It’s a season of change for the Indians, who said goodbye over the offseason to a star shortstop, a rotation cornerstone, and even their team name. One thing Cleveland is hoping to replicate, however, is a return to the playoffs, as the club is still planning to contend.
Major League Signings
- Eddie Rosario, OF: One year, $8MM
- Cesar Hernandez, 2B: One year, $5MM (Cleveland holds $6MM club option for 2022, no buyout)
- Total spend: $13MM
Trades & Claims
- Acquired IF Amed Rosario, IF Andres Gimenez, SP Josh Wolf, and OF Isaiah Greene from the Mets for SS Francisco Lindor and SP Carlos Carrasco
- Acquired $100K from the Marlins for RP Adam Cimber
- Acquired cash considerations from the Reds for IF Mike Freeman
- Sent RP Matt Waldron to the Padres (player to be named later in August’s Mike Clevinger trade)
- Claimed OF Harold Ramirez off waivers from the Marlins
- Selected RHP Trevor Stephan from the Yankees in the Rule 5 Draft
Notable Minor League Signings
- Bryan Shaw, Oliver Perez, Ben Gamel (Shaw, Perez, Gamel will all have their contracts selected), Blake Parker, DJ Johnson, Ryan Lavarnway, Jefry Rodriguez, Anthony Gose
The offseason began in rather inauspicious fashion for the Tribe, as the team didn’t just part ways with Brad Hand, but the unusual decision was made to place the closer on waivers. The intent was to try and save $1MM, the cost of buying out Hand’s $10MM club option — had another team claimed Hand on waivers, the Indians would have been clear of any further financial responsibilities.
As odd as it was to see a team go to such lengths over a $1MM buyout, Hand went unclaimed on waivers, so Cleveland was far from alone in practicing austerity at the beginning of the offseason. Declining the club option was itself a notable move, as the Tribe ended up letting a three-time All-Star go for nothing rather than at least exploring the market for a trade possibility. For comparison’s sake, the Reds got an experienced reliever (Noe Ramirez) and a prospect back in exchange for trading closer Raisel Iglesias to the Angels in December.
But, reducing spending was clearly top priority for a Cleveland team that will go into the 2021 season with somewhere in the neighborhood of roughly $49.1MM (as per Cot’s Baseball Contracts) to $52.7MM (as per Roster Resource) committed to player salaries. Only the rebuilding Pirates are spending less on payroll than Cleveland, and beyond that, the Tribe doesn’t have a single dollar officially committed to a player for the 2022 season.
This being said, the Indians haven’t gone the way of the Pirates, Orioles, Marlins, or other teams who slashed payroll as part of a multi-year rebuild. Cleveland intends to make another run at the AL Central this season, as evidenced by how the Francisco Lindor/Carlos Carrasco blockbuster with the Mets continued the Tribe’s established strategy of trading established stars for a package of players that can contribute both now and in the future.
Both Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario have big league experience and could help Cleveland as early as Opening Day. Indeed, it seems like Gimenez will be the Indians’ regular shortstop, while Rosario is being eyed for something of a super-utility role, probably ticketed to see more time on the outfield grass than on the infield dirt.
Both former top-100 prospects, Gimenez is seen as a better defensive fit than Rosario at shortstop, and Gimenez’s 2020 rookie season saw him earn more and more playing time in New York. Gimenez’s .263/.333/.398 slash line over 132 plate appearances translated to roughly league-average (101 OPS+, 104 wRC+) offensive production, so the Tribe would likely be quite pleased if Gimenez can duplicate that over a full season while providing solid glovework. Gimenez’s numbers in the minors weren’t far beyond his modest MLB stats and he has still never played any Triple-A ball, but if he does end up needing a bit more minor league seasoning, Rosario and backup infielder Yu Chang are on hand to fill in at shortstop.
Rosario is something of the opposite story, as he established himself with the bat at the Double-A and Triple-A levels but questions have persisted about his ability to stick at shortstop. He has played almost exclusively at short throughout his career, with just seven games in the minors as a third baseman and one appearance with the Mets last season in left field, though there were reports both two years ago and this past winter that New York was considering using Rosario in the outfield.
Interestingly, the Reds and other teams inquired about Rosario’s availability after the Indians brought him over from the Mets, but Cleveland opted to see what it has in the 25-year-old. Rosario hasn’t come close to living up to his former top-prospect status, though he did show some glimpses of consistent hitting talent during the 2019 season. A change of scenery and a change of position could both help to unlock this potential, and Cleveland’s outfield has been such a weak link for so many years that the Indians would undoubtedly love to see Rosario (or anyone) present themselves as a reliable regular option on the grass.
While Gimenez and Rosario have potential, it will likely be a long time before Cleveland fans forget about Lindor or Carrasco. There was never doubt that Lindor was finally being traded this winter, as he had only one year remaining on his contract and the Tribe wasn’t prepared to meet Lindor’s $300MM+ asking price on an extension. Since that sole year of control perhaps limited Lindor’s trade market, the Indians sweetened the deal for the Mets by including Carrasco, a beloved team leader and still a solidly effective starting pitcher (though Carrasco will begin the season on the injured list).
