Posted on February 24, 2020, by Bryan Zarpentine
After winning the AL Central in three of the last four seasons, the window to win a championship appears to be closing for the Cleveland Indians. The club made moves this winter aimed at cutting payroll while still trying to field a competitive team. However, that can be a tricky balancing act. After missing out on the playoffs in 2019, do the Indians have enough to get back to the postseason in 2020 or will they be forced to start rebuilding by the end of the year?
The Tribe traded away longtime ace Corey Kluber during the offseason, but they made that move knowing they have plenty of rotation depth. After all, they survived with Kluber on the IL for most of 2019, so they should be in good shape moving forward. Despite missing a significant chunk of the season due to injury, Mike Clevinger had a breakout campaign in 2019 and has been anointed as Cleveland’s new ace. However, he will miss the early part of the season with another injury. Of course, the Tribe can lean on Shane Bieber, who went 15-8 with a 3.28 ERA last season and is just as capable of being an ace as Clevinger.
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The youth movement in the Cleveland rotation doesn’t stop with the 24-year-old Bieber. Zach Plesac posted a 3.81 ERA over his 21 starts last season while Aaron Civale pitched to a 2.34 ERA in the first 10 starts of his major league career. Both have the potential to be mid-rotation starters or better moving forward. The wild card will be veteran Carlos Carrasco, who missed time in 2019 after being diagnosed with cancer. He made at least 25 starts and produced an ERA no higher than 3.63 every year from 2015 to 2018, so if he’s healthy, he can be a key figure for the Indians in 2020. If not, the likes of Adam Plutko and Jefry Rodriguez should be capable back-end starters, giving Cleveland suitable depth in their rotation.
This isn’t the Cleveland bullpen we saw in the World Series in 2016, but it’s still rock solid. Brad Hand is a reliable closer, saving 34 games in 39 chances last season. Meanwhile, Nick Wittgren emerged as a top-flight setup man last season, pitching to a 2.81 ERA. The Indians also have Adam Cimber and the ageless Oliver Perez to help form a bridge to Hand in the 9th inning, so losing leads late in games should be a rare occurrence in 2020.
That being said, there has been some turnover in the rest of Cleveland’s bullpen. The Indians don’t have as many veteran arms in middle relief as they’ve had in recent years. For bullpen depth, the Tribe will rely on youngsters like Emmanuel Clase, James Karinchak, and Hunter Wood. The Indians could also use Rodriguez or Plutko in the bullpen if they’re not needed in the rotation. While there are a few questions in the Cleveland bullpen, there’s surely no shortage of options.
The Indians haven’t exactly excelled at scoring runs in recent years, but there is some hope heading into 2020. For starters, the team didn’t part with shortstop Francisco Lindor despite his name being in the rumor mill. Lindor and Jose Ramirez will help to jumpstart the Cleveland lineup ahead of heavy hitters like Carlos Santana and Franmil Reyes. Santana tied a career-high with 34 home runs and posted a career-best OPS of .911 last season, so he remains one of the best power hitters in baseball. Reyes isn’t particularly helpful defensively, but he mashed 37 home runs last year between the Padres and Indians.
But how good the Indians are offensively will come done to many of their supporting players. The Tribe needs Jake Bauers to have a breakout season after struggling in his first extended big league action last year. They’re also hoping to get something out of the likes of Jordan Luplow, Oscar Mercado, Delino DeShields, and Greg Allen. That group will be fighting for playing time in the outfield, so perhaps one or two can become reliable contributors. Otherwise, there could be some holes in the back half of Cleveland’s lineup. Finally, the Indians got a career year from catcher Roberto Perez last season and will need him to replicate that performance with the bat.
Cleveland’s 93 wins wasn’t enough to make the playoffs last year, and now their win projection for 2020 is set at 87.5 wins. While the Indians have the young arms in their rotation to carry them, there are too many questions about their lineup outside of Lindor, Ramirez, and Santana. The AL Central should also be reasonably more competitive than a year ago. Look for the Indians to fall short of 87.5 wins, miss the playoffs, and perhaps trade away Lindor and others in July.