The Central looks more open after Lindor trade, but Royals still have work to do

It’s been a few days since I have posted, which has been atypical as of late. However, it has been hard to concentrate on baseball with everything going on, and I feel like now I am finally able to kind of get back to normal at least a little bit. Also, as an educator, we are starting the second semester, which for me, as a business teacher, means teaching new classes or sections of classes. And thus, I tend to have a little less free time, which in turn impacts post frequency. Hopefully in a week or two, I’m able to get back to my more regular posting habits here (and get back to the “21 in 21” list).

However, it has been a pretty “cold” stove, with the exception of this recent deal, which may be the biggest of the off-season:

The deal impacts both clubs in different ways. For the Mets, it’s a sign of a rejuvenated franchise under new owner Steve Cohen. For the (soon-to-be former) Indians, it’s a further indicator of an expected rebuild which could be more extreme than expected. Furthermore, the NL East and AL Central also took particular notice of the move, as it appears that the Mets could make the Senior Circuit’s Eastern division one of the best in baseball, while the American League’s Midwestern division may have become a little hazier, especially after the personnel losses from an Indians team that made the postseason last year.

And in terms of the latter, “hazier” may be good news for the Royals, a club that has been entrenched around fourth or fifth in the division the past three seasons.

That being said, while Cleveland certainly may be regressing talent-wise (and could make another roster purge or two in the coming weeks), the Royals still have some work to do this off-season if they want to indeed take that next step, and avoid one of the bottom two positions next season.

Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Indians have been a juggernaut in the AL Central since Terry Francona took over as manager in 2013. Over this time span under the former Red Sox manager, the club has always finished with a record over .500, and they have posted 90 or more wins five times as well (in fact, if you pro rate their 2020 winning percentage, it would be rounded up to 94 wins; so you could technically count six). Furthermore, the Indians won the AL Central Division three straight times from 2016 through 2018, which also included an AL Pennant and near World Series in 2016. For the past eight seasons, baseball has been competitive in Cleveland, as Indians fans have seen the club’s best stretch of play since 1994-2001, where they made the playoffs six times in seven seasons, and made the World Series twice in 1995 and 1997 (even though they lost both times).

Unfortunately, while one could argue whether or not Cleveland is a “small market” franchise (I would argue that they are more of a “mid-market” club who is on the lower end of that threshold), they certainly do not have the fan fare or generate the kind of revenue that is typical for “large market” MLB clubs. Over the Francona era in Cleveland, the Indians have only seen attendance top over the 2 million mark once (2017, which was the year AFTER they appeared in the World Series). In comparison, the Royals have actually topped the 2 million mark three times in the same time span (2015, 2016, and 2017), which is surprising considering that Kansas City is not only a smaller market than Cleveland, but also has a stadium that is more outside the city rather than in the city like Cleveland. “Downtown” stadiums tend have higher attendance figures due to ease of access into the stadium (mostly due to better public transportation options) as well as other attractions (i.e. bars, restaurants, etc.) around the stadium neighborhood. And yet, Kauffman Stadium has seen higher attendance figures than Progressive Field even though it lacks the latter’s amenities and ease of access.

So how could a club, who has been much more successful and in a “downtown” stadium generate such lackluster interest in their fan base? Well, part of it could be credited toward a crowded sports market, as the Royals only have to compete with the Chiefs, while the Indians have to compete with the Browns and Cavaliers. That being said, it seems the main culprit is the Cleveland ownership group, led by Larry Dolan and his family, who have preferred to maximize profits and minimize costs over pursuing a championship on a consistent basis.

After ranking in the Top 10 in payroll in Dolan’s first three seasons as owner (2000-2002), the Indians have ranked higher than 20th in payroll only four times (2008, 2009, 2018, and 2019), according to Cot’s Contracts data. Considering the club has been one of the most successful clubs in the Central division over the past decade (only the Twins have been as consistently competitive), it is disappointing that Dolan has not made a stronger financial commitment to winning, especially for a franchise that has not won a World Series since 1948, which is the longest World Series title drought currently.

While the Indians’ trade of franchise-cornerstone is certainly a gut punch for the Cleveland fan base, it is just the tip of the iceberg of multiple moves that have signaled Dolan’s desire to undergo a cheap, rebuilding process in 2021 and beyond. Let’s take a look at all the moves the Indians have made in preparation for this difficult rebuild:

Of course, losing Lindor may be the most painful dagger of them all for Cleveland fans. In his first six seasons in the Majors, Lindor has made the All-Star team four straight times (2016-2019), and he has also garnered two Silver Sluggers (2017 and 2018) and two Gold Gloves (2016 and 2019). According to Baseball Reference, he has accumulated a 28.6 bWAR in 777 Major League games, and he is only 27-years-old, a sign that his best years are ahead of him.

