COVID-19 has shifted the entire paradigm of human existence, and Major League Baseball is no different, despite the players and their families, as well as support staff shouldering the entire health burden, we are on the precipice of baseball. Yet, the Major League Baseball regular season consists of just sixty games. In many sports, removing more than half of the season would be less shocking but in a baseball a game defined by variance, and strange outcomes in small samples, the Cleveland Baseball season is wholly unpredictable.
For context, it is important to remember that beyond the current consideration of a name change, the Cleveland baseball club is coming off what was the most universally criticized offseason since Manny Ramirez spurned Cleveland for Boston, the organization is close to a tipping point. The core that existed at the beginning of Francona’s tenure has now completely disappeared but for Carlos Carrasco and Carlos Santana with Jason Kipnis going to Chicago for a tryout, and Corey Kluber having been dealt to the Texas Rangers for Emmanuel Clase and a fifth outfielder.
The team is quickly transitioning from what was, to what is, and with a bad start, what will be. The core of Kluber, Kipnis, Brantley, and Gomes has been transitioned to dust. The superstar core of Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor paired with a dynamite rotation of Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco, Aaron Civale, and a starter to be named later may be broken up soon as well. In the offseason of apathy, or the hot stove payroll cutting competition, however, one may brand it, Francisco Lindor trade rumors were constant. Indeed, the effervescent Lindor has somehow become a dark cloud hovering over a roster which is nearing a crossroad.
It is macabre but truthful to note that the looming Lindor decision in tandem with secondary outcomes will radically shape the next five years of Cleveland baseball. For context, Lindor has just two years of “control” remaining under Major League Baseball’s arbitration system with Lindor owed $17.5 million in 2020 and likely, somewhere in the mid-20s in 2021 before being eligible for free agency. With the ownership group seemingly unwilling to part with the $350-400 million necessary to extend Lindor, whether one views this as reasonable or unreasonable, this self-imposed restraint puts the organization in a difficult position.
In part, it is because Lindor is an exceptional talent who rests somewhere among the top 10 position players in baseball, in part because the team’s roster is specifically constructed to be reliant on what one would unkindly call a “stars and scrubs” roster construction. Another, less heavy-handed approach, would be to call it top-heavy. The roster is reliant on Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor to be MVP contention type players, and Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco and Brad Hand to post elite run prevention lines. This is not to say that the team has no other competent or promising talent but that the team is inordinately reliant on a handful of players to hide the deficiencies of a thin roster.
This once again highlights the teams’ predicament that is the 2020 season. Of course, how the organization reached this crossroad is also important to discuss. The 2019-2020 offseason is central because the organization had seemingly three separate paths to take with varying positives and negatives: 1) the team could push the chips all in, increase payroll in a final two year sprint with Lindor; 2) the team could trade Lindor before the 2020 season began to maximize potential return and reset; or 3) the team could extend Lindor and not raise 2020 budget with nearly $30 million in savings from Kluber and Kipnis departures. Unfortunately, the team picked a seemingly illogical fourth option which centered on cutting nearly $30 million in salary and retaining Lindor, weakening the roster with Lindor nearing free agency. All of this leaves the roster in flux as opening day nears. The offseason decision is even more punishing as dealing Lindor amidst the uncertainty of a sixty game season, and the risk COVID-19 creates sounds impeccably difficult. Indeed, the decision making process has become even more complex as make efficient decisions in a sixty game is near impossible. Coming up with an arbitrary tipping point at which the club may deal Lindor this season is messy as, it is very likely the team would not be far out of the standings at the halfway point.
A 2020 Focus
With all of the above the organization faces yet another difficult set of decisions which will be influenced by variance, health, and the transactional friction provided by the trade deadline. The American League Central is a division that is still up for grabs. While the Twins enter the season coming off of a 101 win campaign, they are not a team without flaws. A deep lineup with the addition of Josh Donaldson appears poised to bludgeon competition but a rotation of Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, Kenta Maeda, Devin Smeltzer, Lewis Thorpe, Rich Hill, and Michael Pineda is deep but average. Whether Wes Johnson, a top-of-the-line pitching coach, can coax more out of the parts is a real question.
