Unless something changes for the better, Cleveland is going to have to wait until July to have more than one-hitter with an OPS north of .800 in the lineup.
With Franmil Reyes on the injured list, José Ramírez has practically no protection and, thus, no good reason for pitchers to show him anything worth hitting. Likewise, for the first time in recent memory, the team’s rotation is fallible. Shane Bieber seems mortal at times this year and Aaron Civale remains steadily good if not great, but Zach Plesac is a feast or famine proposition on the mound and the guys who have filled the four and five slots so far have been less of a mixed bag and more of a sad sack.
And yet, more than a quarter through the season — a season after the team traded its marquee player and most successful pitcher, in which the expectations were reset back to practically zero — Cleveland is five games above .500 and has the greatest odds to win the division per PECOTA. So what do you do with a team that struggles on offense and defense but refuses to play to its true talent level and concede?
One option, which is always a great option, is to go for it. Cleveland’s payroll (per Roster Resource) is $45 million less than it was in 2020, which was $25 million less than 2019, which was $16 million less than 2018 ... you get it — there’s money to spend. In addition, the team has an absolute wealth of up-the-middle talent littering the ballfields in Columbus, Akron, Lynchburg, and so on. However, there’s only so many roster spots available in Cleveland. With money to spend on contracts and talent available to trade, the tools are there to turn this soft rebuild into a contender by tomorrow.
And there are some solid names on the market. Trevor Story might be down a little in Denver so far, but after watching the way the team treated Arenado it might be excused. He would immediately settle the shortstop position and provide thump to the middle of the lineup. Likewise, Kris Bryant would inject some potent offense into the lineup and could either play first base or move Josh Naylor out of the outfield, both of which would be an upgrade to what Cleveland is currently running out daily. Because Story and Bryant are both rentals, set to become free agents at the end of this year, you can likely exclude any of Cleveland’s top five prospects from the list of players Colorado or Chicago could extract in exchange, another plus for cost-conscious Cleveland.
If solidifying the pitching is more important, Max Scherzer or Jon Gray might be available as rentals to get Cleveland to the next wave of internal pitcher development all-stars. But the beauty of the front office in recent years is their ability to obtain guys no one thought they might. For example, Reyes was not a name that was mentioned much before he came over in the Trevor Bauer deal, and Josh Naylor was scarcely mentioned before he joined Cleveland in the Mike Clevinger trade. So, trust in the front office is warranted here should the green light to go for it this year is given.
If ownership once again draws the purse strings closed and fails to provide approval for increases in the payroll, then I don’t think Cleveland can continue to count on overachieving — even in this godawful AL Central.
When he hurt his oblique back in 2018, Christian Yelich said “Swinging, throwing, all that stuff is basically tough when you’ve got one of these things,” and time is about the only thing that can really heal an oblique injury. With that in mind, if Reyes is not able to return by early July or not the hitter he was before the injury (both reasonable assumptions, though hopefully not the case), how much longer can Cleveland expect to be in the hunt for the playoffs?
I have hope that Harold Ramirez can consistently tap into his 94th percentile max exit velocity, and I am very hopeful that Owen Miller can be an above-replacement-level guy as FanGraphs suggested he might. We fans are hoping to see those two develop into major league players at the major league level, but we’ve been watching Logan Allen and Jake Bauers and Yu Chang and Andrés Giménez and Amed Rosario and Cal Quantrill try the same thing to varying degrees of success, mostly failing to stick the landing. If the team has no room to add and has decided this is the year to see what its top-level prospects can do at the big league level, it’s time to go all the way in.
When I say go all the way in, I mean it, and that includes replacing Terry Francona as manager.
Francona is not Tony La Russa in terms of screwing with the young guys, but he’s no help. Per Baseball Reference’s managerial tendencies stats, Francona’s teams have had a league-adjusted rate of sacrifice bunts 165%, 53%, and 149% above average in 2019, 2020, and 2021, respectively. But even if you don’t think literally taking the bat out of the hands of his players is hindering their development, how about his insistence upon platooning? Between 2017 and 2020, the team’s primary corner outfielders, as defined by Baseball Reference, have received 44%, 71%, 58%, and 45% as many plate appearances as the corner infielders (which were not platooned). Is it a coincidence Jordan Luplow is receiving nearly everyday at-bats, against left- and right-handed pitching, and enjoying perhaps his best season yet (xwOBA of .345, just off his career-high .348 in 2019)?
While we fans owe a lot of great memories to Tito, he is not the guy you want to rebuild your young team. He has done amazing things with teams that are ready to win and more than a little lucky, like his Boston champs and the 2016 pennant-winning Cleveland team, and we all should be forever grateful.
But consider that the only homegrown everyday position players to produce significant WAR since he took over in Cleveland are Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez. How much credit he deserves for those individual’s development and how much fault he deserves for the failure to have literally any other average homegrown players is a subject that could be debated at length, but the point remains that Francona’s record is not great in terms of development at the major-league level.
This brings me back to Cleveland picking a lane. If they’re going to compete this year the time to buy in is now, not at the trade deadline. Get on the phones and swing for a Story or a Scherzer, make this team better, and do it quickly. If Cleveland is not going to try any harder to compete, then it’s also the right time to tear it down. Let Francona’s health be the reason he transitions to a front-office role and just hand the club over to a caretaker who will play Harold Ramirez, Miller, and Naylor every day and even hand roles to the players that could be the future, like Daniel Johnson or Nolan Jones. They should probably even — gulp — trade José so he’s not just taking a million walks in a toothless lineup.
The current path is precarious and likely to falter. Cleveland has to use this moment to choose a better way forward.