Cleveland Indians: An early breakdown of the AL Central

(Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) /
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Cleveland Indians
(Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images) /

Cleveland Indians

Now that we’ve discussed the Indians’ strengths and weaknesses as they pertain to their place in the division, let’s look at the Tribe’s roster independent of their opponents.

If the Indians’ offense reverts back to doing what it’s proven it can in past years and the starting rotation remains healthy and effective, the most glaring question hanging over the team’s 2020 outlook is the bullpen. It’s fair to suggest the Indians’ bullpen could range anywhere from the most dominant in the division to one of the most suspect in the American League.

Which end of the spectrum the Indians ultimately fall on will largely be determined by the left arm of Brad Hand, whose inexplicable second-half downfall played a regrettable role in Cleveland’s missing the playoffs. The Indians naturally need the dependable version of their closer in order to turn things around in 2020, in which case relievers like Nick Wittgren, James Karinchak, and Emmanuel Clase can fall in line accordingly.

The fact that Hand’s late-season struggles may have been due to overuse is one of the many causes for concern over the Indians’ offseason activity, or lack thereof: if Hand was overworked and his performance suffered as a result, Cleveland sure hasn’t set itself up to avoid a similar scenario. More relievers have left the Indians than joined them this winter, and the Tribe ‘pen was hardly composed of sure things to begin with.

The Indians’ starting rotation provides them with arguably the best one-two-three punch in the American League. Clevinger, Bieber, and Carlos Carrasco would be an unwelcome sight for any playoff opponent if the Indians get there. With the trio healthy for a full season, which was not the case in 2019, “getting there” is more than plausible.

If Aaron Civale builds upon his 2019 campaign, the Indians might also find themselves with the best fourth starter in all of baseball. Civale, Zach Plesac, and Adam Plutko all answered the bell last season, and all should be given a fair shot at breaking camp in the rotation. Civale posted the most impressive underlying metrics of the three, and for now, appears to have the highest floor.

Offensively, there are enough unknowns to warrant questions on just how capable the Indians are of keeping up with the AL’s best teams on the scoreboard. The likes of Lindor, Ramirez, and Santana naturally provide the Tribe with a solid foundation–and perhaps the best in the division.

What Cleveland gets from its role players will have the arguably larger impact on the ultimate destination of the team. Will Franmil Reyes settle in as the team’s go-to thumper and club 40 home runs? Will Cesar Hernandez hit well enough to slot into the top-third of the order, or will he fall in near the bottom? Can Oscar Mercado take a significant step forward? Because the Indians should probably have someone with an on-base percentage above .318 in the two-hole.

And if the Indians make no further moves to shore up what has been a regrettable outfield situation for several years running, can any of the in-house options pick up the slack? Delino DeShields? Bradley Zimmer? Jake BauersAnyone?

It’s questions like these that have rendered the Indians something of an underdog in their own division despite winning it three out of the last four years. Part of the reason for such doubt is the “bad optics” that result from a total unwillingness to spend money on the part of ownership, especially when the Tribe’s rivals are handing out big contracts and taking on risk.

Right or wrong, such is the perception of the Indians at the moment: this team believes it is far enough away from winning a World Series that it has spent more time trying to trade its best players than it has spent money trying to build around them. Of course the rest of the baseball community is going to be skeptical of the Indians’ chances to compete in 2020 if the Indians appear to be skeptical of themselves.

At least for now, however, perception doesn’t have to equal reality for the Indians. The reality of the Indians’ roster is that it has won at least 91 games for four straight seasons; that the left side of its infield is occupied by two borderline MVP candidates; that its starting rotation is the deepest in the division, and perhaps the American League.

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Maybe that reality gets turned on its head once the season starts, and all the doomsayers get to take their victory laps as the Indians decay into the third-best team in the AL Central. But Maybe, just maybe, the Indians are still good enough to take a run at this thing. The Twins and White Sox should be applauded for their offseason activity, sure, but never forget: no baseball team ever received a trophy for winning the winter.