Spring training is finally here, and the Cleveland Indians seem to be mostly done with their offseason shopping. The only major league contract they’ve doled out to this point is Oliver Perez’ one-year, $2.5MM pact, leaving many puzzled fans scratching their heads as to why the front office hasn’t done more to answer their cries for a World Series-caliber team. If Indians Twitter is any indication, fans have at least eight common concerns that fill them with emotions ranging from disappointment to anger to outright panic.
Now, I’m not here to tell you the Tribe isn’t without a few key weaknesses. Like the rest of you, I wouldn’t mind seeing the Indians shell out a few more sensible dollars, or pull the trigger on a Corey Kluber trade that brings back the right win-now package. But at this point, the plain truth is that those types of moves are a longshot. In their absence, we’re left to look at the roster as a complete picture and assess how excited (or upset) we are about the projected Opening Day squad. The fan base as a whole doesn’t seem to have much optimism, and (spoiler alert) I’m on the other end of the spectrum. You’ll learn why below.
It would be irresponsible to continue without first pointing out one crucial piece of information: the 2019 Cleveland Indians are not a bad team. That’s not just my opinion; it’s a commonly-accepted postulation backed up by a deluge of statistical evidence. PECOTA, the projection system at Baseball Prospectus, forecasts that the Tribe finish with the second-most wins of any team in baseball, trailing the Astros by just a single game in the standings. That alone doesn’t claim a fourth consecutive AL Central crown, but it’s at least some indication that fan consternation is a tad overblown.
That said, several specific concerns keep popping up on Twitter, and in some cases they’ve come from upwards of a dozen fans in just a few hours. They aren’t all without reason, either, so I’ve taken the liberty of ranking my own personal level of concern surrounding each of these issues on a standard 1-10 scale. Here they are below.
1. The Offense
Without a doubt, this is the most common gripe I’ve seen with the 2019 club. Some Twitter users have been as gentle as saying the Tribe lacks consistent offense, while others have used extreme hyperbole in saying that they have no hitting at all.
The strange thing about this one is that, to me, it seems almost completely unfounded. The Indians scores 4.99 runs per game over the course of last season, which checked in at fourth among all teams in the sport. Clearly, then, the unrest isn’t about last year’s lineup, but the lack of urgency in addressing those who’ve departed from it.
It’s true that there’ve been some notable departures from that group. Josh Donaldson and Michael Brantley became free agents and signed elsewhere. Edwin Encarnacion, Yan Gomes, and Yonder Alonso, meanwhile, were shipped away in trades. On the whole, over half of Cleveland’s postseason has been scattered across five different cities.
While it’s easy to see the departure of 91 homers and panic, the offense won’t feel the loss of these players as much as many fans seem to believe. First off, the Tribe’s two MVP-caliber offensive talents remain in place at the top of the lineup. I can’t overstate the value of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez as run-creators. But in the interest of analyzing your concerns to death, let’s address the losses.
Donaldson didn’t make a significant contribution to that 4.99 runs per game figure I mentioned earlier (though in fairness, it’s tough to make a noticeable impact on a season-long total in just 16 games). wOBA and wRC+ projections suggest that Santana is a good bet to match or exceed Encarnacion’s offensive production from last season in addition to actually contributing defensively, while former top prospect Jake Bauers has a great shot to be a better offensive force than Alonso ever was.
The loss of Gomes and Brantley is likely to have a negative impact. But the Indians have all sorts of interesting young players who could emerge to some degree, including Jordan Luplow, Greg Allen, Bradley Zimmer, Oscar Mercado, Eric Haase, Yu Cheng Chang and Bobby Bradley. Even if every single one of those players craters, it’s hard to imagine the absence of two players dropping an offense from top five to below-average, let alone terrible. Combined with one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, odds are this offense won’t look so bad, and that’s even before considering any possible midseason additions.
Always The Jake’s Stress Level About The Offense: 3/10
As some of you know, Gomes has been my favorite player for five and a half years, and unless Antonetti & Co. are convinced that the flamethrowing Jefry Rodriguez can be an All-Star-caliber relief ace, the trade that sent the Yanimal to the Nationals is nothing short of a head-scratcher. But there are some other factors to consider, and I’m going to try to put my emotions aside and consider them.
The first point I should make is that Roberto Perez, who’s now penciled in as the Opening Day starter, has more potential than you probably realize. He earned his first MLB promotion after hitting .305/.405/.517 at Triple-A Columbus in the first half of 2014, and it wasn’t long ago that he put together a World Series performance so exciting that it led some around the fan community to wonder whether he ought to be given the starting role even with Gomes still on the roster. His ability to take walks has earned a 11.2% career BB rate, which is an important skill that shouldn’t be overlooked. His defense, meanwhile, has always been as good as any backstop in the game.
That doesn’t erase the fact that Perez has never even come close a league-average offensive performance among catchers, or that he was rated below replacement level by Fangraphs last year. But recent acquisition Kevin Plawecki isn’t entirely without himself, and Haase is lurking at Triple-A ready to prove his power can translate at the major-league level.
