The Cleveland Indians are finally playing up to expectations

The Cleveland Indians have reached the official halfway mark for the 2019 season. Okay, so they’re technically one game shy of the halfway mark, but who’s counting? The point is, we’re halfway there.

Whoa-oa… Livin’ on a prayer! (sorry, had to)

That said, I probably don’t need to tell you it’s been a a rocky first half of the season for the Indians. Results from the earlier part of the first half were mixed. Some good. Some bad. None of it endearing itself to a fan base that so desperately wants to win a World Series.

Ask the fans what went wrong and they would undoubtedly point to the Indians offseason activity, or lack thereof.

Yandy Diaz, Edwin Encarncacion, Erik Gonzalez, Yan Gomes and Yonder Alonso all gone via trades. Michael Brantley, Josh Donaldson, Lonnie Chisenhall, Rajai Davis, Brandon Guyer, and even Melky Cabrera all allowed to leave via free agency.

Edwin Encarnaacion via Instagram: @encadwin

These losses were hard to swallow. Some like Brantley, Chisenhall, and Gomes had become fan favorites over the course of years spent in Cleveland. Others like Encarnacion and Donaldson would be missed simply for their production potential.

What made things even worse was what the Indians did in an attempt to replace these players. They didn’t spend money. They didn’t go out and try to make a big splash on the free agent market. Despite being in the middle of a “championship window” with the best pitching staff in baseball and two MVP caliber talents, the Indians didn’t do any of that.

The Indians instead went a different route. They went a bit younger and more inexperienced. They banked on the idea that players like Roberto Perez and Tyler Naquin would rise to the challenge. The pitching staff, from the top of the rotation to the back end of the bullpen would save the day. And of course they went with their typical lightning in a bottle approach of signing veterans past their prime and milking what little baseball was left in their bodies.

All of this led to uncertainty.

In years past, we’ve known who and what this team would be. We knew which players would be penciled in on Opening Day and had a pretty decent idea that it would be the same on the final day of the season. This season didn’t have that same feel and it has played out accordingly.

Think about how much the 2019 Indians have changed since Opening Day. Hanley Ramirez became Carlos Gonzalez. Carlos Gonzalez has somehow morphed into Bobby Bradley. Max Moroff, Eric Stametz, Brad Miller… Does anyone remember them? That seems like it was years ago. It’s been maybe a month and a half.

Take a look at who and what the Indians lost this past winter.

Statistics of players lost prior to the 2019 season

There are a few things that really stand out here.

First off, the Indians nailed it when it came to their evaluations of Yan Gomes, Lonnie Chisenhall, Brandon Guyer, Rajai Davis, Erik Gonzalez, and Yonder Alonso.

There was no market this offseason for either Brandon Guyer or Rajai Davis and that has played out even into the season. Guyer remains unsigned while Davis had a brief four game stretch with the Mets.

Meanwhile, Lonnie Chisenhall has yet to play a game for the Pirates as he once again struggles with a calf issue. Erik Gonzalez began the year as the Pirates starting shortstop, but a broken collar bone has sidelined him since later April. Melky Cabrera also went to the Pirates, because why not. So far this season he’s been serviceable. Francisco Mejia? It still very early, but he seems to be much more bust than boom.

Yan  Gomes vis Instagram: @Nationals

Perhaps most impressive was the Indians decision to cash out on both Yan Gomes and Yonder Alonso. Many, ourselves included, did not approve of the Gomes trade considering the trade of former top prospect Francisco Mejia and the inconsistency of Roberto Perez (more on him in a bit). As for Alonso, he underwhelmed during his one season with the Tribe. But, as the loss offensive production increased over the winter, his perceived value increased. His trade to the White Sox was just another questionable decision in a long list of questionable decisions. Fast forward to June and Gomes is no longer the starting catcher in Washington and Alonso was designated for assignment two days ago. It’s like the Indians front office can see the future, I swear.

Of course, there’s also the flip side of that coin. Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Donaldson, and even Yandy Diaz have all been great.

There are a few things to consider here, though.

First, Josh Donaldson was never in the mix to resign in Cleveland. He was a two month rental and under no circumstance did anyone consider him resigning with the Indians as a possibility. Including him in this list of players is more of a technicality. He was on the team and now he is not.

Second, Edwin Encarnacion had begun showing signs of decline during both of his seasons with the Indians. Yes, he hit home runs and he drove in runs, but not how he did in Toronto. During most of his two seasons we spent a majority of the time asking ourselves, “When is Edwin going to get hot?” No one could have predicted he would regain his Toronto form in his age 36 season hitting in Safeco Field up until a week or so ago.

Michael Brantley is enjoying a career year in Houston. Could he have put up similar numbers in Cleveland? Probably. Would he have been worth the price tag to keep him? Who can say? Brantley’s skill set plays well in a Houston lineup surrounded by mashers. His role and therefore the expectations for his performance would have been much different. In Houston he’s a nice piece to have. In Cleveland he would have been a key cog.

