workplace harassment from the team's former pitching coach... but there are female employees who say they felt they could not report their concerns. That leads me to fear that the organization probably chose to overlook some pretty slimy behavior. MLB has launched one of their investigations which can last for months, so who knows when we will have resolution on it. At the very least, it makes me wonder if the organization for which I root has been a safe and welcoming place for women in some of the years that rooting for them was the most fun (2016 and 2017).

And as far as Lindor and Carrasco go... there was a brief moment last Fall where Lindor posted something cryptic on his Instagram that made me think for a shining second that maybe he had signed an extension with Cleveland. But, the moment passed and reality sunk in... the JRams are never going to pay market value for a star under the current financial structure in baseball. And, who knows if they should? The JRams even have a ton of young shortstop talent in the minors, and, while none are likely to be as good as Lindor, they may replace a good portion of his value at a much cheaper price and a much younger age. But, I'm going to miss Lindor and his smile, his love for the game, his enthusiasm for the fans, and his doing a double-take when my wife called for him to sign and autograph in Spanish and coming back to sign my scorebook she was holding out for him. He is a special, special player and a really fun person, and it is an undeniable bummer that he is not on our team anymore. And, Carlos "Cookie" Carrasco! Who can forget his stealing Andre Knott's sideline mic and calling the game from the dugout, his making mini-figurines of his teammates from baseballs in 2017, his shutdown pitching performance in the 2017 playoffs, and his inspiring overcoming of leukemia to return to pitching! He is absolutely the easiest player to root for, and, I'm sorry, if his arm and body were going to break down, I wanted it to be here, where he signed a discounted contract in order to play for us. I understand why Cleveland traded him from a logical perspective - he is a mid-30's pitcher - but on an emotional level, it is depressing to think that you can learn to love a player so much and he obviously loves the city back (he would visit kids with cancer ALL the time!), and just have him dealt because of money and logic. That is a type of grief, and it sticks with me and hits me whenever I see NY Mets "Cookie" socks advertised on Twitter.

So, here we are, ready to start a 2021 season. And, with all this in mind, Who is excited??!! Yeah! Go team! Well, I'm trying to answer that question for myself. I am excited to go to games again when I am able. I am excited to maybe even bring our (now) 2 sons, Elliot and Auggie, maybe later in the year if the COVID numbers are down far enough. I'm looking forward to turning on the TV and teaching the boys how to follow the games on there. I'm looking forward to my palms sweating while I watch the team try to close out a tight game - every time. I'm even mildly hopeful that we might be in a division race in September (I think the Twins and White Sox are solidly ahead of us, but, with some breakout years from a couple guys, we could hang with them). But, something is STILL missing... to see if we can find it, let's go through our roster and I'll say what I'm excited about with each player:

Catchers - Roberto Perez is the best defensive catcher in the game, and he lost a ton of weight this offseason, so here is hoping he can stay healthy and maybe leg out a few more hits! Whatever else, watching him play catcher is like watching a living poem behind the plate.
Austin Hedges can't hit at all, but he's the best defensive backup catcher in the game, so that's something.
First Baseman - Jake Bauers used to be a great-looking prospect, but a disappointing 2019 has taken the shine off that rising star. I hope he can regain it, using his good eye at the plate to make him an above-average player. If not, we should see Bobby Bradley by the end of May, and while he will strike out a ton, he will also hit some massive home runs. And who doesn't want to see some massive home runs? I also could see the team trading for a first baseman on an expiring contract in July if they are in contention, or bringing Nolan Jones, top prospect, up to play there if he is hitting well at Columbus.
Second Baseman - Cesar Hernandez is such a fun player to watch. He always seems like he is doing something good. I can't wait to cheer him in person and I will thank him for making last year so much more enjoyable by being great.
Third Baseman - Jose Ramirez is a perennial MVP candidate in a league that has Mike Trout. That says it all. He also has all the swagger you could ask for, a great sense of humor, and the quickest hands I've seen since Manny Ramirez. I could see the team trading him in a year or so, so I plan to appreciate every minute he is here and pray for a (wildly unlikely) contract extension to keep him here for his career. JRam surpassed Bob Wickman last year as my all-time favorite Cleveland Baseball player.
Shortstop - Andres Gimenez has lit up Spring Training camp with excellent, consistent hitting and some flashy plays at short. Hard to step into Lindor's shoes, but I have a good feeling about this kid and can't wait to watch him on a daily basis. Give him patience and love, Cleveland fans!
Left Field - Eddie Rosario has been a JRam-killer for quite a few years when he played for the Twins. Now, we get to see if he can continue to pummel baseballs at Progressive Field in our uniform. He is fun to watch because he hits the baseball a long way no matter where it is pitched. Hoping for an outfielder who can actually put up 2 or more WAR in Eddie! I was thrilled Cleveland signed him.
Center Field - Amed Rosario seems likely to get a good number of starts in center, which will be fun because it is a fairly new position for him. I enjoyed watching Amed when he played with the Mets; I'm hoping he can find his stroke again for us after a difficult 2020 (who DIDN'T have a difficult 2020, am I right?). We will also see Ben Gamel in center, which isn't exciting to me, but he does drink Red Bulls before games and seems like a fun personality who can get the bat on the ball. If he doesn't pan out, we'll hopefully see Daniel "The Jet" Johnson brought up from the minors. I was rooting for Johnson, a prospect we acquired from Washington, to make the team this Spring, so I'm hoping he gets a chance to shine in Columbus and then some playing time in Cleveland before the summer is out. Jordan Luplow also will see time in center and in left and right. He is a real weapon against left-handed pitching, and, who knows? He may still show he can hit right-handers if given the opportunity.
Right Field - Josh Naylor should see plenty of time here, maybe getting the occasional day off against left-handed pitching so that Luplow and Amed Rosario can play. Naylor is maybe the biggest key for the JRams finding offense that is above average. If he finds his way to the consistent major league production that is certainly in his skillset, this could be a decent batting team. Plus, Naylor is a lot of fun to watch. He gives off a little bit of a loose and crazy vibe on the field, which I love.
Designated Hitter: Speaking of fun, how about Franmil Reyes? This huge, teddy bear of a man is always having fun with people in press conferences, hitting the ball a country mile, and he even occasionally serenades fans after games with love songs. If you don't have a favorite Cleveland player yet, may I suggest the Franimal? Here is hoping for 30 homers this year from Reyes.
Utility: I appreciate that Yu Chang made the roster instead of another year of Mike Freeman. Chang is probably not good, but he deserves a look, with all the young infield talent we have coming. He is an easy guy to root for, and so earnest-sounding on his Twitter. He will likely start at first against left-handed pitching for Bauers and fill in at second and third when Hernandez or Ramirez take the occasional day off (note to Tito: give those guys more days off this year, please, so they are not limping down the stretch).