As frustrating as it must be for Cleveland fans to constantly see star players shipped away from Progressive Field, president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff have now rather extensively refurbished this roster with promising young players, several of whom could be on the verge of a 2021 breakout. It also doesn’t hurt that the Indians still have one of baseball’s best players in Jose Ramirez (who reportedly wasn’t a trade candidate this winter), one of the game’s best pitchers in AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber, and an uncanny ability to keep developing quality starting pitching from its farm system.
To add to this core group, the Tribe did indeed spend some money. Owner Paul Dolan reportedly had to okay the front office’s ability to give $8MM to Eddie Rosario, a familiar AL Central face who beat up on Cleveland pitching over his six seasons with the Twins. Rosario was available due to some cost-cutting on Minnesota’s part, as the Twins chose to non-tender Rosario rather than pay him a projected arbitration salary in the range of $8.6MM to $12.9MM. Rosario gives Cleveland a legitimate everyday outfielder who offers a solid left field glove and quite a bit of pop, even if his on-base numbers aren’t overly impressive.
While left field looks settled, there is uncertainty at the other outfield positions. The Tribe’s hope is that Josh Naylor can take the leap from prospect to MLB regular in right field, but he does have only 383 big league plate appearances on his resume. In center field, minor league signing Ben Gamel looks to get the bulk of playing time against right-handed pitching, with Amed Rosario and Jordan Luplow (who has only a handful of games as a center fielder in the majors) sharing the other side of the platoon. Rosario or Luplow could also spell the left-handed hitting Naylor when a southpaw is on the mound.
Franmil Reyes might also get the occasional look in the outfield, but the slugger will spend much of his time as a designated hitter. Nolan Jones could join the outfield mix as well, as the top prospect (expected to make his MLB debut in 2021) has been getting work as an outfielder and as a first baseman since Jose Ramirez has already locked down Jones’ usual third base position. Elsewhere on the outfield depth chart, waiver claim Harold Ramirez joins Bradley Zimmer, prospect Daniel Johnson and, somewhat surprisingly, Oscar Mercado as the top options at Triple-A. Mercado was optioned to the minors since he still hasn’t gotten his swing on track in the aftermath of a brutal 2020 season.
In the wake of the Mets trade, the initial thought was that both Gimenez and Amed Rosario would start in the middle infield, though that plan changed when Cleveland re-signed Cesar Hernandez to a $5MM deal with a club option for 2022. Hernandez had an impressive all-around season with the Tribe, hitting .283/.355/.408 (106 OPS+, 110 wRC+) over 261 PA, and winning a Gold Glove for his slick work at second base. Hernandez generated 1.9 fWAR over 58 games last season, a nice step up after he posted 1.8 fWAR in 2019 and 2.2 fWAR in 2018, both totals over 161-game seasons with the Phillies.
After declining the Tribe declined their club option on Carlos Santana, Jake Bauers will get another shot as the provisional starting first baseman. This decision is probably more based on Bauers being out of minor league options than a testament to his performance, as Bauers has only a .691 OPS over 811 PA in the majors and he didn’t play at all in 2020. Bobby Bradley has had a nice Spring Training and is waiting in the wings if Bauers struggles, though since Bradley and Naylor are the only other viable first base options on the roster, Cleveland will face a question if all of these younger bats aren’t quite ready for prime time. Should this become an issue during the season, the Tribe could look to pick up a veteran free agent still on the market — speculatively, perhaps a reunion with Edwin Encarnacion?
The one club option that Cleveland did exercise last fall was to retain catcher Roberto Perez, who will earn a $5.5MM salary in 2021. There was some thought that Austin Hedges could be non-tendered, but the Indians brought him back as well on an arbitration-avoiding $3.28MM salary. The Perez/Hedges pairing definitely prioritizes glovework over hitting, though it adds to an overall sturdy defensive mix around the diamond.
Of course, Cleveland’s run-prevention efforts are helped by their strong pitching staff. While replacing Carrasco is far from easy, the Tribe have Triston McKenzie, Cal Quantrill, and Logan Allen competing for the rotation’s two open spots, with McKenzie looking like the favorite for the fourth starter role. There isn’t much in the way of experienced depth at Triple-A, so injuries could create a problem…unless the Tribe call up yet another youngster who immediately looks like a big league-ready arm. Keep an eye on left-handers Scott Moss and Sam Hentges as candidates to make their Major League debuts in 2021.
The Indians did add some veterans to their relief corps via minor league deals, signing Blake Parker and a couple of familiar Cleveland faces in Bryan Shaw and Oliver Perez. Shaw has already been told he is making the Opening Day roster, and Perez also looks like a pretty safe bet considering that Cleveland doesn’t have any other southpaws in the bullpen. James Karinchak and Nick Wittgren are the top choices to replace Hand at closer, and both pitchers could receive their share of saves rather than have just a single pitcher committed for ninth-inning work.
It remains to be seen if the Indians have enough to keep pace with the Twins or White Sox in the AL Central, or if the Tribe will be able to absorb the losses of Lindor and Carrasco as readily as they did losing Mike Clevinger, Corey Kluber, or Trevor Bauer in other trades within the last two years. Cleveland isn’t leaving itself much margin for error payroll-wise, but another postseason appearance wouldn’t be a shock.
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