2019 Cleveland Indians Preview, Indians, WWW

Ten things I needed to know about the 2019 Indians: While We’re Waiting

Jose Ramirez and Frankie Lindor
Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Happy Tuesday, WFNY!

I’m super excited for today’s edition of While We’re Waiting. Thursday marks the beginning of another baseball season for the Cleveland Indians, and I’m ready for another run at a division title and, hopefully, another shot at the playoffs.

This has been a trying offseason for the Indians. As fans feel the weight of the closing contention window approaching, the Indians cut payroll this offseason while their fellow AL counterparts made moves to strengthen their teams and/or lock up their best players to new contracts.

The Indians, meanwhile, had their owner talking about how he’s so poor he has to fly commercial (and not even first-class, mind you), his team can’t afford to pay players market rates, and that fans should just enjoy Franciso Lindor…..while they still can. Fun!

Longtime WFNY readers probably remember Todd Dery, who was our first-ever writer to focus primarily on the Indians. He’s now doing a podcast for us this season with his brother, Matt, who is a TV sports analyst in Detroit (but still an avid, passionate Indians fan). For more on the Dolan comments, I suggest checking out their latest podcast episode.

Matt pretty much says everything I was feeling, so I’ll leave it at that. Instead, I want to focus on moving forward and preparing for this upcoming season. I am, without question, about as casual as it gets when it comes to baseball. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been watching the Indians for as long as I can remember. I grew up watching names like Joe Carter, Corey Snyder1, Greg Swindell, Tom Candiotti, Julio Franco, and Pat Tabler. I was there for the 90s teams.

It was sometime around the years when Jim Thome left and CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee were traded that I started to feel my moderately hardcore status giving way. When Victor Martinez was traded, I went into a deep baseball depression and I really lost touch with the sport. There are plenty of other reasons why I fell out of love with baseball that I won’t get into here because I don’t want this to be a negative piece. The point is, baseball lost me for a while, but in the last few years, I’ve found myself being drawn back in.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m still not watching a random baseball game that doesn’t involve the Indians. You could put a lineup of the ten best players in baseball (excluding Frankie) in front of me without their hats or uniforms and I’m not sure I could identify a single one of them2 by name. But I’m trying to get back into it more.

That’s where today’s WWW comes into play. I’ve mentioned plenty of times how I feel lucky to be able to read the WFNY Slack, where we have an #Indians channel which gives me the ability to sit back and watch the smartest baseball fans I know talk shop every single day. From the early days of endless email chains with Todd Dery and Jon Steiner, to recent years on Slack with Mike Hattery, Gage Will, Mike Bode, Joe Gerberry, and now our newest writers in Mitch Krall and Chuck Chura, I’ve had access to a wealth of baseball insight.

So, with the season starting up, I had some burning questions from a casual fan’s point-of-view that I wanted to run by Mike Bode. Bode has tremendous patience for people like myself who maybe don’t follow as closely, and he’s always eager to share his passions with others. So I ran the following questions by him and then got to grab some coffee, sit back, and read his answers. Now, you guys get to do the same!

What follows are the questions I had on my mind going into this season. I hope you guys enjoy Bode’s answers as much as I did. Enjoy! And have a great opening day week!

1. Who is the biggest threat in the AL Central and just how serious of a threat are they?

Bode: Let’s work backwards. The Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals are still paying for their past contention windows. The expectation is that both teams will finish amongst the worst in all of MLB with fewer than 70 wins each.

The Chicago White Sox are a bit of an enigma as they have been entrenched in their rebuilding phase for as long as the Indians have been competing for postseason berths (since 2013). This is the time that all of their ballyhooed prospects should be emerging to make them a true threat in not only the division, but the American League. It has not happened though with projections saying they will be a bad team again. If somehow the youngsters figure things out, then they could threaten but probably not in 2019.

The process of elimination leaves the Minnesota Twins. They have a decent enough bunch of players. It is possible they will be among the more innovative teams under MLB’s youngest manager in Rocco Baldelli, and general manager Derek Falvey overhauled their player development system. The signings of Nelson Cruz (DH) and Marwin Gonzalez (OF) were nice too, but the state of their pitching (outside Jose Berrios) means the most likely path to the postseason is scratching out 88 wins or so.

