I did something amazing on Saturday. I watched live baseball. This wasn’t the live baseball from half a world a way in South Korea at 5 in the morning. No, this was Major League Baseball. In prime time. On a Saturday evening! My own complaints about potentially not being able to watch my games just a few months ago seem so callous. The context of COVID-19 has thrown us all for a loop at the very least (and hopefully nothing more than the context; stay safe everyone!). Yet finally, after four months of waiting, Major League baseball games that count towards the official record will begin in just a matter of days.
Saturday’s tune-up between the Indians and the Pittsburgh Pirates got me back in the right mind-frame. It was glorious! And with that, I have a Cleveland Indians Season Preview. What you are about to see is what I determine to be the most likely roster, filled with stat projections. These are projections that I developed in my own rudimentary way for each player on the roster for the course of the 60-game season. Indeed, the numbers you will see will be a PUSTCLE exclusive. I hope to go back and compare them to the real life final stats when the time comes.
Obviously, there is going to be more static in a 60-game season then there ever would be in a traditional 162-game tilt. That small sample size could be cause for all sorts of crazy happenings. I just did my best to not overthink the situation and put together some numbers that will likely make sense.
Along with those numbers will come a profile of each player. This was quite the under-taking as I give a few sentences on each player I expect to be on the initial 30-man roster, but I hope it brings a bit of color and context for what’s to come.
With all that said, let’s get started with the starting lineup. This lineup will be based partially on what the Indians rolled out in their exhibition game on Saturday, partially what I know Indianns manager Terry Francona wants to do with its construction and partially my own thoughts on how it will break out.
Leading off for the Cleveland Indians:
2B Cesar Hernandez (PUSTCLE Proj: .270/.345/.405 6 HR 25 RBI 30 R 5 SB 0.9 WAR)
Hernandez replaces long-time second baseman Jason Kipnis at the same position and manager Terry Francona hopes to slot him in as the lead-off man for the 2020 campaign. He was signed to a 1 year, $6.25 million deal by the Indians this off-season after fulfilling his arbitration years with the Philadelphia Phillies. The 30-year could be quite capable in the lead-off role, but will need to find a way to re-find his patience at the plate. His walk rate fell from 13.4% to 6.7% between 2018 and 2019. He will have to do better than last year’s OBP of .333 if he wants to sit atop the Indians lineup. His history suggests he could bounce back, and a change of scenery might help.
3B Jose Ramirez (PUSTCLE Proj: .241/.345/.442 9 HR 29 RBI 33 R 11 SB 1.6 WAR)
Which version of Jose Ramirez will we get over the course of a 60-game season? No one knows, and the answer might be the difference between an AL Central crown and a season of disappointment. Ramirez can absolutely carry the Indians offensively at times when he is hot, but that will only come if the struggles at the plate that plagued him over the last half of 2018 and first half of 2019 (he hit .217 over that span) are over. In a season of uncertainty, that’s a hard variable to bet on, but if he can deliver then the Indians could have one of the best offenses in the American League.
SS Francisco Lindor (PUSTCLE Proj: .277/.337/.517 14 HR 33 RBI 45 R 8 SB 2.2 WAR)
Francona has made it clear he would like Lindor to hit third in the lineup this year rather than lead-off, and surrounding him with Ramirez and Carlos Santana should provide him ample opportunities to both score and produce runs. Enough has been said about Lindor’s auspicious future with the organization, but I think he sees the season through as the Indians stay in contention (spoilers!). He’s the motor that keeps the offensive machine running. He’s one of the ten best players in baseball. They absolutely need him.
1B Carlos Santana (PUSTCLE Proj: .265/.371/.477 11 HR 34 RBI 36 R 35 BB 1.3 WAR)
34 years old and in the final year of his contract, the Indians will need another strong, professional campaign out of Santana. 2019 was likely the best full season of his career, compiling his best weight Runs Created+ (135) and Wins Above Replacement (4.4). Hopefully extended rest and a shorter season will help stave off a decline but I do expect a small regression to the mean. Still, Santana’s eye at the plate is slump proof and I expect him to perform admirably in the clean-up spot behind Ramirez and Lindor.
