Cleveland Indians: Compiling a checklist for the winter

(Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)
(Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Indians have a head start on offseason preparation after missing the playoffs. Here is what their to-do list should have on it.

If there’s a silver lining to the fact that the Cleveland Indians are not one of eight teams vying for a World Series, it’s that the Tribe enters the 2019 offseason with fewer glaring question marks than they had last year at this time.

At least one outfield spot is spoken for by a true everyday player in Oscar Mercado. Mercado’s presence in center field gives the Tribe one mainstay in the grass while the organization figures out what to do with the hodgepodge of Jordan Luplow, Greg Allen, Jake Bauers, and Bradley Zimmer.

The Indians have a young and inexpensive right-handed hitter with 40-homer upside in Franmil Reyes, who will serve as a fixture in the middle of their lineup for years to come.

The starting rotation flipped upside down in 2019, with Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger emerging as the Tribe’s top two pitchers during an injury-riddled season. There are surprising questions regarding whether Corey Kluber or Carlos Carrasco can return to form as starters, but if the answer to that question is yes, the pitching staff will be as dangerous as ever.

Either way, depth is not a concern in the rotation after the emergence Aaron Civale, Zach Plesac, and Adam Plutko.

As for players no longer contractually tied to the Indians, the only ones of note are Jason Kipnis, Yasiel Puig, and Tyler Clippard. In a way, each player represents one of the three most important objectives on the Indians’ checklist for the 2019-20 offseason.

We will provide more detailed blueprints going forward on how the Tribe can (or should) go about accomplishing these winter goals, but for now, here is a general layout of what the Indians need to figure out between now and Spring Training.

Corner Outfielder

Yasiel Puig performed admirably in September for the Indians, and in a vacuum, his value on the open market shouldn’t be out of Cleveland’s reach if the team wants to bring him back long-term. Whether signing him would be a prudent allocation of limited resources, however, remains a different question.

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Puig is a right-handed bat on a team suddenly lacking in reliable lefties. Tyler Naquin will spend most of the 2020 season recovering from a torn ACL, leaving the Indians with three switch-hitters in Jose Ramirez, Carlos Santana, and Francisco Lindor to provide value in the left-handed batter’s box.

The Indians don’t have to fill the left-handed void in their lineup with a corner outfielder, but considering the construction of the roster, it would be wise to explore that possibility.

Their left-handed outfield options are Bauers and Zimmer, both of whom will head into 2020 with question marks hanging over their heads. Switch-hitting Greg Allen fills in commendably as a fourth outfielder when injuries pop up, but the fact of the matter is that Mercado and Luplow are the only reliable regular outfielders on the roster at the moment.

At the very least, the Indians should look into acquiring a left-handed outfielder who provides defensive value and can pair with Luplow in a platoon.

Fourth Infielder

There is a possibility that the Indians could bring back Jason Kipnis at a discount despite declining his $16.5-million option. The positives of doing so include maintaining a positive clubhouse presence who has spent his entire career with the Indians, and keeping a veteran lefty in the lineup.

Another thing to take into account here is that the Indians’ infield is already comprised of three All-Star-caliber players. A one-year bridge deal to Kipnis until some combination of Nolan Jones, Tyler Freeman, Christian Arroyo, and Yu Chang are ready for regular MLB playing time would allow the Indians more flexibility on the trade and free agent market to address other areas of the roster.

Also factoring into the equation is Ramirez’ willingness to transition to second base, per Mandy Bell of

This obviously opens up Cleveland’s options in terms of who to pursue this winter instead of locking the team into a situation in which it has to focus solely on finding a second baseman.

In any case, as serviceable as Mike Freeman was in a utility role during the 2019 season, the Indians must acquire (or bring back) a starting-caliber infielder at second or third base.

Bullpen Workhorse

Clippard was tied with Adam Cimber for the third-most innings pitched of any Indians reliever in 2019. While he lacks the blazing fastball in the arsenal of so many of the league’s most dangerous relief pitchers, Clippard was the stabilizing force in the back end of the Tribe bullpen in 2019.

The Indians have to figure out who is going to fill this role going forward, whether that’s with an in-house option, an external acquisition, or by bringing back Clippard himself.

Nick Wittgren led the Indians in relief innings, though he gave up a ton of hard contact on batted balls and his FIP was more than a run higher than his ERA. Nick Goody flashed spurts of dominance, and more consistency would certainly earn him consideration for a regular setup role behind Brad Hand.

Then there is Hand himself, who took a swan dive after looking like the league’s best closer for most of the first half of 2019.

James Karinchak is the most intriguing possibility among pitchers already in the organization, though he needs to harness command of his pitches before becoming a fixture in the late innings for the Tribe.

This winter’s free agent market is flooded with veteran relievers, but many of them possess capped ceilings. The Indians would be wise to search the trade market for a few diamonds in the rough on low-profile deals in addition to whatever fliers they take on those available on the open market.

As pleasantly surprising as Cleveland’s bullpen was for most of 2019, it is the one aspect of the roster in which there is considerable room for improvement going forward. The best way to address this is not to simply bring back Clippard or find his replacement, but to load up on as many lottery tickets as possible between now and Spring Training and mold a handful of them into winners.

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One thing is for certain: the front office must be more proactive in addressing all of these roster concerns than they were last year. 2019’s blockbuster at the trade deadline was encouraging, but it also came at a time when the Indians already found themselves in an uphill battle. The Tribe cannot afford to begin the 2020 season in the same position, or they might end it the same way too.