So, the Indians true biggest threat to the AL Central is health.

2. What worries you the most about this team, and what are you most optimistic about with them?

Depth is the biggest issue with the 2019 Indians. As Francisco Lindor (calf), Jose Ramirez (knee contusion), and Jason Kipnis (hamstring) might all miss Opening Day, the lack of replaceable options is glaring. Do the names Brad Miller (not the former Indiana Pacer), Max Moroff, Eric Stamets, and Yu Chang sound like starting infielders on a World Series contending ballclub? There is a good chance that three of them will be starters for the Tribe in the first game.

Well, let’s hope that Lindor, Ramirez, and Kipnis injuries are minor and those other names just make for excellent trivia in a few years.

3. Oscar Mercado gave us some excitement this spring. With him starting at AAA this season, I would think he’d be one of the players to look forward to being called up at some point this season. Is there anyone else in the minors that you think could get called up and either make an impact or see some serious playing time this year?

I am among the bigger Mercado fans given his speed and defense mixed with moderate power potential. His .400/.415/.750 slash line this spring did little to quell any of my on-going optimism about him. It should, however, be noted that Mercado did have the luxury of facing what amounted to Double-A pitching this spring meaning there is actually an argument Trayce Thompson’s .293/.383/.610 was better. Of course, with each we are talking about 40-50 plate appearances when some pitchers might not even be worried as much about getting outs as much as getting their arms in shape; so, grains upon grains of salt should be taken with any Spring Training numbers.

OK, to answer the actual question: Mercado and a chance Daniel Johnson are among the outfielders whom could be called upon. Yu Chang and Bobby Bradley are the infielders who should be expected to get a taste of The Show in 2019. Chih-Wei Hu and Sam Hentges a couple of starters who could get called upon to help with the bullpen (and don’t forget our old friend Adam Plutko). We’ll discuss Eric Haase below.

The truth is most of the Indians truly promising prospects (Nolan Jones, Triston McKenzie, Noah Naylor, Ethan Hankins, George Valera, Tyler Freeman, Brayan Rocchio) are all lower level minor league players in 2019. Maybe Jones or McKenzie (as a reliever?) gets a call up later this season.3

4. As someone who lives in Columbus and still remembers Jason Kipnis’ incredible run in the 2010 IL playoffs, I’ve always had a soft spot for him. He’s had a rough couple of seasons, though, and his All-Star seasons seem like so long ago. I know those All-Star appearances are probably behind him, but is there any reason to hope he can find any kind of return to form this season?

Bode: How about starting his 2019 season with a bad hamstring? I feel awful for Kipnis because he has been with the Tribe since they were terrible (2011) and has been a big part of this particular contention window. Kipnis has certainly under-performed at the plate the past couple of seasons and has not lived up to his contract extension as he has battled through a litany of injuries. However, there is still a quite useful player when used correctly as he hit league average against right-handed pitching in each of the last two years.4 This season is likely the last for Kipnis in a Tribe uniform, so hopefully he can recover from his injury and remind us all of why he was a two-time All-Star.

5. What is going to happen with the catcher position? We all love Robo’s defense, but is it OK to have a regular starter who doesn’t even threaten to hit above .200?

The answer to your question depends on how much you value pitch framing. Perez is consistently among the best in MLB at framing having studied for years with Yadier Molina.5 He knows the rotation well, which is important because the art of framing requires an intimate knowledge of the rotational and directional courses for each unique pitch to give the umpire the most optimistic view of it crossing the plate.

There is also some consideration that a Three True Outcome player such as Perez (high number of walks, strikeouts, and home runs) depends on getting consistent plate appearances to be successful because having a tuned batting eye becomes increasingly important. He won’t become a great hitter, but there is a decent shot he puts up a .210/.310/.410 slash line as the starter, which would make him a usable bottom of the order hitter.

Kevin Plawecki is the other catcher on the Opening Day roster. He can be a league average hitter, which is a great output to obtain from the catching position. The downside is to get that offensive output, the team is also accepting a catcher who was ranked No. 101 in pitch framing. So, as the junior member of the rotation, expect Plawecki to be Shane Bieber’s personal catcher to give Perez a rest. The other pitchers might mutiny as they all expect to fight for votes in the AL Cy Young Award race.