DH Franmil Reyes (PUSTCLE Proj: .275/.342/.572 16 HR 35 RBI 31 R 0.7 WAR)
The most immediately impactful piece of last season’s Trevor Bauer trade, Reyes jumped into the Indians lineup and belted 10 home runs over 51 games while hitting a total of 37 over the course of his first full season. The Indians finally have the true, blue right handed power hitter that they’ve been missing for eons. I don’t think Reyes will disappoint whatsoever unlike the prospects that came before him. At 25 years old, you might be looking at the best righty power hitter in a Cleveland uniform since Manny Ramirez. Reyes fills out a very respectable top 5 places in the batting order.
RF Domingo Santana (PUSTCLE Proj: .259/.335/.436 8 HR 30 RBI 25 R 0.4 WAR)
We now arrive where things get a bit messy: the corner outfield roles. The Indians will be Santana’s 4th team in 7 years in the Majors. Much like Reyes, he has serious power potential. He smacked 21 homers in 121 games last year for Seattle and 30 in a full season for Milwaukee in 2017. Also like Reyes, he lacks grace, coordination and especially range in the outfield. The advanced numbers dictate that right-field is where he will hurt you least, and that’s where he has played most, so that’s where I stuck him. Expect Francona to use his fully bevy of roster options to replace Santana with defense when the Tribe is leading close games late, but he will have to really on some much needed offense that Santana could provide early in games.
CF Oscar Mercado (PUSTCLE Proj: .268/.338/.432 7 HR 26 RBI 36 R 15 SB 0 WAR)
An Indians rookie that quickly became a fan favorite last year, Mercado is the one sure-fire outfielder that we can assume will be suiting up every day for the Tribe in center. He is sure-handed, but I think some of the flashy plays he made throughout last season made him appear to be slightly better than he really was. He finished 13th out of 30th in Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 Games in center-field. Respectable, but not elite. Offensively, the pressure will be off as he will not likely be hitting in the 2-spot this year. I have some concerns about a sophomore slump, but not enough to not think he shouldn’t be the Indians CF in 2020 and beyond.
C Roberto Perez (PUSTCLE Proj: .231/.318/.420 8 HR 21 RBI 15 R 0 Passed Balls 1.0 WAR)
The Indians took a gamble last season and traded Yan Gomes, handing every day catching duties to Perez. Lots of fans scratched their heads as Perez hadn’t shown a real ability to be productive at the plate, but it appears regular at bats was all Perez needed to get rolling. Perez went on to slug 24 home runs, and while he will swing and miss, the combination of being the best defensive catcher in baseball (30 Defensive Runs Saved! Next closest was JT Realmuto with 12. Twelve!) and having the ability to hit the ball out the park is more than comforting to be able to pencil into the lineup if you’re Francona. Perez should have been an All-Star in 2019. Hopefully continued at bats mean continued production.
LF Greg Allen (PUSTCLE Proj: .254/.313/.325 2 HR 12 RBI 18 R -0.3 WAR)
Allen has been penciled into left field for his defensive prowess, hopefully compensating partially for Domingo Santana’s foibles by pairing him with two more rangy outfielders to help cover ground. Also equipped with a very strong throwing arm, Allen can handle the fielding duties of playing every day. Whether he can hit will be another question. He isn’t a power threat and only walks in a brutal 4.6% of his plate appearances. Without a high average, he won’t put his speed, his best offensive weapon, to use. If he can’t hit, Allen might not be in the starting lineup for long.