While the Twins are projected by most effective analytical models as 5-7 games better than Cleveland of a 162 game season, the Cleveland club was situated similarly in 2019, only to see a few injuries, and a middling campaign from Jose Ramirez hold the team to a still impressive 93 victories. If one was to run thousands of simulations, Cleveland would find itself division champions in many of them. Still, the beginning of 2020, unlike almost any other season of the past half-decade, seems crucial to determining the future.
A poor start in Cleveland, and a hot start from the Twins, White Sox or both would place the organization in an obvious position of having to move Francisco Lindor before further value decline. While it would start with Lindor, it probably would not end there; Brad Hand, Carlos Santana, and Roberto Perez could make sense to move and reset if the bottom falls out.
An additional complexity, is that the organization does not appear to have immediately ready top-end talent with pre-arbitration and arbitration control ready to join the fold. Nolan Jones is an excellent prospect, and Daniel Johnson has a bucket of loud tools that just may shine through; but, outside of them, there is a significant time expectancy gap until you reach the team’s absolutely loaded lower-minors position player group. The player development staff have shown the ability to get enormous starting pitching production out of underrated pitching prospects and Sam Hentges, Logan Allen, Scott Moss, certainly are such players. However, this offseason the team lost Matt Blake, the minor league pitching coordinator, to the New York Yankees to become their pitching coach, and Blake is known to have had impact on Shane Bieber’s development, among others. Whether, the affordable pitcher development pipeline continues is not a certainty, though Ruben Niebla is an exemplary teacher and coach in his own right.
What Could Go Right
The team’s offense could make a leap, it was below average in 2019 and there are some reasons to expect improvement. Jose Ramirez should be better than his 2019 first-half odyssey, and, in the second half, was once again a wrecking ball. A healthier Lindor in a prime season certainly could account for more offense. Franmil Reyes, a one man wrecking crew, may very well hit 20 home runs in 60 games and at least one off the scoreboard. Domingo Santana, while seemingly lost with a glove on his hand, could add stability as a designated hitter with power. Perhaps Mercado flashes even more offense, and Cesar Hernandez, at worst, should be a 10% improvement over the offense of the bygone Jason Kipnis. Nor should the platoon pugilizer Jordan Luplow be forgotten. This offense could be better, really, it should be better even with potential regression from Carlos Santana.
What Could Go Wrong
The pitching staff could collapse. Mike Clevinger, a top ten pitcher in the American League in 2019, has struggled to say on the mound. Emmanuel Clase, a bringer of fire and the centerpiece of the Corey Kluber trade, will also miss all of 2020, and the thin bullpen could use his talent. The depth has simply thinned, once a rotation of five stalwarts in Kluber, Carrasco, Clevinger, Bauer, and Bieber, just three remain. Of the remaining three, one has major health risk, one is pitching his first full season after returning from treatment for leukemia, and the other is the brilliant Shane Bieber. Aaron Civale has tremendous upside but after him is a stable of pitchers with talent and large barriers that must be cleared to be productive be it Zach Plesac, Jefry Rodriguez, Adam Plutko, Logan Allen, Scott Moss, Triston McKenzie, and Sam Hentges. With a top-heavy rotation, just one injury could result in 100+ innings from replacement level pitching.
The Unpredictable Middle
Despite what is not a deep roster, the team remains a real contender largely due to enormous star power. Jose Ramirez finished third in MVP voting in 2017 as well as 2018. Lindor has received multiple top ten finishes in MVP voting as well. Mike Clevinger, but for an early season lat injury, may have been the Cy Young Award winner in 2019, and Shane Bieber, well he finished fourth in Cy Young Award voting in 2019, his first full big league season. The bullpen has Brad Hand, a currently very good reliever, and James Karinchak a likely elite reliever.
There is as much top end elite level talent as almost any other team in baseball. Perhaps, a shortened season lends an advantage to the team’s exquisite top end position player talent, and seeming lack of depth. Sixty games is an absolute sprint, and a team that boasts the best left side of infield in baseball, multiple Cy Young Awards contenders, and a seemingly thin roster, a sprint may be just what they need. The team is swimming in uncertainty, and only games at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario will bring clarity to the water.