Cleveland Indians: How MLB’s 2020 roster rules hurt team’s playoff odds

MLB’s special roster rules for the 2020 season present the Cleveland Indians with challenges

The 2020 MLB season is going to be a unique season for many reasons, but it starts with choosing players who will be on the Cleveland Indians‘ Opening Day roster, and who from the organization will practice indefinitely in Lake County.

The Indians approached their player selections with “flexibility” as the key theme. They will be flexible enough to have depth ready to compete for a championship run, but also the depth of top prospects to give their long-term developmental goals a chance to blossom.

Normally baseball rosters are fairly basic. You have your 25-man major league roster, which was expanded to 26 beginning in 2020. In addition, teams have a 40-man roster that contains all the possible MLB players, and over the course of the long 162-game season, trades, releases, call-ups, and options, will juggle players on the 40-man roster onto the MLB club.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this season the rosters will look a bit different. First, teams will have up to 60 players in their player pool to use on major league rosters at any given time. Players in the player pool can practice, be activated to the normal 40-man roster, be traded, and be released. The Indians currently have 59 players active in their player pool.

The shortened season means the Indians’ strong starting rotation should be an even greater strength than usual. However, with the expanded rosters, their strength is negated by teams having more bullpen arms available to feature more bullpen games. The expanded rosters may help most teams, but not the Indians, who still will need to make key position battle decisions before Opening Day.

All teams had to make decisions on balancing young prospects for development and carrying high-level minor leaguers or free agents who could be added to the 40-man roster at any time for playoff runs.

This is tricky for a team like the Indians, who are on the fringe of championship contention. The 40-man roster includes one of the best and deepest starting rotations in baseball. The shortened season means the strength of their depth may not assist them over other teams. The top-end starters will be leaned on, and while depth is nice, the bullpen can work more innings knowing there will be fewer games. This hurts the Indians’ playoff chances, as this feature of their roster would aid them if the season was longer.

They will still need to continue to grow prospects within their system. The Indians have included seven of their top nine organizational prospects in their player pool, including third baseman Nolan Jones, shortstop Tyler Freeman, and catcher Bo Naylor.

Don’t expect all of these players to contribute to the 2020 season outside of Jones, but Naylor is a name worth watching. With only three MLB-experienced catchers in the player pool, the change in roster types might open the MLB window earlier for this top prospect.

While its exciting to have top prospects as part of the player pool. The more you see in games, the worse the season is going for the Indians.

Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians warms up on the field wearing a face mask prior to an intrasquad game during summer workouts at Progressive Field.

Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians warms up on the field wearing a face mask prior to an intrasquad game during summer workouts at Progressive Field. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

How changes to the trade deadline impact the Cleveland Indians

The 2020 season will begin the week of the normal trade deadline. MLB moved the deadline back to Aug. 31, so there will be a chance to see how teams fall in the standings before making deals.

The catch is, teams can only trade players who are on their player pool. This means any mid-season trade for megastar Francisco Lindor, can only include players on other teams 60-man player pools.

This significantly reduces the chances that Lindor is traded in 2020. However, the number of prospects included in the Indians player pool means that they have the ammunition to acquire assets to continue a playoff push.

Rebuilding teams such as the Orioles, Pirates, Giants, etc., will continue to rebuild, but the Indians can acquire assets at a discounted price for making a playoff push, since the majority of their minor leaguers are off-limits in trades.

In the past, they’ve done that with acquisitions of Yasiel Puig, Jay Bruce, and others. For the Indians to compete and utilize the trade market, anticipate an upgrade in the outfield that brings more power to the lineup.

If the Indians start slow there is always the chance they try to get what they can for Lindor. Yet, without the depth of prospects available in trade packages and the uncertainty, it would be wise to hold off trading Lindor in 2020, and either move him in the off-season or continue to negotiate.

Cleveland Indians

Cleveland Indians (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

How MLB roster-size changes impact the Cleveland Indians

Another change from prior regular seasons, where teams began with a 25-man major league roster, is they will start with 30-man rosters. After two weeks, this will reduce to 28 players. Two weeks after that, another cut and rosters will remain at 26 players for the rest of the shortened season. This increase to start is to ease workloads after the time off.

Teams without as strong of rotations can combat the Indians’ strong rotation by using more bullpen days and relying on fewer starters. While the Indians can mix things up and do the same, it still takes away one of the strengths of the team.

Once the rosters shrink to 26 players, the Indians’ pitching strength will show again. At that point, they will be near the trade deadline, and almost half of the season will be played.

The Indians only benefit by being able to remediate their fourth- and fifth-starter battle by holding extra starting pitchers to reduce bullpen arm usage. The rule change making pitchers face a minimum of three batters was already a concern for specialists like Oliver Perez and Adam Cimber.

The starting rotation of Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, and Carlos Carrasco should be set. After that there are Adam Plutko, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, Jefry Rodriguez, Scott Moss, and Logan Allen to choose from. The best option may be to carry two of them and use as a bullpen day/long relievers every fourth or fifth day.

The main benefit to Cleveland is that the 30-man rosters allow injured players to ease back into the fold, such as outfielder Tyler Naquin and Delino DeShields Jr. This could have happened in a longer season, but with every game mattering more in a shortened season, missed time due to injury takes a bigger toll.

Scott Moss of the Cleveland Indians pitches during the game against the Oakland Athletics at Hohokam Stadium.

Scott Moss of the Cleveland Indians pitches during the game against the Oakland Athletics at Hohokam Stadium. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images)

How the taxi squad impacts the Cleveland Indians

To prepare for possible positive COVID test results, road teams can carry a three-player “taxi squad.” These three players can be activated if any of the active roster tests positive for COVID-19. One of the players must be a catcher, therefore expect Beau Taylor to practice with the 30-man roster, but be the “taxi catcher” on road trips.

The makeup of the 30-man roster will dictate if there are position players or pitchers as the other two spots. Most likely, one of the non-active starting pitchers who may also double as a long reliever will be utilized on the taxi squad.

This could be several players as the Indians have done this in the past leading up to the playoffs. Having high-quality pitching on a taxi squad is a significant advantage that the Indians will have if a starter tests positive. This just isn’t clear on the impacts to the final standings, positive tests will be sporadic there won’t be an ‘upgrade’ from the taxi squad to a key starter.

Finally, expect a more utility-style player to be on this list to cover all positions. Depending on the road trip, the Indians can be creative, but this is less about strategy and more about readiness in the event of illness.

Rosters being at 30 to start the year makes the taxi squad less important. As the season wears on and rosters shrink, these selections may play a critical role in the outcome of games.

Do you think the Cleveland Indians benefit from the 2020 roster rules? Let us know and comment below.

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