C Sandy Leon (PUSTCLE Proj: .183/.246/.290 2 HR 8 RBI 8 R 0 WAR)
Former Red Sox backstop Sandy Leon will be the reserve catcher on the roster in order to spell Perez. He takes up the mantle after the Indians did not return last year’s backup Kevin Plawecki. Leon is what he is, a serviceable back-up catcher and nothing more. Honestly, he is a tiny bit of a downgrade offensively from Plawecki if my projections turn out to be right, but Leon is an above average pitch framer (12.5 Fangraphs Framing Runs for the Red Sox in 2018), something the Indians definitely value historically. If he can’t generate runs, maybe Leon can prevent some behind the plate.
IF Mike Freeman (PUSTCLE Proj: .251/.327/.338 0 HR 6 RBI 8 R 0.1 WAR)
Freeman got his first real opportunity to play every day down the stretch last year with the Tribe due to a number of injuries. While he has some significant limitations as an every day player, he showed an ability to contribute, hitting .300 from August 1st until the end of the season. A versatile fielder who can play an position on the infield, his familiarity will be welcome off the bench and spelling the occasionally starter. Expect sure-hands and above average range on the infield. He could play more if Hernandez proves ineffective at second.
IF Yu Chang (PUSTCLE Proj: .206/.294/.333 1 HR 5 RBI 6 R -0.1 WAR)
In my opinion, the winner of the final position player spot on the roster because he has absolutely knocked the cover off the ball during Summer Camp. Having come up and played late last season for the same reasons that Freeman did, Chang appeared often over-matched at the plate in his brief run at third base before getting injured himself. He had just 4 extra-base hits in 84 plate appearances. The Taiwan native might have been all the better for his first taste of the Majors though. However, there is definitely a bit of a head and heart situation going on for me. Chang seems like a qualified kid with a good head on his shoulders. I want to root for him, and I’d love to see him hit at the Major league level. The numbers right now don’t dictate that will happen, but it seems he has done enough this summer to earn this spot.
OF Tyler Naquin (PUSTCLE Proj: .261/.301/.387 3 HR 15 RBI 15 R 0.2 WAR)
If anyone benefited from the prolonged layoff, its Naquin. He would have missed the beginning of the regular season in March as he was recovering from a torn ACL, but that is all ancient history now. Naquin is primed to be ready on Opening Day and probably has the best case of anyone to replace Allen or Domingo Santana in the starting lineup. It either falters expect to see a lot more of Naquin. Often referred to as a platoon player, Naquin’s wRC+ against lefties is actually better than vs. righties (111 vs 98, respectively), although its in limited left-handed at bats. He absolutely can play every day if needed.
OF Jordan Luplow (PUSTCLE Proj: .261/.353/.483 6 HR 18 RBI 23 R 0.3 WAR)
Luplow made a name for himself playing smashing left-handed pitching for the Tribe last season. Unlike Naquin, his reputation as a platoon player is deserved. Last year saw a wRC+ of 198 against lefties and just 48 against righties. That’s staggering! Expect him to play often against lefties again this year, probably spelling either Allen or Naquin, and adding another strong outfield arm to a squad that has a number of them.
UT Jake Bauers (PUSTCLE Proj: .213/.315/.370 4 HR 18 RBI 17 R -0.2 WAR)
I said Chang would be the last man on the roster. Honestly, it might actually be Bauers. A former top prospect gained in the Yandy Diaz trade (remember, along with the return of Carlos Santana), Bauers was given every chance to play and succeed last season but struggled. He needs to put the ball in play more, striking out on over 27% of his at bats last season. This spot could have easily gone to Bradley Zimmer who has hit the ball in Summer Camp as well as Chang has, but Bauers is more versatile and durable. He can spell Santana at first base as well as play the outfield. That being said, if Bauers struggles again expect him on the taxi squad and Zimmer in the show.
(edit: it turns out Bauers was sent down today. Oh well, I am leaving him in since this is my projection. My outlook on him stands, and the fact is Zimmer has earned the right to still have the chance to make the team with how he has in in the lead up.)