All told, fans aren’t wrong to be concerned here. Gomes was an above-average catcher last year, and the Indians are ready to move forward with a tandem that combined for a level of production that a replacement-level player could have exceeded. With Noah Smith a few years away from any chance of a debut, this position looks weak.
Always The Jake’s Stress Level About The Catcher Position: 8/10
3. The Bullpen
A significant number of fans, perhaps even the majority, are concerned to at least some extent about the state of the bullpen. After all, it was one of MLB’s worst last year, and a couple of key relievers departed in free agency at season’s end. However, a little research proves that ‘pen concerns are not only overblown, but an outright fictional boogeyman.
Don’t believe me? I don’t blame you. But read my case here and you might have a better understanding of just how good the Tribe’s bullpen is likely to be. If you don’t have time for that, here’s the jist: if you look at the 2018 homer-to-fly-ball ratio of the bullpen arms who are projected to be with the team on opening day, you’ll see that they suffered from unsustainably terrible luck with the long ball. Adjusting their FIP by substituting a league-average HR/FB% points to the likelihood that the unit will be one of the best in all of MLB this coming season. This isn’t just cherry-picking stats… it’s actually a theory that the vast majority of the analytics community would get behind.
In other words: advanced predictive stats suggest that the bullpen will be incredible. There’s not much to be worried about here.
Always The Jake’s Stress Level About The Bullpen: 2/10
4. The Outfield
If there’s a position that’s entirely uninspiring on the 2019 squad, it’s the outfield (at least catcher requires only one player). The players currently penciled in for spots on the grass are Greg Allen, Leonys Martin and Tyler Naquin. Depending on whose opinion you’re reading, that group could also include Jordan Luplow or even Oscar Mercado.
If you’re not particularly excited, you’re not alone. That collection of players combined for a whopping 2.9 fWAR last season. For reference, 2.0 fWAR is a fair stand-in for league average. So if the Indians’ projected starting out field is expected to be about half as good as a league average trio, how can they possibly be a competitive team?
Well, I have to start by pointing out that it would be a bit dramatic to put too much weight on this position. After all, the Indians are clearly league average or much, much better at every other position except catcher, and there’s no team that’s without a weakness. Maybe that sounds like an excuse, but if you consider the fact that the World Series Champion Boston Red Sox got 3.2 fWAR out of their first, second and third basemen combined over the course of the entire regular season, you might understand what I’m driving at.
But the point of this section is to address concerns about the outfield, so here are my thoughts about the 2019 group’s potential. Out of the gates, you all should know I’m very high on Greg Allen, who hit .310 with a .379 on-base percentage during the second half of 2018 while stealing a base every three games on average. Projections don’t believe he’ll repeat that performance, for the most part, but the kid’s speed is undeniable, and if he can live up to the walk potential he showed in the minors, he’ll be pretty damn good. Leonys Martin, meanwhile, is fresh off his best season to date. He’s recovering from a life-threatening medical condition, but it’s widely believed that condition isn’t likely to affect his play moving forward.
As for right field, there are a lot of players who’ll be fighting for plate appearances. Tyler Naquin, Matt Joyce, Jordan Luplow, Oscar Mercado, Daniel Johnson and even Bradley Zimmer (eventually) will have a chance to seize some playing time. There’s not a tremendous amount of sleeper potential lurking in that cast (aside from Zimmer), but it’s definitely not a hopeless void. The struggle here is real, but with such a variety of options, there’s a very real chance that someone unexpected will break out. And even if the offense seems unexciting, the group’s defense has a fantastic ceiling.
Always The Jake’s Stress Level About The Outfield: 6/10
Some fans have said that they feel like the only thing that could possibly derail this season is a series of unexpected and unfortunate injuries. Others have expressed that existing injuries and the brittleness of existing injury-prone players already have the Indians at a notable disadvantage. The answer probably lies somewhere in between, but if I had to put money on it, I’d say the likely outcome is something resembling the former.
Multiple Twitter users mentioned Danny Salazar, whose once-bright career has been derailed by shoulder injuries (the most complicated joint for a pitcher even amidst an elbow-fearing era). My response is, the Indians have only gotten about half a season’s worth of innings from Salazar across the past two seasons, including a 2018 campaign wherein he didn’t even throw a single pitch. Sure, it would be great to have him contribute to the ‘pen, but from my vantage point anything he gives us in the upcoming season should be considered a bonus.
As for other injuries, the projected Opening Day squad actually has a pretty good collective track record of good health, freak accidents and drone attacks aside. The only reliable forecaster of future injury is past injury, and outside of Salazar that points me towards just three key players.
Kluber has missed varying amounts of time in each of the past three seasons with some kind of injury. In 2016, it was a minor quadriceps strain, the year following it was a back issue, and last season it had something to do with his knee. Regardless, he’s managed to return to the field with grace, and when we all looked up at season’s end the numbers were fantastic. He’s another year older, of course, and the mileage is starting to add up, but even when Kluber does miss some time it always seems as though the additional rest allows him to come back as strong as ever.
