After posting only a 29-30 record through June 2, the Indians played .621 baseball the rest of the way but couldn’t catch up to the Twins in the AL Central, or to the Athletics and Rays in the AL wild card race. It was a tough result for a team in “win-now” mode, and now the Tribe will have to retool in order to take advantage while their (perhaps rapidly closing?) competitive window is still open.
- Carlos Carrasco, SP: $37.25MM through 2022 (includes $3MM buyout of $14MM club option for 2023)
- Corey Kluber, SP: $17.5MM through 2020 (club option will be exercised; Indians also have $18MM club option for 2021 with $1MM buyout)
- Carlos Santana, 1B: $17.5MM through 2020 ($17.5MM club option for 2021, $500K buyout)
- Jose Ramirez, 2B/3B: $17.25MM through 2021 (includes $2MM buyout of $11MM club option for 2022)
- Brad Hand, RP: $7MM through 2020 ($10MM club option for 2021, $1MM buyout)
- Roberto Perez, C: $3.5MM through 2020 ($5.5MM club option for 2021, $450K buyout)
- Oliver Perez, RP: $3MM through 2020
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Danny Salazar – $4.5MM
- Francisco Lindor – $16.7MM
- Kevin Plawecki – $1.5MM
- Cody Anderson – $800K
- Nick Goody – $1.1MM
- Nick Wittgren – $1.3MM
- Mike Clevinger – $4.5MM
- Tyler Naquin – $1.8MM
- A.J. Cole – $800K
- Non-tender candidates: Salazar, Cole
- Jason Kipnis, 2B: $16.5MM club option for 2020 will be declined (Kipnis gets $2.5MM buyout)
- Dan Otero, RP: $1.5MM club option for 2020 will be declined (Otero gets $100K buyout)
Looking at the position players, Cleveland has a very nice core group of Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana, Jose Ramirez, Oscar Mercado, Roberto Perez, and Franmil Reyes heading into 2020. Jordan Luplow’s huge numbers against left-handed pitching will merit at least a platoon role in either corner outfield slot, and since the Tribe’s outfield situation is still rather unsettled outside of Mercado in center field, Luplow has a decent shot of winning an everyday job in Spring Training.
It also remains to be seen if Reyes could be an option in right field. Though Reyes has shown very little fielding aptitude over his young career, the Indians would certainly like to see if Reyes can be a passable option on at least a part-time basis before relegating him to DH-only duty at age 24. One would also think that the Indians would prefer to keep the designated hitter position open so multiple players could be rotated through DH days in order to keep everyone fresh.
Assuming Reyes will mostly be a DH in 2020, that leaves Luplow, Jake Bauers, Greg Allen, and Bradley Zimmer battling for playing time in the corner outfield slots, with Tyler Naquin entering the mix sometime between mid-April or mid-June as he recovers from a torn ACL. Prospect Daniel Johnson (acquired from the Nationals in last offseason’s Yan Gomes trade) is also knocking on the door after a big season at Triple-A.
It isn’t a stellar collection of names on paper, but there’s enough promise here that Cleveland might prefer to see what it has rather than pursue an everyday corner outfielder (like, for instance, a re-signed Yasiel Puig). In particular, the Indians are hoping that Bauers can start to blossom after a disappointing first year in Cleveland, while Zimmer is looking to get his career on track after missing almost all of 2018 and 2019 due to shoulder surgery. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Indians sign a veteran to a minor league deal for extra depth, or perhaps a multi-position utility type to fill holes all over the diamond.
Ramirez has said he wants to remain at one single position in 2020 rather than alternate between second and third base, though he is open to playing either position, giving the Indians some flexibility as they look for infield help. It doesn’t seem like longtime second baseman Jason Kipnis will be brought back at a lower price tag after the Tribe declined his $16.5MM option, leaving the team with Mike Freeman, Christian Arroyo, and Yu Chang as internal candidates.
Needless to say, the Indians don’t have the payroll space to shop at the very top of the free agent infield market (i.e. Anthony Rendon or old friend Josh Donaldson). And the presence of top third base prospect Nolan Jones will further preclude any type of truly long-term signing, as Jones could potentially make his MLB debut as early as the second half of the 2020 season.
Players like Howie Kendrick and Eric Sogard are coming off big seasons yet could likely be had on one-year contracts. Along those same lines, productive veterans like Starlin Castro, Brock Holt, Brian Dozier, or former Clevelander Asdrubal Cabrera could be pursued in free agency.
Depending on how much the Tribe are willing to spend, Mike Moustakas seems like a realistic option. The Moose has had trouble finding even a multi-year contract the last two offseasons, despite still swinging an above-average bat and slugging 101 homers over the last three seasons. Since Moustakas is likely to decline his end of an $11MM mutual option with the Brewers for 2020, a modest two-year offer for maybe only a bit more than that $11MM average annual value should get his attention.