SP Shane Bieber (PUSTCLE Proj: 6-4 82 IP 3.65 ERA 1.8 WAR)
Bieber has been named the Opening Day starter by Francona and he hopes to prove that last year’s uptick in production is sustainable. 2019’s All-Star MVP put together a great sophomore season that saw him finish 9th in baseball in Swinging Strike rate- that was better than Stephen Strasburg and Noah Syndergaard. Bieber loves to pound the strike-zone, but a move to throw effective pitches outside of the zone last year likely aided him. We will have to see if the league adjusts, but at this moment he seems fit to fill the void left by the Corey Kluber trade.
SP Mike Clevinger (PUSTCLE Proj: 6-2 69 IP 2.56 ERA 1.9 WAR)
The decided #2 starter on the squad can be absolutely dominant for stretches and will try to bounce back from injuries that put a damper on what was otherwise a really strong 2019 season. Clevinger averaged a career high of over 95 MPH on his fastball last year after a winter of tinkering with his mechanics at Driveline in Washington. His K/9 went up while both BB/9 and HR/9 went down. Clevinger found another gear, and comes into the fold this season as the second head of a 2-headed monster at the front of the Indians rotation. Either Bieber or Clevinger can be aces. The Tribe hopes they have a pair.
SP Carlos Carrasco (PUSTCLE Proj: 5-5 74 IP 3.83 ERA 1.8 WAR)
Honestly, its just good to see him back in full form. 2019 wasn’t a great season for Carrasco on the field and it was an even worse one off of it. The worst full-season ERA of his career is nothing in comparison to the leukemia diagnosis he received a little over a year ago. The fact he returned to the field last year was astonishing. The fact that he wants to pitch during a pandemic is awe-inspiring in regards to the love he must have for the game and his teammates. Great pitcher, even better person. I see no reason why a clean bill of health wouldn’t mean the 33-year old Carrasco returns to form.
SP Aaron Civale (PUSTCLE Proj: 3-4 51.1 IP 3.74 ERA 0.8 WAR)
Civale burst on the scene during the chaos that became the 2019 Indians starting rotation and immediately left an impression. He put together the best resume last season of any of the young starters that could fill the remaining rotation spots, posting a 2.61 ERA between July 23rd and September 27th of last year (the calendar dates of this season). At 25, he attacks the zone much like Bieber and can do it with multiple breaking pitches that project to make a formidable repertoire. If he can make the kind of leap that his teammate did in throwing purposeful pitches off the plate then look out. If not, then expect a pitcher that had a hard hit rate of 38.4% last season to have more batted balls find green grass or the other side of the outfield wall. The Indians have built a young pitcher factory though, so I am leaning towards a solid year from Civale.
SP Zach Plesac (PUSTCLE Proj: 4-3 55 IP 4.30 ERA 0.4 WAR)
Another youngster thrust into the show last season due to attrition that performed admirably and might end up better for it. I remember his first start. It happened in a downpour in Boston. He competed and handled the Red Sox in Fenway during a deluge until the game got delayed for over an hour. Then he came back out and battled some more when the skies cleared. The Indians won 7-5. That was his first start!That’s proof enough of the moxy that Plesac has. Concerns with Plesac are much like with Civale. Did he get a little lucky last year while pitching to contact? A Batting Average on Balls in Play of .255 would suggest he did (.300 is average and lower suggests good luck hitting balls at fielders) and so would a Hard% of 38.1. Plesac will have to miss some more bats in 2020 in order to be successful and his stuff doesn’t project as well as Civale’s. I’m a little less bullish here.
