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How it can work and why it might fail: While We’re Waiting

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox May 19 2015
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America’s Funniest Home Videos has built a 30-year empire on the backs of humans ability to pull off the impossible: both stupid and clever. As Spinal Tap continues to remind us all, it is a fine line between them. Most often, the result-oriented viewer will classify each clip based on how it worked or why it failed.

The 2019 Cleveland Indians have several plot lines unfolding after an offseason of relative free agent inactivity and trades that at best only brought as many answers as questions. The team is still expected by all projection services to win the AL Central Division by a comfortable margin, but the ability of the Tribe to compete in the postseason will require them to fall on the correct side of the fine line for most of the following categories.

Here we go.

Indians outfield mish-mash

How it can work: Leonys Martin continues to be a league-average bat with above average defense and baserunning. The youth prove their merit with plus defense and baserunning alongside enough hitting prowess to either create strong platoons or a couple of outfielders truly break out to seize playing time. Any injuries or platoon needs are covered by the depth the front office has accrued as Jake Bauers, Greg Allen, Daniel Johnson, Trayce Thompson, Matt Joyce, Jordan Luplow, Oscar Mercado, Tyler Naquin, Brandon Barnes, and Mike Papi all compete for innings. Perhaps Bradley Zimmer even comes back mid-season and makes good on his past prospect rankings.

Why it might fail: Youth tends to be inconsistent and there is an awful lot of youth. Those players who are not young have not exactly hit the highest levels of MLB success either. Martin might not be durable enough for a full slate of games coming off his rehabilitation. Zimmer’s own rehabilitation can be problematic given he is dealing with his shoulder. It would not take much for the front office to be hunting for outfielders at the trade deadline again, especially if Bauers is needed at first base or designated hitter.

Indians bullpen

How it can work: Brad Hand as the closer is not a bad place to start. Chih-Wei Hu, Nick Wittgren, and Oliver Perez are capable of providing quality innings. This could be the season that Cody Anderson and/or Danny Salazar become the dominant relievers their arms seem capable of being. Then, a few of the other arms vying for a roster spot such as Justin Grimm, Tyler Clippard, Dan Otero, Adam Cimber, Nick Goody, Jon Edwards, Tyler Olson, Neil Ramirez, and Jefry Rodriguez pan out. Fangraphs and other projection models believe the Indians can cobble together an average bullpen out of this group, which seems correct.

Why it might fail: If baseball is unpredictable, then bullpens are chaos. Hand is the only somewhat guaranteed positive contributor, so an injury to him would be devastating. The Indians have a bunch of names to choose from, but they are not names that will provide comfort early in the season. Plus, relying on Salazar or even Anderson with their injury history is risky.

Indians designated-hitter

How it can work: The Tribe signed Hanley Ramirez. While the contract is technically only a minor league non-roster invite with MLB options, the popular assumption is that Ramirez will be the Indians’ designated hitter as long as he is able to demonstrate that he is healthy. The 125 wRC+ career hitter has suffered some degradation to his overall skills in recent years, but he can still hit the ball hard1 and has hit left-handed pitchers well through most of his career. The Tribe is well-equipped with left-handed hitters that can substitute into his spot against the best right-handed pitchers to boost his numbers too.

Why it might fail: Ramirez has hovered around 90 wRC+ for three of the past four seasons. Having a below average bat with no defense added and a negative baserunning addition is not indicative of properly investing in a 25-man roster spot on a contending team especially if he has to be platooned even some of the time.2 The options after Ramirez involve taking options away from the outfield and/or having backup catcher, Kevin Plawecki, spend some time in the spot.

Indians catcher

How it can work: Roberto Perez is among the finest defensive catchers in all of Major League Baseball, especially when including his ability to frame pitches.3 While he has never hit well, his ability to draw walks and hit for power could see him find acceptable rates of offense with more plate appearances. Plawecki is a fine backup catcher who provides more offense with Eric Haase pushing both from Columbus.

Why it might fail: Did we mention Perez has never hit well? From 2016 through 2018, Perez has hit .188/.278/.315 (57 OPS+) in 642 plate appearances, which is below a replacement-level hitter. However, the starting rotation will want his stewardship, so the Tribe might trot out a black hole on offense for 120 or so games.

Indians Lindor fill-ins

How it can work: Max Moroff and Yu Chang can probably provide enough value to not be terrible options for a few cold April weeks, while Lindor gets healthy. Chang has a much higher ceiling, so the question will be if the Indians want to burn some of his service time to get a look at his potential. Eric Stamets and Ryan Flaherty are other options that could potentially break out as servicable this spring. If Lindor comes back at full health, then another run at the AL MVP award could be the reward.

Why it might fail: The warning is from the road to recovery of Lonnie Chisenhall in 2018. Calf strains seem innocuous as the player can often walk without a limp and even do light lifting despite the injury. However, special care needs to be taken and the physical therapy timelines adhered to as it is one of the easier injuries to become recurrent. Having manager Terry Francona already say he will “bet the under” on the timeline for Lindor is problematic. Let’s be clear, the 2019 without Lindor’s bat in the lineup and defense in the field is a much, much different team.

  1. Exit velocity was highest in 2018 than it has been in years at 91.6 miles per hour paired with an OK 11.6 average launch angle. []
  2. Also note that while his exit velocity and launch angle in 2018 look good on average, he barrelled the ball less often, which indicates he paired elite exit velocity and ideal launch angle less often. []
  3. Baseball Prospectus has listed Perez as the No. 6 best defensive catcher in all of baseball. []