2020 Record: 35-25
Second place (tied with White Sox), AL Central
Team ERA: 3.29 (2nd in MLB)
Team OPS: .689 (27th in MLB)
What Went Right
In spite of having traded Trevor Bauer in the summer of 2019, Corey Kluber prior to the start of the season and Mike Clevinger before the trade deadline, the Indians were right there with the Dodgers for the game’s best pitching performance. Shane Bieber was 2020’s best pitcher, finishing 8-1 with a 1.63 ERA, and Carlos Carrasco and Zach Plesac were also exceptional. 22-year-old Triston McKenzie chimed in with a 3.24 ERA and a 42/9 K/BB in 33 1/3 innings over six starts and two relief appearances. James Karinchak and Brad Hand shut down the opposition in the eighth and ninth, respectively. On offense, Jose Ramirez was probably the AL’s best player, finishing with a .993 OPS while also playing quality defense at third. Cesar Hernandez led the AL with 20 doubles, and Franmil Reyes was decent while ending up second on the team, to Ramirez, in OPS, homers and RBI.
What Went Wrong
Pretty much everything else on offense. Francisco Lindor had his worst season to date. Carlos Santana hit .199. Roberto Perez hit .165. The outfield as a whole hit .196/.270/.304 with 11 homers in 675 plate appearances. None of Tyler Naquin, Delino DeShields, Oscar Mercado, Jordan Luplow, Domingo Santana, Josh Naylor or Bradley Zimmer could do better than a .663 OPS.
** Bieber’s incredible results in 2020 were aided by an easy schedule, but there was also genuine improvement from a pitcher who was already excellent in 2019. Bieber’s fastball velocity was up one mph, and the introduction of a cutter, plus increased usage of his curve, made him more of a groundball pitcher. Debating Bieber vs. Gerrit Cole vs. Jacob deGrom will make for a fun exercise ahead of drafts next spring. With the reintroduction of the AL East and West to the schedule, Bieber is a weaker bet than deGrom in the ERA department. Still, he’s right there with both Cole and deGrom overall.
** Ramirez not only bounced back from his down 2019, but he put up career-best numbers, especially in the power department. Ramirez’s launch angles have increased annually, and he came in at 23.2 degrees in 2020, the second-highest mark in the majors (Joey Gallo led the way). It’d probably be for the best if he doesn’t get any higher than that going forward, but if he can stay with his current swing -- and the baseball doesn’t suddenly deaden -- he’ll probably be a 40-homer guy in 2021.
** Reyes needs to take some tips from Ramirez in the launch angle department. His exit velocity numbers were strong, but he hit too many grounders and finished up with a .275/.344/.450 line in 241 plate appearances. That’s not bad, but it’s well short of his true potential. He hit 37 homers as a 23-year-old in 2019, and he should be able to top that number as he enters his prime years.
** Declining Hand’s $10 million option seems like a really bad sign for 2021. Under other circumstances, he’d be viewed as a modest bargain. Assuming that the Indians won’t spend much to replace him, there’s a good chance Karinchak will take over the job next year. He definitely has closer stuff, having struck out 53 of the 109 batters he faced as a rookie. Control is an issue, but unless the Indians bring in some competition, he should be viewed as a top-12 fantasy reliever next year.
** The Indians will have to build an outfield this winter. Luplow is the only incumbent who should be guaranteed a spot, and he’s just a platoon guy versus lefties. Naylor has a chance to be useful, but he’s probably a long-term first baseman and he could slide to the position now if Santana isn’t re-signed. Mercado can compete for a reserve gig, but he was such a disaster in hitting .128/.174/.174 that he should head to Triple-A for a spell. Naquin and DeShields both look like non-tender candidates. If the Indians don’t acquire at least two starters for the outfield, it’ll be fair to question how serious they are about contending.
** It’ll be fascinating to see where Plesac goes in spring drafts after posting a 2.28 ERA and a 57/6 K/BB ratio in 55 1/3 innings. He was pretty good as a rookie in 2019, too, but the 18.5% strikeout rate led to plenty of skepticism about his chances in 2020. This year, though, he upped his strikeout rate all of the way to 27.7%. Plesac’s 91-95 mph fastball isn’t very impressive, but his slider and changeup have produced terrific results. He also faced probably the toughest schedule of any Central starter in compiling his strong numbers, as he faced the White Sox in three of his eight starts. Still, so much of Plesac’s success is BABIP related: he came in at .224 in 2020 after finishing at .255 in 2019. Maybe he can keep beating the norm there (league BABIP was .291 in 2020), but probably not by anywhere near the same amount that he did this year.
The Indians are putting Hand up for grabs. They also have a $17.5 million on Santana and a $5.5 million option on Roberto Perez, both of which are set to be declined. They could try to re-sign both for less.
Team Needs: The Indians could choose to trade Lindor this winter, but the number of teams willing to take on his $21 million-$24 million salary in his last year of arbitration and give up significant talent in return figures to be pretty small. The team’s best hope is that new Mets owner Steve Cohen wants Lindor as a big splash. If the package isn’t right, the Indians should keep their shortstop and try to make one more run with him.
With Lindor, the team would seem to be in a pretty great spot. The Indians have no bad contracts weighing them down. The rotation is pretty well set with Bieber, Carrasco, Plesac, Aaron Civale and McKenzie. The bullpen will miss Hand, but it will be in good shape if Emmanuel Clase can begin fulfilling his potential. The offense requires a great deal of assistance, but there’s going to be a whole lot of relatively inexpensive help available. If Lindor stays, then the Indians are set at short, third and DH. They’re also likely to leave either left field or first base for Naylor. Everything else should be up for grabs. The Indians won’t be in play for the elite free agents, but maybe they can at least sign a Joc Pederson, Yasiel Puig, Jackie Bradley Jr. or Kolten Wong and do some bargain hunting afterwards.