SP Adam Plutko (PUSTCLE Proj: 2-3 40.2 IP 5.43 ERA 0.3 WAR)
Likely headed for the long-relief role to open the season, Plutko will take up that duty at a time when it might be more important than ever. A shortened training camp might mean the Indians staff won’t be at full stamina, especially their youngsters, and Plutko could play a vital role some nights bridging the gap between someone like Plesac and the regular bullpen. He could also take the reigns on the 5th starter role if someone falters and while his Major League career hasn’t been mind-blowing so far, he can eat innings and keep the Tribe in ballgames if he stays away from the home run ball (2.09 HR/9 over his career)
RP James Karinchak (PUSTCLE Proj: 3 Holds 28 Ks 15 IP 3.24 ERA)
Everyone’s favorite fire-balling young reliever prospect. The Indians were so devoid for power arms last year the people were left clamoring for Karinchak’s ascension. They didn’t get it until late September and by then it was too late. Karinchak has an absolutely electric fastball that averaged nearly 97 MPH in his brief Major League stint last year, but control is a question. Still, this kid posted a negative FIP at AA in 2018. I didn’t even know that was possible. I’ve got him slated as not throwing a lot of innings, but bullpens are fickle and susceptible to the hot hand. The Indians could ride Karinchak a lot if he is firing on all cylinders.
RP Hunter Wood (PUSTCLE Proj: 2 Holds 23 Ks 23.2 IP 4.99 ERA)
Acquired from the Rays in a seemingly low-key trade at the 2019 deadline, Wood was placed into Major League action last season with the Tribe and sported a respectable 3.86 ERA in that time. Projecting as a control pitcher with a good cutter, he would do well to return to a 2018 form that saw him give up less than a homer per 9 innings and led to an ERA of 3.70. His home run rate was nearly double with the Tribe last year. That will be key Wood’s success out of the pen.
RP Oliver Perez (PUSTCLE Proj: 13 Holds 32 Ks 25.1 IP 3.77 ERA)
The only member of the Indians staff affected more than Perez by the 3-batter rule would be Francona himself. Perez was in the top 5 in appearances of 3 batters or less last season. So was former Indian Tyler Olson (according to Ben Lindbergh of Fangraphs’ Effectively Wild podcast). Two of the top 5 played for the Tribe and while Olson is gone, how Perez will be used will be a new puzzle for Francona. The grey-bearded 38-year old that debuted as a starter back in 2002 actually has allowed an OBP Against of .320 vs righties over the last three seasons, which is serviceable enough to get by. This suggests that he can pitch full innings, provided there’s at least a lefty or two mixed in and I expect to see him a lot as one of the few relievers I wouldn’t consider a question mark.
RP James Hoyt (PUSTCLE Proj: 1 Hold 21 Ks 17 IP 3.63 ERA
The Indians took a flier on Hoyt in 2019 and he proceeded to bank 42 relief innings in the minors before piecing together a 2.16 ERA over 8.1 innings in the show. That was good enough to be supplied with a 1-year Major League contract and a chance to prove himself after multiple seasons of not being able to stick in the Astros organization. If he can induce ground-balls with his combination of a sinker and slider, he could prove a very valuable asset in the Indians bullpen, but Francona has yet had opportunity to show real confidence in him.
(edit: Hoyt was sent down today as well. Things are happening in real-time. The season starts in 2 days. So be it.)
RP Phil Maton (PUSTCLE Proj: 2 Holds 20 Ks 17.2 IP 4.96 ERA)
Maton is a former Padres farm-hand that the Indians got for the low, low price of some International Slot Money last July. In trying to bring his career back to prominence, he pitched 12.1 innings for the Tribe in 2019 and had an impressive 2.92 ERA. That was night and day from the horrific 7.77 ERA he had with the Padres. The biggest difference was staying out of the middle of the plate in Cleveland. Even though his walk rate spiked, he allowed homers at less than a third of the rate that he did in San Diego. The Tribe will have to find out if that is small sample static or if Maton can work to make more quality pitches, even if it means more walks.