Such a signing would essentially just replace Kipnis’ declined salary commitment with Moustakas — certainly an upgrade on the field, though perhaps not a move the cost-conscious Indians are looking to make. Spending cuts were a big factor in last year’s offseason moves and even into the year, as evidenced by the trade deadline blockbuster with the Reds and Padres that saw Trevor Bauer moved to Cincinnati, and Reyes, Yasiel Puig, young pitching prospect Logan Allen and two other minor leaguers come to Cleveland.
The biggest looming payroll question, of course, is Lindor’s status as both the Tribe’s best player and biggest trade chip. Lindor is projected to earn $16.7MM via arbitration next season, a raise of $6.15MM from his 2019 salary, and putting him on a likely path to a salary in the $23MM range for 2021. Indians owner Paul Dolan’s already-infamous comment from last March that Cleveland fans should “enjoy him and then we’ll see what happens” with a potential extension doesn’t overly optimistic about the chances of Lindor staying in a Tribe uniform for the long term. Dolan’s interview also cited a lack of bonus revenue from postseason games as a reason for last winter’s payroll-lessening measures (the 2018 Indians had just one postseason home game during a three-game sweep at the Astros’ hands in the ALDS), and thus a spending increase doesn’t seem likely coming off a season that saw the Indians miss the playoffs entirely.
Having a superstar like Lindor on the books for roughly $40MM over a two-year span is still a bargain even for a smaller-market team like the Indians, of course, so there’s certainly value in keeping him around. But given how the Tribe shopped Bauer and Corey Kluber last offseason before eventually moving Bauer at the deadline, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the front office at least discuss Lindor with other teams this winter if for no other reason to see what a rival could potentially offer. Needless to say, the Indians would want a haul of MLB-ready talent and prospects to move the All-Star shortstop, but if Cleveland finds a team willing to meet that price, a Lindor trade can’t be ruled out. The Dodgers have already come up as a potential fit for Lindor.
A Lindor trade would be the kind of franchise-altering move that could potentially address all of Cleveland’s offseason needs in one fell swoop. Dealing Kluber could have brought back a similar package last offseason, though the former two-time AL Cy Young Award winner’s trade value isn’t nearly as high in the wake of a season that saw Kluber make just seven starts due to a fractured forearm and then an oblique strain.
Despite this lost year, Kluber’s $17.5MM club option was still exercised by the Indians. Letting him go for nothing wouldn’t have been too logical, given the chances that Kluber could quite possibly bounce back and look like his old self. A Kluber trade can’t be entirely ruled out this offseason, just in case an aggressive team is willing to offer something at least in the neighborhood of a trade package befitting an ace-level pitcher, which would leave Cleveland in an interesting conundrum.
Starting pitching, after all, is the Tribe’s biggest strength. Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger project as strong front-of-the-rotation arms, with Carlos Carrasco looking to return after battling leukemia last summer, rookies Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale both making strong first impressions in 2019, Adam Plutko and Jefry Rodriguez on hand as further depth options, and Allen approaching big league readiness. If Kluber and Carrasco both return to form, the Indians will be left with the enviable problem of having almost too much pitching, though that depth will almost surely be necessary given the inevitability of injuries or downturns in performance.
An argument could be made that the Indians could turn one of their younger pitchers into a trade chip, though that seems a little less likely given how controllable young arms are such an especially big asset to a lower-payroll team like Cleveland. The Tribe might also want that extra depth in the fold given the uncertainty around Kluber and Carrasco heading into 2020. One pitcher who likely won’t be back is Danny Salazar, as two straight years of virtual inactivity will make him a non-tender candidate.
The starting pitching depth could be translated into extra bullpen help, and since the Indians’ relief corps is already pretty solid, any reliever shopping this winter is more likely to take the form of minor league signings. There probably isn’t quite enough depth that the Tribe would feel totally secure in trading Brad Hand, and a $7MM salary isn’t onerous for a closer of Hand’s caliber.
Ramirez and Carrasco are the only two Cleveland players on guaranteed contracts for 2021, and several big names (Santana, Kluber, Hand, Perez) are on club options for that season. Though Lindor and many other key talents will still be in their arbitration or pre-arb years, 2020 stands a pivotal year for this core group given the amount of roster churn that could be on the horizon next winter.
President of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff have shown a lot of creativity in assembling this roster and supplementing it with a strong pipeline of young players, especially pitchers. Yet the Twins’ emergence in the AL Central has narrowed the Indians’ margin for error rather considerably, and another missed postseason could lead to many more tough decisions.