Finally, Eric Haase sits in Columbus biding his time, ready to contribute if either of the above should falter. He is probably more Plawecki than Perez in profile. The Tribe hopes the Double-P combo can hold down the fort in 2019 though.

6. I would be remiss if I didn’t ask anything about Frankie. Lindor has been a major part of my returning interest in baseball. He’s been pure joy to watch. But I’m curious, is he at his peak yet? Is he still trending upward or is he at his plateau? I guess what I’m asking is, what should we expect from Frankie this season (assuming the injury doesn’t linger)?

Bode: Calf injuries are often recurrent. Even though a player can walk and do some activities on the leg, there is a danger that full force will cause the strain to resurface. The Indians have thankfully been taking a slow and methodical approach to Lindor’s rehabilitation, which should help ensure the best chance he can avoid the injury sticking around through the season.

Had he not been injured, I would have expected him to continue to improve in 2019. In fact, he still might. Suggesting the three-straight Top 10 AL MVP vote-getter will be better might seem odd (coming off a 7.9 bWAR season!!!), but Lindor was just stretching out his power potential in 2018 with his defense suffering a bit early on. He was back to being all-phase Lindor late in the season. Put all of that together for a full year, and Lindor could jump into the Mike Trout stratosphere.6

7. I know you and I touched on this in the past, but I’d like to follow up more this year. Terry Francona’s perception among different segments of fans is so interesting to me. Me? I love the guy! I wish so bad had won in 2016 almost as much for his sake as anyone else’s. He’s brought a sense of legitimacy to the Indians from my perspective, and I see him as something of a Cleveland sports hero. But there’s no denying there’s a lot of push back from the more hardcore followers. I’d be curious to know where you stand on Tito today, and as someone who follows a lot closer than I do, what is your perspective on this divide in how fans view him?

Bode: This could be an entire article by itself. OK, the quick version.

Many within the Indians fanbase wishes Terry Francona were more like his protege Kevin Cash (Tampa Bay Rays manager), who has embraced the current analytic movement full force (controversial usage of an opener, defensive alignments, et cetera). Francona has meanwhile made some rather questionable decisions with his lineups, bullpen moves, and seems to have an influence on roster moves. The treatment of Yandy Diaz seemed to highlight many of these deficiencies to the point Lindor had to accompany the youngster to a meeting with Tito.

The other side is Francona has no doubt added a legitimacy to the ballclub. The team has not finished below .500 under his stewardship. There have not been any significant clubhouse divides reported. No big scandals. Not even a single soup-throwing incident. Also, despite a desire for more, Francona has allowed analytics into game day decisions. The Tribe was among the first to embrace both the new-found pitching tools, hiring coaches from outside MLB circles, and a big-time embracing organization of the Elevation Revelation. The front office prefers to keep a closed lid on almost all of it though, and Francona has followed suit. So, you’ll hear him talk more often about eating $40 worth of ice cream or finishing off 17 pop-cycles in one sitting.

Personally, I think the Indians have fallen out of their leadership position in baseball development (the Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays being two that have jumped ahead), but they are still a Top 10 organization for pushing new boundaries. Francona, for all his warts, is a big reason some of the players have felt the freedom to explore and others have been willing to try the new methods out. I’d love for him to be more bold on some fronts, but it is also a situation of seeing greener grass on the neighbor’s lawn.

8. If you had to guess, do you think the Indians will be buyers, sellers, or neither at the trade deadline? If buyers, are there any players we should keep an eye on as potential targets? And if sellers, who are the most likely players to be dealt? And similarly, how likely do you think it is that the Indians end this season with Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer both on the roster still?

Bode: For the Indians to be sellers, something would have had to go terribly wrong. The front office has made it clear that the trade deadline (end of July) and waiver deadline (end of August) are more efficient mechanisms to add talent than free agency (in their model). The bullpen is the hardest to predict on available talent especially since the Indians have insisted on multiple years of team control, but it is the obvious hole to plug. The outfield is another if the young players fail to impress.

If you want “big-name” targets to track, then Josh Donaldson (again), Anthony Rendon, Scooter Gennett, Marcel Ozuna, Yasiel Puig, and Khris Davis are all in contract years.