RP Dominic Leone (PUSTCLE Proj: 2 Holds 28 Ks 23 IP 6.09 ERA)
A four-year veteran that will be on his 5th Major League team the first time he suits up for the Indians, Leone had his best season in 2017 with Toronto. He now comes off a much worse 2019 campaign with St. Louis that saw him create soft contact a paltry 8.9% of the time. The Indians are very much going out on a limb here and trying to recreate a ballplayer that had a 2.56 ERA over 70 innings just three seasons ago. The Cardinals believe that was an aberration. The Indians plan to find out.
RP Adam Cimber (PUSTCLE Proj: 5 Holds 21 Ks 22.2 IP 3.95 ERA)
Cimber was acquired in the 2018 trade that also netted Brad Hand from San Diego and while he was dynamite for the Padres early in his rookie year, he hasn’t posted an ERA below 4 since. He’s going to have to be better this year as he along with Perez, Nick Wittgren and Brad Hand are likely going to be arms that Francona is going to have to trust most. He’s walked more than 3 batters per 9 innings since joining the Indians, and that will have to change if he is going to be the dependable piece they need.
RP Nick Wittgren (PUSTCLE Proj: 5 Holds 23 Ks 22.2 IP 3.39 ERA)
Wittgren was the Indians most pleasant discovery out of a bullpen that had a lot of question marks last season. He was traded to Cleveland in February 2019 for a mere minor league relief pitcher and posted his second season with a sub-3 ERA in a row after also doing so in 2018 with Miami. There are concerns with Wittgren in that his homer rate spiked in 2019 and he relies predominantly on his fastball only, but 2019 was also the home of the best WHIP of his career and he should have the opportunity to really settle into a role as the 8th inning guy this season for the Tribe.
CL Brad Hand (PUSTCLE Proj: 14 Saves 40 Ks 27.1 IP 1.83 ERA)
Which version of Brad Hand will we get? The one who posted a 2.58 ERA between the start of 2016 and the end of June 2019 or the one that has posted an ERA of 4.91 since? Something was physically wrong with Hand as last year went on and that can explain the woes he faced. Only 5 full seasons of relief, even taxing ones of 70+ innings is far too soon to be suffering from the syndrome too many miles. Hand will likely be fine, he may even be the dominant self that got him to the 2019 All-Star Game. He will absolutely be relied upon, and probably be ridden harder than ever in a 60 game season where every lead matters, particularly when the rest of the bullpen has so many questions.
Who Did We Miss?
OF Bradley Zimmer– healthy for the first time in 2 seasons and really hitting well in Summer Camp. Could take a spot if someone like Chang or Bauers struggles.
IF Christian Arroyo– Received last season from Tampa along with Wood. A versatile infielder that could step up if Freeman or Chang don’t work out.
SP Jefry Rodriguez– acquired as part of the Gomes trade, can start or relieve and did both last season in between an injury. Pitched admirably as a starter early in the year but ultimately only has 2 dependable pitches. Probably a good reliever long-term.
If you made it this far, congratulations! For a team that’s light on payroll, the Indians are fairly star heavy. They have 2 pitchers and 2 hitters (assuming Ramirez is right) that are at the absolute top of their craft. The first 5 spots in the batting order are formidable, but after that we get to some questions.
Domingo, Allen, Mercado, Naquin, Luplow, Bauers… can at least 3 of those guys be above average offensive players? Can Roberto Perez replicate last seasons production with the bat? The Indians are talented enough to win the AL Central, but they need these things to happen offensively.
Starting pitching should be strong. The top of the rotation is one of the best. If Carrasco is right and one of Civale, Plesac or Plutko can be on then this is going to be one of the best rotations in baseball, but someone must emerge from the bullpen to get games to Brad Hand.
To me, this is a good roster but far from a flawless one. I don’t trust that there are three strong enough outfielders in that bunch or that there is enough arm talent in the pen to make the Indians a top team. They will be competitive, they always are, but this roster feels like it has the same needs that it had back in November. Hernandez is an upgrade over Kipnis at this juncture in their careers. Everything else is marginal.
Projected Record: 32-28, 2nd in AL Central, 1 Game short of a Wild Card Spot