And then there is Yandy Diaz, the great riddle of the past few seasons. All the tools were there for success, except for launch angle. Diaz couldn’t hit the ball over anyone, but could definitely hit it through them. This year in Tampa has been much different. Diaz has found a power stroke, as his 11 home runs would seem to indicate. However, multiple trips to the IL for various issues have kept him from really breaking out. Considering his age and current contract status (arbitration eligible in 2022 and free agency in 2025), this feels like the one true swing and miss of the bunch.

In the meantime, a funny thing happened over the past month. The Indians started playing well. In fact, the Indians have started playing like one of the best teams in baseball and the most talented team in the division. Remember when people were saying that in March? This transition is interesting considering who they’re doing it with.

As for the players that are here and intended to replace some of those players previously mentioned, take a look at what they’re doing below. This is a mix of players acquired over the offseason or players already on the roster expected to take on expanded roles.

2019 Indians acquired or roles expanded

What stands out most from the players above are the career years currently being enjoyed by Carlos Santana and Roberto Perez. Santana’s homecoming is more than the Indians could have hoped for. The potential was always there given his on base skills, but bad habits and pull happy tendencies always seemed to get in the way. A more well rounded approach at the plate has brought out the best in him and made him an all-star.

As for Perez, what can you say that hasn’t been said a hundred times over already? The Indians had faith that Perez could produce offensively in an expanded role and he has not disappointed. Despite a slow start, he has also put up an all-star worthy resume at the plate to go along with a stellar defensive showing behind the plate.

Carlos  Santana via Instagram: @Indians

Meanwhile, the rest of the group has performed admirably. With the exception of Oscar Mercado, who has already managed nearly a full win above replacement in only 36 career games, everyone is performing to the best of their abilities in either a part time or platoon role. For instance, on their own Jordan Luplow and Tyler Naquin are nothing to write home about. But together, with each serving as one half of a right field platoon, they combine to form one very above average player.

And sure, Jake Bauers has performed at a -0.7 WAR so far this season, but he is by no means a negative WAR player. The talent is there. The overall advanced season numbers are less indicative of where he is at, but where he was. Bauers had an OPS+ of 91 in April and an absolutely miserable OPS+ of 61 in May. So far in June… OPS+ of 110. Buckle up, folks. He might be figuring it out.

Now, while the numbers are obviously the part everyone will want to focus on, I would also like to point out one other key point as it relates to all of these players.

That is age and salary.

The average ago of the players lost by the Indians is just over 31 years of age. Brantley, Donaldson, and Encarncaion are 32, 33, and 36 respectively with each making many millions of dollars. Yan Gomes is currently making over $7-million dollars at 31 years of age and Yonder Alonso $8-million at 32. Lonnie Chisenhall and his forever unhealthy calves are making over $2-million.

Compare that to the players I’ve listed for Indians. The lone outlier is Carlos Santana. At 33 years old and $20-million dollars, he is not the prototypical player type for the Indians in 2019. It’s everyone else. With the exception of Perez and Kevin Plawecki, none are making over $600k for the forseeable future. Even with Santana, the average age of all these players is only 27 years old.

But wait, it gets better.

Consider for a moment that what we’ve seen over the past month isn’t an anomaly. What if this team and these players really are this good? Maybe they are finally playing up to their ability and not not as bad as our eyes were telling us. What if these players brought in are going to be the core of this team going forward?

Salaries and Contract Status

So many of these players are under full team control for so many years to come. With the exception of utility man Mike Freeman, all are in their 20’s and most wont hit free agency until either 2023 or 2025.

It’s 2019…

If you really want to get crazy, also consider that Bobby Bradley, Greg Allen, and even Bradley Zimmer are all in similar contract situations. That means the core of this team is set for years to come. With Jason Kipnis‘s nearly $15-million salary set to come off the books at season’s end and Jose Ramirez locked up with a very team friendly contract, could the pieces be in place to allow the Indians to…

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Extend Francisco Lindor?

It’s completely possible. Why else would they have worked so hard to shed salary this past winter?

The emergence of Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, and Mike Clevinger as potential top three starters is also interesting. And don’t forget potential ace Tristan McKenzie is also waiting in the pipline. Has all this opened up the possibility to trade away veteran starters Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer to free up additional salary space? Probably. It was rumored prior to the start of the season and nothing has happened to suggest otherwise.

Was this grand plan all along? Was this the end game? Is Chris Antonetti really Thanos? Are these players brought in the Infinity Stones (Luplow is the power stone, duh). Is it going to happen!?!?!

Who knows? That’s a conversation for another day. But today, in this moment, the plan put in place by the Indians at the beginning of the season is working. Or rather, it’s starting to work. And the Minnesota Twins better watch their backs. The Indians are coming.

Sure they missed on a couple of things, but they’ve nailed so many others. They have an exciting young core and a group of players to get excited about, if only the fans will allow themselves to get excited about them. There’s plenty of room on the bandwagon, folks. Grab a beer and a hotdog and hop on board. They’re chasing a division title. Let’s go have some fun for the next 82 games.