The time to trade Kluber was over the offseason. There might be rumors in July, but I fully expect him to be on the postseason roster.

9. There’s a lot of unrest out there from fans despite the recent success. This offseason has been brutal from a PR standpoint. I think everyone is going a little stir crazy as we feel the weight of the window closing along with Frankie’s likely exit in a couple of years. How do you see this window of contention? Is it still open, and if so, for how much longer? Do you think the Indians have the capability to make moves to extend the window, or are we looking at a rebuilding period in a few years?

Bode: Well, Paul Dolan sure doesn’t understand how to quell the concerns of the fanbase. His phrasing and lack of tact have been out-right infuriating despite most of what he said being common knowledge to those of us that follow the game closely. For instance, I never expected to re-sign Lindor once he emerged as a superstar. The Tribe will have him for seven seasons, which is the same amount of years the Cleveland Cavaliers had LeBron James before he left for Miami. Dolan is correct in that the fanbase should “Enjoy him” now, but he’s the wrong person to state it. He just needs to say he doesn’t comment on future negotiations and the team is focused on winning now. WFNY’s Joe Gerberry and Craig Lyndall attempted to provide helpful suggestions for Dolan, but he just won’t listen.

As for contention windows, the current one is propped open through the next few seasons given the existence of Lindor, Ramirez, and the rotation. Looking at anything beyond three years in baseball is folly (or even a single year, really), but the ability to keep a winning team going beyond 2021 will depend on the emergence of the talent pool in the lower levels. If the Tribe struggles to find legit MLB stars as the White Sox have, then there will be an adjustment period. If enough of those players hit, then the Indians could keep things going.

Moment of reflection: the current Indians could match the run of the vaunted 90s Tribe. That 90s team stayed above .500 for eight straight seasons, made the postseason six times, claimed six division titles, and two AL pennants. The current club has already stayed above .500 for six straight seasons, made the postseason four times, claimed three division titles, and one AL pennant. There is a ways to go to match, but it is not out of reach either.

10. Finally, I think a lot of these questions have a negative tone to them, but I’m actually really excited for this season to start. So I’d like to close with just asking you to give us all a few reasons why we should still be excited and why this will still be a fun team to watch this season.

OK, so the team cut salary and lost name players in Yan Gomes, Michael Brantley, Cody Allen, Edwin Encarnacion, and Andrew Miller over the offseason. All legitimate reasons for concern for Tribe fans despite questionable 2018 output from Allen and Miller. Here’s the thing, I believe the 2019 Indians are better equipped to compete than the 2018 squad and the projection models agree with me.

The Indians will have a full season of output from Brad Hand and Leonys Martin. Carlos Santana returns. Jake Bauers, Greg Allen, and Oscar Mercado are all outfielders with upside… and they are at worst each speedy defensive players who will be fun on the basepaths. A healthy infield of Ramirez, Lindor, Kipnis, and Santana is one of the best in baseball; offensively and defensively. The rotation has four players in the AL Cy Young Award race with another, Bieber, who would slot into the middle of most any AL rotation. The bullpen has questions, but there are enough match up plays for Francona to piece together an average output with hopeful help coming at the trade deadline for October.

Oh, and heck, Zack Kram at the Ringer wrote an entire article about how the Indians are as good as a team comprised of the best pieces from the other four AL Central division teams combined.

The long version of this answer I wrote earlier this year.

  1. Corey Snyder was the first autograph I ever got. I sent him a baseball card and a note asking him if he would sign it. He signed it, and sent it back. Snyder was probably my first ever favorite baseball player. []
  2. Unless Bryce Harper is a top ten player, in which case, I could identify him for sure. Is Bryce Harper baseball’s only true transcendent superstar at the moment? It sure feels that way to me. []
  3. Also, keep an eye on Rocchio on prospect lists this season. The front office likes him more than most scouting services and he looked electric even amongst MLB caliber players this spring (he is 18 years old!). []
  4. 96 and 99 OPS+ []
  5. Baseball Prospectus only had Max Stassi ahead of him in 2018. []
  6. Lindor has also only been about 30% better than average at the plate, which is all-star level, but I believe he has a gear beyond that into the elite levels 50% and above. We’ll see. []