Starting Pitchers: Well, Shane Bieber won the American League Cy Young last year. How can you not be excited about that? And, then he had his only terrible start of the year against the Yankees, which, is terrible timing, but it happens. He is a ton of fun to watch, and seems like he is dedicated to improving himself each year. His final start of the Spring against the Dodgers was a reminder that we should be thankful he is our ace.
Zach Plesac had a remarkably stupid moment with COVID protocols last year, but beyond that, he was a revelation and is someone I'm optimistic about. Hopefully, he can continue to gain some velocity and beat the projections.
Aaron Civale reminds me of Corey Kluber in his stoic demeanor. Even after a great 2020, he overhauled his delivery to improve. I expect some bumpy starts to begin the year, but give him time - he is going to be a strong #3 in our rotation for a while.
Logan Allen came strong out of the box in the spring, losing weight and putting up donuts on the scoreboard. It's fun to have a lefty starter again and I'm looking forward to seeing him get a chance to prove himself.
Cal Quantrill has the stuff, it's just about putting it all together, which Ruben Niebla and the Cleveland staff has been great about getting pitchers to do. It may be rocky for a month or two, but I am cautiously optimistic that Quantrill is going to be a solid #4 starter somewhere in the late spring-early summer.
Triston McKenzie was the highlight of 2020's baseball season for me. Seeing him finally overcome his injuries and debut throwing 95 mph was a blast. He has not looked great in Spring Training, however, so I hope the team eases him into things, with a couple innings once or twice a week while the season gets going. He is just so much fun to watch with his tall, thin frame and youthful exuberance for the game. You can tell his teammates love him, as Nolan Jones drove up to Cleveland last year to watch his debut.

Bullpen: Bryan Shaw is back, and that's all right. The guy is throwing 97 mph; we can give the grizzled vet a chance to show he's still got something. Plus, he has grown an imposing beard since we saw him last. Speaking of grizzled vets, the eternally young Oliver Perez is back to get lefties out at the end of innings. I don't know if he's still got it, but how can you not root for a 39 year old LOOGY to do it one more time with flecks of gray all over his head and face? Trevor Stephan was picked up by the JRams from the Yankees, so how can you not like stealing a good pitcher from the Evil Empire? He has looked sensational in Spring, and I expect him to pitch a lot of 4th-6th innings when the starters run out of gas at the beginning of the year, especially. Phil Maton has amazing numbers as far as spin-rate. He is the kind of guy the JRams can turn into a stud, and he looked that way at points last year, before falling off a bit at the end. Hopefully, he can find what he had for most of the season and be consistently good. Nick Wittgren is easy to love with that gap-toothed grin, and he is one of those guys who just seems to find a way to get people out, using a more traditional fastball-changeup combo. I enjoy rooting for those kind of guys. Plus, he has a son around my son Elliot's age, and it's fun to see videos of them playing together on Twitter. Emmanuel Clase will light up the radar gun with triple-digits, which is a welcome change for the JRams' bullpen. Disappointing that he got suspended for PEDs last year, but he is a young guy who will hopefully learn from his mistakes. I'm excited to see if the JRams' pitching coaches can get him to increase his strikeout rates. Finally, James Karinchak... I can't say I'm a fan of his political opinions, but he deleted his Twitter so I don't have to think about it anymore. I can just focus on his quirkiness and demonstrative nature on the mound, which is great, and enjoy seeing him walk three batters and strike three out in the same inning on multiple occasions. If he can get his control down, watch out!

You know what? I'm starting to feel better. Yeah, this team is going to be fun to watch. And, there are tons of fun guys like Tyler Freeman, Owen Miller, Ernie Clement (he's got a rocket up his butt, Tito says!), Daniel Johnson, Nolan Jones, Scott Moss, Sam Hentges, Jean Carlos Mejia, Anthony Gose, Kyle Nelson, and Carlos Vargas we might see at some point this year who are going to be playing at Columbus. Plus, I'm living right by Akron now, so I can go see some of our other great prospects play for the Rubber Ducks! Ok, ok, I think I can do this... I think I can learn to love again.

When it comes down to it, what I always loved was the game, and the fact that a team that plays this wonderful game plays in my home city. I love seeing the players who come and go, getting to know their personalities, and rooting for their success and venting about their failures. I love that this game of beautiful failure offers repeated chances at unthinkable redemption, because it makes me believe the same can be true about my life. Opening Day is only a few short days away, and I think I am finally ready to put on my Cleveland hat and have my heart broken and put back together over and over! What a game!

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