In part one of the “Half-Baked Predictions” AL Central season preview, I took a look at the Detroit Tigers and their outlook in the division for 2021 (hint: it’s not looking too hot). In this post, I am going to take a look at the Cleveland Indians, who are widely projected as the third-best team in the American League Central going into 2021. However, the Indians may be in the process of starting a “soft” rebuild, as they traded franchise shortstop Francisco Lindor this Winter, and didn’t really add any free agents of note (though they did re-sign Cesar Hernandez and signed former Twins outfielder Eddie Rosario on reasonable deals shortly before the start of Spring Training).
The Indians last year finished 35-25 in the AL Central, which was good for second place in the division, and a wild card spot in the extended playoff structure. However, the Indians were swept by the Yankees, which marked their fifth straight playoff loss and the third time in four seasons they failed to get out of the first round of the postseason after making the World Series in 2016.
So, let’s take a look at three “half-baked” predictions I have for the Cleveland “baseball team” (as they are changing their name after this season) for the upcoming 2021 season.
Jose Ramirez will be traded at the July Trade Deadline
While the Indians lost Lindor to the Mets this off-season, they do return Ramirez, who was not only the Indians’ best offensive player, but was also one of the best hitters in the American League overall in 2020. Ramirez posted an OPS of .993 in 254 plate appearances, and he also hit 17 home runs and posted an OPS+ of 163, according to Baseball Reference. For his efforts, Ramirez finished second in the AL MVP race (losing to Jose Abreu of the White Sox), and also earned a Silver Slugger at third base, the third Silver Slugger award of his career.
That being said, while Ramirez will be the Indians’ star offensive player going into 2021, he may not be around for much longer in Cleveland, especially with how this club is projecting in the next few seasons.
According to Roster Resource payroll information, Ramirez is the only Cleveland player who is signed beyond 2022. That being said, the next two seasons are “club” options, and it could be in Cleveland’s best interest to shed the possible $24 million over the next two years after this season is over. It will give them some payroll flexibility, and with Ramirez’s contract being club options, his deal could be enticing for clubs. If he continues to rake in 2021, teams could being saving money on exercising his club options. If he regresses, teams could release him after one or two years. Thus, Ramirez’s deal is an extremely team-friendly one, whether it is for the Indians or another club.
That being said, the Indians may be looking long-term, and it doesn’t feel like Ramirez fits the long-term vision of this club, especially in the wake of Lindor’s trade this off-season, and Mike Clevinger being traded at last year’s trade deadline. Furthermore, the Indians’ top prospect is third baseman Nolan Jones, who is expected to start in Triple-A this season, and if Jones continues to progress, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him ready for a full-time shot by June or early July. While the first base position is shaky (not sure if Jake Bauers is the answer there long-term for Cleveland), I’m not sure it would be in the club’s interest to move Ramirez or Jones off their natural position defensively.
Thus, if the Indians are looking to the future, and maybe not in the playoff hunt around that late June or early July period, it would be in the Indians’ best interest to trade Ramirez and stock their farm system, which just hovers outside the Top 10, according to MLB Pipeline. Granted, trading Ramirez could be worse for the Royals, and the rest of the AL Central long-term (since Cleveland’s player development is pretty top notch). That being said, trading Ramirez could open up the middle of the Central for not only 2021, but 2022 as well.
One of the Cleveland “aces” will struggle
On paper, the Indians rotation is the best in the AL Central, in my opinion. The Indians return reigning AL Cy Young award winner Shane Bieber, who absolutely dominated the Royals in 2020, especially on Opening Day:
And if that’s not enough, their projected four-man rotation looks pretty impressive, according to Roster Resource’s projected depth chart. Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, and Triston McKenzie could all be No. 1 or No. 2 starters on other clubs’ pitching staffs. However, while on paper, the Indians seem to be set in their rotation, pitching can always be a tough to predict from year to year. Can Bieber put up another Cy Young campaign over a full 162-game campaign? Will Plesac, Civale, and McKenzie stay healthy? Will they get enough run support from a lineup that has been gutted from 2020?
The one pitcher I am paying attention to is Bieber, who not only won the Cy Young last year, but also posted a 3.2 WAR in only 77.1 IP, according to Fangraphs. While Bieber continued to rack up K’s in 2020 (14.20 K/9 in 2020, a career high), there were some concerning signs. His BB/9 increased from 1.68 to 2.44 and his HR/FB rate at 15.2 was not exactly impressive. Lastly, he benefited from a strand rate of 91.1 percent, which was not only a career high, but nearly 14 percent higher than his 2019 rate. Thus, it is possible that Bieber could see a fall back to earth after being dubbed one of the best pitchers in the AL in 2020. Does that mean he will be bad? Of course not, but I’m not sure if he’ll be a Cy Young candidate again in 2021, especially if his strand rate regresses, and his HR/FB rate continues to hover around his last two year marks (16.1 HR/FB rate in 2019).
I still believe the Indians have the best rotation in the AL Central going into 2021. But, I predict one of the top four arms will struggle and see some more than expected regression as we adjust to a full 162-game season. Who it could be? Well…I guess we will have to wait until the 2021 season starts. That being said, a lot of the Indians’ hopes this year rests on their rotation, and if one struggles, that could spell trouble for Cleveland’s playoff hopes for this upcoming year.
This will be Terry Francona’s last year in Cleveland
Francona has helped the Indians generate a remarkable turnaround since taking over as manager in 2013. Since becoming Cleveland’s skipper, the club has posted a .565 winning percentage under his watch, and has also made the postseason five times in his nine-year tenure, according to Baseball Reference. While the Indians only have one pennant, and fell short to the Cubs in 2016 in the World Series, it is safe to say that Cleveland hasn’t experienced this caliber of baseball success since the mid to late 90’s, during the days of Mike Hargrove.
However, when Francona took over as manager after being ousted from Boston in 2011, the Indians were looking to take the next step as a club after years of “rebuilding”. Now, it looks like the club is on the downswing in terms of remaining competitive, and may be looking at a short rebuilding process for at least the next 2-3 seasons. It’s not an extreme rebuild like Detroit, Baltimore, or Texas, granted. That being said, I am not sure Francona is willing to be the man to oversee it, especially since he has never had a losing season in Cleveland as manager, and hasn’t had one overall as a manager since 2000, his last season managing in Philadelphia.
Add that with Francona’s health issues (he missed most of the year due to lingering health problems), the controversy surrounding former coach Mickey Callaway, and the promise of coach Sandy Alomar, Jr., who filled in admirably as manager in Cleveland last year, and the writing may be on the wall for Francona’s tenure in Northeast Ohio. Francona may never had brought home the big one as hoped during his time as Indians manager, but he brought a surge of success that kept the Indians in the playoff hunt and at the top of the division on an annual basis.
But it’s time for him to move on, and I think that is something Royals fans will be perfectly fine with, especially as Kansas City baseball fans hope to move up in the standings in the next couple of years.
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