The Cleveland Indians are at a crossroad. Last year, Cleveland’s 93 wins weren’t enough to get the club to the postseason for the fourth straight season despite winning more games than they did in 2018.
The Indians face the possibility their window to compete for a championship is nearly closed. The Minnesota Twins caught up to them last season, while the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals are gaining.
Over the winter, the Indians tried to play both sides. They made an effort to save money and reduce payroll, most notably trading longtime ace Corey Kluber. However, they held on to star shortstop Francisco Lindor and made some moves aimed at improving for the short term.
That being said, the Tribe appears close to tearing the whole thing down and starting from scratch. If Cleveland doesn’t start fast, it could become a seller and start the rebuilding process before 2020 is over.
Can the Indians recapture the AL Central crown and make another playoff push, or was last year the beginning of the end? Let’s take a closer look at the 2020 Cleveland Indians.
Cleveland Indians 2019 Results
Cleveland got off to a fast start in 2019, as the Tribe took advantage of an easy schedule in April. However, things started to fall apart in the second half of May when the Indians lost nine of 12 games to finish the month. Alas, the Indians rebounded quickly by going 17-9 in June and 18-6 during a sensational July.
Cleveland remained hot throughout most of August and the first part of September. However, because of its struggles in May, the Indians had fallen too far behind the Twins in the AL Central. That left the Tribe in a three-team Wild-Card race alongside the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics.
With everything on the line during the last week of the season, the Indians lost their last five games, allowing the Athletics and Rays to claim the Wild-Card spots. In the end, Cleveland finished 93-69, eight games behind Minnesota and three games out of the second Wild-Card.
If the Indians had made the playoffs, their rotation would have made them a threat to advance. But a collapse during the final week gave the Indians a somewhat hollow 93-win season.
The Indians didn’t make a lot of significant additions. In the trade that sent Kluber to the Texas Rangers, Cleveland got back outfielder Delino DeShields and pitcher Emmanuel Clase.
DeShields is one of several outfielders who will battle for playing time. Meanwhile, Clase was subsequently suspended for the season because of a positive PED test, depriving the Cleveland bullpen of the young flamethrower.
Other than that trade, one of Cleveland’s acquisitions was free-agent outfielder Domingo Santana. Despite hitting 20 home runs and posting an OPS of .770 last year, the Mariners non-tendered Santana, putting him on the open market. The Indians decided to take a chance on him, given Santana’s raw power.
The Indians were also proactive in signing second baseman Cesar Hernandez, who is another player to be non-tendered by his previous team, the Philadelphia Phillies. He’s shown an uptick in power the past two seasons and plays steady defense at the keystone, making him a cost-effective pickup.
Cleveland also completed a couple of minor trades to help solidify the periphery of its roster. The Indians traded for longtime Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon, who will serve as the backup to starter Roberto Perez.
The Indians also traded for infielder Christian Arroyo, who was once a top prospect in San Francisco’s farm system but has struggled in the majors. He will likely serve as a backup at multiple infield positions.
As mentioned, trading Kluber was Cleveland’s biggest loss. Kluber had been with the Indians since 2011 and won two Cy Young Awards, so it was a shock to see the club move him. However, the Indians only got seven starts out of Kluber in 2019, and they still won 93 games, so they’ll feel comfortable about surviving without him.
The Indians also parted ways with longtime starter Danny Salazar, who has been held back by injuries. Relievers Tyler Clippard, Dan Otero, A.J. Cole, Tyler Olson, and Nick Goody are also with other teams.
Among position players, the Indians said goodbye to longtime second baseman Jason Kipnis. The veteran’s production declined significantly in recent years, leading Cleveland to decline his club option for the 2020 season.
The Indians also declined to re-sign outfielder Yasiel Puig, who they acquired via trade last summer. Backup catcher Kevin Plawecki was also non-tendered by Cleveland, making him a free agent.
Without Kluber, the Indians have a lot of reasons to be optimistic about their starting rotation. Despite making 21 starts last season, Mike Clevinger showed that he’s ready to step into the role of ace. In those starts, Clevinger was 13-4 with a 2.71 ERA, perhaps setting up a run at the Cy Young Award in 2020.
There is more than enough depth behind Clevingen. Youngster Shane Bieber looks like he could contend with Clevinger as the team’s ace after going 15-8 with a 3.28 ERA over 33 starts last season. Bieber threw three complete games and two shutouts in 2019. Bieber struck out 14 over six scoreless innings in a historic outing on Opening Day. The 25-year-old passed Bob Gibson and Lon Warneke for most strikeouts without allowing a run on Opening Day in MLB history.
Zach Plesac was another young starter who stood out in 2019, going 8-6 with a 3.81 ERA over 21 starts.
Cleveland’s rotation depth doesn’t stop there. Adam Plutko, Aaron Civale, and Jefry Rodriguez all made positive impressions. More importantly, they all contributed to keeping the Indians in the playoff race.
Obviously, there won’t be room for all in the starting rotation. Having quality depth will be a luxury for the Indians, as will be sending one or two of their young arms to the bullpen.