Safe to say, the Mets acquired perhaps one of the best shortstops, if not overall players, in all of baseball. And if that wasn’t difficult enough for baseball fans in Cleveland, the Indians also threw in Carrasco, a valuable innings eater who became a fan favorite after he battled and recovered from leukemia in 2019. Yes, the Indians got some interesting prospects, especially Andres Gimenez, who plays shortstop and has been one of the best prospects in the Mets system for a while. However, as one can see from their projected depth chart according to Roster Resource on Fangraphs, this roster is a considerable downgrade from their playoff team of 2020. And things could get even worse for Cleveland, especially if they find a suitor for Jose Ramirez, who was the Indians’ best offensive player in 2020. Ramirez has an enticing contract where he has club options after next season. And thus, teams may inquire about Ramirez, especially since they have that flexibility with his options in 2022 and 2023.

Which in turn, should be promising for Royals fans who are hoping to see Kansas City move up in the standings in 2021.

Photo by Brian Davidson/Getty Images

Are the Royals a better team now than they were in 2020? I would say yes, but only slightly. Yes, Santana boosts this club’s ability to get on base and does offer some run production potential. And yes, Mike Minor will be a valuable asset to the rotation that saw some gains last year. And yes, Michael A. Taylor will make the outfield defense stronger than it was in 2020. However, while this club may be be better than 2020, the 2020 club on a pro-rated basis was a 70-win team. Hence, this Royals team may be only 5 to 10 wins better, at best, which in turn is probably not enough to make the Royals a serious playoff contender in 2021.

And thus, if the Royals truly want to make another run, they probably need to another piece or two to this lineup, preferably in the outfield. In a conference call with writers on Friday, Dayton Moore discussed the importance of grabbing another left-handed bat, as profiled by the Athletic’s Alec Lewis in his most recent post. Here’s is what Lewis said in his piece:

Again Friday, Moore explained how adding another left-handed hitter would be helpful. Though the market has been quiet, Moore said it is healthy in the sense that loads of players are available. Assistant general managers Scott Sharp and Jin Wong are monitoring who makes sense, especially from a financial standpoint…

“It’s primarily probably an outfield spot,” Moore said. “It could be a player who is very versatile, who could play multiple positions.”

“Royals GM Dayton Moore talks roster, potential additions, perspective and more” by Alec Lewis; The Athletic

There are still some interesting options left on the market. Derek Dietrich and Travis Shaw are options that Lewis mentioned in his piece that could provide some production at the plate as well as utility in the field. However, Dietrich may be past his prime, and has struggled with contact issues the past few seasons. As for Shaw, while he did have 30-plus home run seasons in 2017 and 2018 in Milwaukee, he has accumulated a -0.6 fWAR the past two years, according to Fangraphs. Hence, it’s indeterminate if Shaw would be a better option at third than Hunter Dozier.

That being said, Moore’s comment seems to confirm that Jurickson Profar may indeed be a possibility in KC in 2021. Profar has long been linked to the Royals this off-season, and with the Padres acquiring Ha-Seong Kim this Winter, it seems likely that the Padres will not put in an offer for Profar this off-season. Profar certainly has his share of flaws, and he hasn’t lived up to his once massive prospect hype when he was a member of the Rangers. That being said, Profar has shown some growth at the plate the past few seasons, especially in terms of plate discipline, which is a trait the Royals have been prioritizing this off-season (i.e. the Santana signing). Furthermore, he is a switch-hitting bat that could satisfy Moore’s desire for a player with legitimate position flexibility.

The Royals have been adding and the Indians have been subtracting this Winter, which has closed the gap between the two clubs in the Central. However, the Indians, even with the loss of Carrasco, still have one of the best rotations in the American League with reigning Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber, and young phenoms Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, and Triston McKenzie. All four pitchers are 26 and under, and could give the Indians a rotation that could keep them not only in games in 2021, but beyond as well. Hence, the Royals need to continue to build their roster, especially in terms of the lineup, if they want to combat Cleveland’s fierce starting pitching not just next year, but for years to come.

2021 will be an interesting fight in the Central, and the Royals are certainly trending upward, and the Indians are trending downward, which is an optimistic sign for Kansas City baseball fans, especially after three straight rough seasons.

That being said, if the Royals truly want to take the next step in the Central division, they cannot stand pat…

Thus, these questions need to be answered: who will help the Royals take the next step, and when will that move take place?

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