Kipnis has suffered several hamstring and oblique injuries throughout his career, and seems to have difficulty both remaining healthy and returning to effectiveness. Despite being maligned by the fan base and sports media last season, Kipnis was actually better than the league average second baseman, so we’d best be crossing our fingers in hopes that he’ll be able to avoid any muscle strains this year; anything of that kind could prove a blow to the Tribe’s chances at a deep playoff run.
Lindor’s managed to remain the picture of good health throughout his young career, and an untimely calf strain has the young stud projected to miss the first few weeks of the regular season. As fans of Lonnie Chisenhall may have noticed, the Indians don’t exactly have a sparkling track record when it comes to leading player through rehab for calf injuries. If Lindor can come back from his IL stint smoothly and without any setbacks, we’re probably in the clear. But an unexpected recurrence of the strain could prove disastrous for the club. Of all the injury risk on the roster, this is probably the one that scares me the most.
Still, there’s no club without its injury scares. It’s simply a fact of the game that random health misfortune can, and will, strike any given team during the course of the regular season. The Tribe is no exception, but they appear to be in better shape than most.
Always The Jake’s Stress Level About Injuries: 3/10
The Indians haven’t finished with a losing record in six years. During that span, they’ve won more games than any team in baseball outside of Boston. The only significant constants between April of 2013 and today’s date are Kipnis, Kluber, Terry Francona and the Dolans.
You may not like the way they spend their money, but the owners of this team have put a competitive product on the field for over half a decade, and you’ve had the privilege to enjoy watching a team clinch the playoffs in four of those six years while at one point playing deep into what’s been perhaps the best World Series of the decade.
Baseball is a business, and a business needs to make a profit in order to be viable. Of course it’s easy to sit here and wish they’d operate at a loss in order to make marginal improvements to the club, but for my part I’m probably happier watching sustained success than I would be seeing the club spend itself into debt and force itself into a Marlins-like fire sale or a Phillies- or Tigers-like collapse that results in an embarrassing five-year rebuild. Plus, they’ve shown a willingness to spend at the deadline when the team has a real shot to win it all.
Always The Jake’s Stress Level About Ownership: 1/10
7. Clubhouse Chemistry/Veteran Leadership
I decided to lump these together into one category since they mostly go hand-in-hand. It’s true that there’s no Jason Giambi or Mike Napoli in the locker room this year (at least not as of this moment), and Brantley’s departure makes that void all the more apparent. Truth be told, there aren’t a whole lot of players who are famous for leadership skills, and it’s worth wondering whether someone will step up and take responsibility for fostering the environment we’ve come to love watching over the past few years.
Then again, this whole notion is probably overblown. This team has a core in place that’s gelled for several seasons, and contains several players who are famous for their positive attitudes and fun-loving personalities. Kipnis, Lindor, Ramirez and Carlos Carrasco are all well-known for having fun both on and off the field and bringing a good vibe to the clubhouse, while Kluber and Trevor Bauer do plenty to set the tone in terms of work ethic and routine. Aside from maybe Bauer, there’s nothing about this group of guys that leads me to believe discord in the locker room could be an issue, particularly with legendary skipper Terry Francona at the helm.
Always The Jake’s Stress Level About Clubhouse Chemistry: 1/10
8. Another Early Exit From The Playoffs
This one isn’t easy to address at all. The plain and unexciting truth is that five-game series are small samples, so the results aren’t necessarily as indicative of a team’s true talent as a 162-game season. Just ask the 2016 Red Sox, who entered the postseason as favorites but got swept by an injury-riddled Cleveland starting rotation. Or as the 2017 Indians, who were heavy favorites to win the World Series and went up 2-0 on the Yankees, but lost three straight after not seeing that happen to them for almost two full months of baseball.
Despite how we all probably felt watching the Game 3 death march to an ALDS sweep last season, all signs point to this Indians ball club having World Series odds not far off from any other contender. Does that mean they’re guaranteed to break a painful two-year ALDS losing streak? Of course not. But they’re nearly guaranteed to get there, and the right midseason additions could even out any doubt in the playing field quickly, if not outright tip the scales in their favor. There are plenty of things that can happen over the course of a long season, so let’s not start getting bogged down by this yet!
Always The Jake’s Stress Level About Another Early Playoff Exit: 4/10
Overall, we’re likely to be a spoiled Cleveland fan base once again. My best advice: don’t let yourself get bogged down by the nitty-gritty details of every aspect of the roster. Worried about the outfield? Ask yourself instead if you think the Tribe is likely to outscore its opponent on any given night. Lying awake at night fearing another bullpen nightmare? Consider who still remains from that relief corps, and check out what predictive stats say about them moving forward. Concerned about injuries or clubhouse chemistry? Try and evaluate why this applies to the Indians more than any other team. Basically, I hope you’ll just have fun watching the Tribe with me this season.