Finally, the Indians are hoping to get something out of veteran Carlos Carrasco. Carrasco’s 2019 campaign was interrupted by a leukemia diagnosis. However, he returned in September and will look to reclaim a spot in Cleveland’s rotation.
When healthy, Carrasco registered an ERA under 3.70 every year from 2014-18, so he has the stuff to be a frontline starter.
Meanwhile, the Cleveland bullpen should continue to be one of the team’s biggest strengths. Lefty Brad Hand remains the closer after wrapping up 34 saves.
He’ll be supported by the trio of Nick Wittgren, Adam Cimber, and Oliver Perez, who will serve as the primary setup men. Wittgren, in particular, was outstanding in 2019, registering an ERA of 2.81.
In fairness, the Indians don’t have as much bullpen depth as they did a year ago. The losses of Clippard, Goody, and others could hurt them, especially with bullpens being critical in a shortened season.
However, the Indians should be able to move some of their excess starters to the bullpen, increasing the depth in their relief corps.
On paper, scoring runs could be an issue. That being said, a lot of teams would be envious of Cleveland’s trio of Lindor, third baseman Jose Ramirez, and first baseman Carlos Santana.
Lindor is undoubtedly one of the best shortstops in baseball. Not only is he elite defensively, but Lindor also provided 32 home runs and 40 doubles last season, posting an OPS of .854. At 26, he should be better in 2020 and could become a legitimate MVP candidate.
Oddly enough, the Indians expected better out of Ramirez last year. He slumped at times and finished the season with an OPS of .806 after having an OPS of .900 in each of the previous two seasons. Given his age (27) and track record, Ramirez is a good candidate to have a bounce-back season.
Finally, Santana is the last part of the triad. Despite being 34, the switch-hitter is coming off arguably the best season of his career.
He felt comfortable back in Cleveland in 2019, matching his career-high of 34 home runs while also hitting .281, another career high. If he can come anywhere close to matching that kind of production, the Indians will be pleased.
Unfortunately, the Indians don’t have a lot of answers beyond the trio of Lindor, Ramirez, and Santana. Catcher Roberto Perez is coming off a career year, although it’s likely that his production will revert back to his unimpressive career averages.
Cleveland’s outfield remains a mystery. The likes of DeShields, Jordan Luplow, Oscar Mercado, Greg Allen, Jake Bauers, and Tyler Naquin will all battle for playing time.
Luplow, Mercado, and Naquin all made contributions as part-time players. Bauers, DeShields, and Allen also bring something to the table. In a shortened season, Cleveland doesn’t have a lot of time to figure out its best lineup.
Santana and Franmil Reyes will also be a part of the outfield cluster. Both players supply plenty of power, which is something the Indians are bound to need. However, both are also better suited for the designated hitter spot.
Reyes, in particular, hit 37 home runs last year between stints with the Padres and Indians. He’s likely to be the primary designated hitter, putting Santana into the large contingent of outfielders who will battle for playing time.
Cleveland Indians’ Three Key Players
While Lindor is the star, Ramirez might be the biggest key to Cleveland Indians’ success this season. As mentioned, he’s coming off a down season but is a prime candidate to bounce back. If the Indians are going to make a playoff push, they need Ramirez to produce at the same level as Lindor.
On the pitching front, Carrasco might be the key. With Kluber gone, he’s the elder statesman of the rotation. The Indians will need him to be a leader both on and off the field to help the team’s young starters replicate their performance.
Finally, Bauers is a somewhat overlooked key. The Indians are loaded with switch-hitters, but Bauers is one of the few left-handed hitters on the roster. That alone makes him important.
He’s also a young player with a high upside who hasn’t produced in the majors yet. The potential is there, and if Bauers can tap into it, he can solidify a spot in Cleveland’s outfield and become a difference-maker.
Cleveland Indians Schedule Breakdown
In a shortened season, the Cleveland Indians will play 40 of their 60 games against the AL Central rivals. The Tribe had a winning record against three of those four teams last year, including the Twins, so a division-heavy schedule could benefit them.
That being said, the White Sox and Royals figure to be noticeably better than they were in 2019, so Cleveland’s schedule won’t be a cakewalk.
The Indians will play their 20 remaining games against teams from the NL Central. That division has four teams that will have serious playoff aspirations at the start of the season, so every game will be a battle.
On the bright side, six of those 20 games will be against the Pirates, giving the Indians a golden opportunity to beat up on a team that’s expected to be one of the worstr.
BetUs.com also lists Cleveland Indians’ over/under at 33.5 wins. That indicates that it should be an above-average team with a legitimate shot at reaching the playoffs. If you are new to sports betting, please check out our MLB betting hub page to get started.
As the betting odds suggest, Cleveland’s window to make the playoffs is wide open, largely thanks to the starting rotation. However, reduced depth in the bullpen and uncertainty in the outfield could hold the Indians back.
If the Indians can answer those questions, they’ll have a chance to reach the postseason. Otherwise, they’ll likely fall a little short for the second straight season.