This is the latest post of MLBTR’s annual Offseason in Review series, in which we take stock of every team’s winter dealings.
Comfortably atop MLB’s weakest division, the Indians spent the winter trimming salary without falling out of the conversation for a division title.
Major League Signings
- Oliver Perez, LHP: one year, $2.5MM (includes vesting option)
- Total spend: $2.5MM
Trades and Claims
- Acquired OF Jordan Luplow and IF Max Moroff from Pirates in exchange for IF Erik Gonzalez, minor league RHPs Tahnaj Thomas and Dante Mendoza
- Acquired RHP Chih-Wei Hu from Rays in exchange for minor league IF Gionti Turner
- Acquired outfielder Daniel Johnson, RHP Jefry Rodriguez, and infielder Andruw Monasterio from Nationals in exchange for C Yan Gomes.
- Acquired RHP Nick Wittgren from Marlins in exchange for RHP Jordan Milbrath
- Acquired 1B/OF Jake Bauers from Rays, 1B Carlos Santana and $6MM from Mariners as part of a three-team trade. (Rays acquired IF Yandy Diaz and RHP Cole Sulser from Cleveland. The Mariners acquired 1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion and a Competitive Balance Round B Draft Pick from Cleveland, and $5MM from Tampa Bay.)
- Acquired OF Alex Call from White Sox in exchange for 1B Yonder Alonso.
- Acquired C Kevin Plawecki from Mets in exchange for RHP Walter Lockett and IF Sam Haggerty.
- Claimed RHP A.J. Cole off waivers from the Yankees.
Notable Minor League Signings
- Carlos Gonzalez, Dioner Navarro, Hanley Ramirez, James Hoyt, Brandon Barnes, Tyler Clippard, Trayce Thompson
- Andrew Miller, Michael Brantley, Cody Allen, Josh Donaldson, Lonnie Chisenhall, Alonso, Gomes, Diaz, Encarnacion
After a second consecutive postseason exit in the ALDS, this time at the hands of the Astros, the Indians and their fans are growing increasingly impatient as a 70-year World Series drought only grows longer. Entering the offseason, two glaring needs stood out: outfield and bullpen. Even with stars Michael Brantley and Andrew Miller on the team, both areas were weaknesses in 2018; now, with both gone, the Indians have had to look elsewhere to fill the void left by free-agent departures.
With a comparatively paltry total of $2.5MM in guaranteed money handed out, president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff were either unsatisfied with the slate of free agents, not given permission from ownership to spend, or both. However, the front office was active on the trade market, as a quiet offseason featured a smattering of low-key deals that they hope will strengthen the lackluster outfield and bullpen units that hindered last year’s team.
The first move to address the outfield came in a trade with Pittsburgh, with Jordan Luplow the biggest name involved. Though he has thus far failed to earn consistent big-league playing time, his new club should give him every chance to prove himself worthy of a spot in a Major League outfield. The other newcomer of note is Carlos Gonzalez, who is a solid bet to crack the roster this month — before the April 20 opt-out date in his minor league contract. Cleveland will welcome a healthier year from Leonys Martin, who nearly died from an infection just days after the Indians acquired him via trade. He was tendered a contract after embarking upon a remarkable recovery, which he completed this spring in time for regular duty to open the year.
With Carlos Santana making his return to Cleveland and the club adding Hanley Ramirez to serve as a designated hitter, those veterans will look to reestablish themselves as middle-of-the-order sluggers. Trade acquisition Jake Bauers is in the mix in those spots as well, though he’ll also venture into the outfield to find opportunities. The Indians parted ways with veteran Edwin Encarnacion and infielder Yandy Diaz in order to obtain Bauers, a one-time top prospect, from Tampa Bay in a three-team swap. Though Encarnacion, now 36 years old and owed $20MM, has been one of baseball’s most consistent hitters since 2012, his production dipped in 2018. Santana, his replacement, is more than three years younger and less expensive, thanks to $6MM of salary relief received in the swap.
There was also change behind the dish. Yan Gomes was shipped to Washington, shaving salary but leaving Roberto Perez as the lone proven catcher on the roster until a subsequent trade with the Mets brought Kevin Plawecki aboard. On the surface, the transition from Gomes to a combination of Perez and Plawecki is a downgrade. Neither Plawecki nor Perez can equal Gomes on offense or defense; it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where the pair is able to match Gomes’s overall value.
While Oliver Perez was the lone recipient of a Major League contract, other minor moves yielded relievers who could play their way into a bullpen spot during the season. Small trades with the Rays and Marlins brought right-handers Chih-Wei Hu and Nick Wittgren to Cleveland, respectively. Hu owns an impressive minor-league track record, and Wittgren quietly turned in a strong 2018 season. Minor league signees James Hoyt and Tyler Clippard have significant MLB experience as well — the latter, in particular. It sounds as if Clippard could be an option to join the big league staff once he’s sufficiently rehabbed a pectoral injury sustained in Spring Training.
Though the Indians may very well maintain their hold on the top spot in the AL Central, their offseason moves have left many unsatisfied with the lack of additions to the bullpen and outfield. With Brantley, Miller and Cody Allen all donning new uniforms in 2019, some may argue that the team has gone backward.
Trade negotiations involving Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer provided one of the biggest storylines of the offseason, but neither pitcher ended up being moved. If the Indians are less competitive than they’d hoped, those rumors could circulate again this summer and certainly next winter, when Kluber and Bauer will be a year closer to free agency. At the very least, securing Carlos Carrasco through at least 2022 through a team-friendly extension indicates that he’s likely to remain in the fold.
The Indians’ outfield, comprised of Martin, Allen, Bauers, Naquin, and Luplow, remains dangerously thin. Bradley Zimmer, owner of considerable upside, is on track to rejoin the mix sometime in midsummer, though he is yet unproven and will not solve the Indians’ problems alone. Gonzalez should contribute in some capacity, but it seems that the potential payoff in the signing is limited. The entire outfield lacks a likely two-WAR player, and it’s reasonable to question the team’s complacency in this area.
Outside of Brad Hand, there are still no surefire options in the Cleveland ‘pen. Wittgren is the only member of the current bullpen who did not pitch for the Indians last season, which only serves to underscore the puzzling lack of additions to a unit that was questionable even before losing a pair of high-profile free agents. Terry Francona and upper management will rely on unproven commodities like Tyler Olson, Nick Goody, Cody Anderson, and Jon Edwards to give the team valuable innings in 2019. Some of those arms have had success in the past, but leaning heavily on this sort of piecemeal collection is what one would expect from a rebuilding club — not a team with postseason aspirations.
With that in mind, it’s fair to suggest the Indians have fallen behind the AL juggernauts in Boston, Houston, and New York. The team looked outclassed in last season’s ALDS versus the Astros, and it seems that any path to the World Series will run through one of the aforementioned cities. While the Indians’ star power is undeniable, it remains to be seen whether they have the depth to survive a dogfight with the AL’s elite. Still, a starting rotation as dominant as the Indians’ should give the team a fighting chance in a five- or seven-game series.
2019 Season Outlook
While the Indians may have been treading water during the winter, they remain the consensus favorites to win the notoriously weak AL Central. The starting staff is outstanding, with breakout candidate Shane Bieber joining four immensely talented rotation pieces, though the depth will be tested with Mike Clevinger poised to miss over two months of action. The Indians will need superstar infielders Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor to find their form — the former started slow; the latter is recovering from leg injuries — in order to fend off the upstart Twins, who have become a trendy pick to challenge for a postseason spot. Regardless, expect to see the Indians in the ALDS again in 2019, seeking to end the Majors’ longest existing World Series drought.
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