The transition between the MLB postseason and offseason is remarkably quick, and the Cleveland Indians have several difficult decisions to make once it happens. But first, in order to understand exactly what they are, you must understand MLB roster rules. I’ll warn you in advance: they’re fairly complicated.
During the season, there are two types of rosters: the active list, or 25-man roster, and the reserve list, or 40-man roster. Anyone on the active roster is eligible to appear in a game, and anyone on the reserve list is eligible to be transferred to the active list, should there be an opening. But, once the offseason rolls around, the concept of the active roster loses its meaning; you can’t be active to play in baseball games if there aren’t any happening. Meanwhile, the reserve list takes up extra importance. Teams are guaranteed to maintain their control of any player on it, but with only 40 slots, some players are bound to be left on the cutting room floor. Teams must be strategic about which players they protect and which players they leave vulnerable. Difficult decisions abound.
During the season, teams can place players with long-term injuries on the 60-day injured list (IL), which excludes them from the 40-man roster. However, the 60-day IL dissolves five days after the World Series ends, meaning that a perfectly legal 40-man roster during the season becomes over-populated once it’s over, and teams have less than a week to decide who to protect and who to designate for assignment.
Then, on November 20, teams have to submit their final 40-man rosters to the office of the commissioner in preparation for the Rule 5 draft, which ensures teams aren’t hoarding MLB-caliber players in their farm system by allowing teams to select eligible players. Any player not on a 40-man roster who’s been in the minor leagues for the requisite amount of time (which depends on his age when he was drafted or signed internationally) is eligible to be selected. However, Rule 5 draftees must remain on their new team’s active roster for the entirety of the following season; otherwise, they’re offered back to their original team and then passed through waivers.
These decisions are complicated for every team, and the Cleveland Indians are no exception. With seven players on the 60-day IL at season’s end and several seemingly MLB-ready players who are Rule 5 eligible, Chris Antonetti and his front office staff will have to make several transactions over the next month to trim the roster and protect players who are deemed a part of the future. In order to identify just what moves the Indians will make over the next few weeks, I’ll need to comb through the roster to establish who’s integral and who’s expendable.
We can’t really be sure what the 25-man roster would have looked like at season’s end because September rosters are expanded, so I did my best to guess what it would have looked like below.1 Obviously, the exact makeup of the bench and bullpen is debatable, but also, that’s not really the point here.
Here’s the remainder of the 40-man…
…and here is the 60-day IL:
Status: 47 men/40 spots
The task of eliminating seven members of the roster sounds daunting until you see the roster laid out in front of you, as there are several guaranteed departures. For one, the Indians have three contracts that absolutely expire five days after the conclusion of the World Series in Tyler Clippard, Yasiel Puig, and Ryan Flaherty. Either of the first two free agents could fit into the Indians’ 2020 plans, but for these purposes, they’re as good as gone. A quick aside: much has been made of Puig’s future with the Indians, as it should be, but Tyler Clippard could arguably be as big of a loss. Clippard was the second-most valuable relief pitcher for Cleveland in 2019 and likely won’t get much of a pay-raise, as his age and atypical statistical profile limit what teams are willing to spend on him. In other words, he’s the perfect Cleveland Indians reliever. Meanwhile, if Ryan Flaherty a) gets resigned and b) sees 50 PAs with the big league club in 2020, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.
Chopping block: Tyler Clippard, Yasiel Puig, Ryan Flaherty
Team options, come on down! Jason Kipnis, Corey Kluber, and Dan Otero each have team options for the 2020 season. If I had to guess if they will be enacted, I would guess: no, yes, maybe in that respective order. As Mr. White from Reservoir Dogs may say, the choice between paying Jason Kipnis over 10% of the 2020 payroll or paying him $2.5 million to go away ain’t no choice at all. That’s not to say Kipnis won’t have value to an MLB franchise in 2020: He’s known to be a clubhouse leader, he can definitely play either position on the right side of the infield and probably in the outfield as well, and there’s always a chance that he finds his stroke from the first half of the decade. Some team will probably give him $5 million dollars, betting on a partial rebound. Hell, it may even be the Indians. One thing is certain, though: Five days after the World Series ends, Kipnis will be $2.5 million richer and no longer on Cleveland Indians control.
On the other hand, the Indians have already announced their intention to exercise Corey Kluber’s $17.5M club option for 2020, and rightfully so. Here’s the list of starting pitchers who have thrown 1000+ innings in the 2010s with a lower ERA and FIP than Kluber: Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, … that’s it. Of that same group, only seven pitchers have struck out a greater percentage of batters, and only nine have walked a lower percentage. No Indians pitcher has dominated a decade as Kluber has the 2010s. But, last year was a lost one for the Floridian cyborg, and some have questioned whether or not Cleveland should shell out for what will be his age-34 season. Doubters have pointed out that his velocity has declined over 2 MPH since its 2014 peak, and his 35.2 innings last season looked anything but automatic. However, as I’ve written before, the only predictive factors one can truly glean from such a small sample of outings is the presence of a new pitch, pitch mix, or a change in velocity. None of those were present for Kluber in 2019. Moreover, Kluber’s monthly results pre-2019 tell an interesting story:
|Kluber by month||ERA||FIP||K%-BB%|
Rarely has Corey Kluber struggled per se, but April has unquestionably been his worst month. Were the Indians to sever ties with Kluber over a bad April and a measly one year, $17.5M club extension (much, much less than an ace-level starter costs on the open market), there’s a real chance it would go down as one of the worst personnel decisions in franchise history. If Kluber doesn’t work out, and his 2019 was a harbinger for things to come, a one-year deal is relatively harmless. Exercising his option was a no-brainer.
Finally, the third club option under consideration belongs to one Dan Otero, whose option has unofficially been declined for 2020. In 2019, the Miami native was bad, then hurt, then bad, which made him an easy candidate for the chopping block. However, it is worth pointing out that from 2016-2018, Otero forced grounders at a rate 42% higher than league average; only seven qualified relief pitchers bested that. And, his ability to limit the free pass was even more impressive: over that same span, no qualified relief pitcher walked a lower percentage of batters, and it’s not close. Otero’s walk rate was 61% better than the league average, 9 percentage points superior to the next best command artist.
In 2018, Dan Otero had an aberrationally high HR/FB rate and a low strand rate. By re-signing him, the Indians bet on HR/FB regression, and that happened to an extent, but everything else fell apart, including his body. His sparkling groundball rate, while still above-average, was the second-lowest of his career. Even more dubious is the fact that Otero’s fastball velocity dropped nearly two full MPH. If the Indians believed that Otero’s drop in performance was mostly health-related and expect a bounceback, I would have expected them to pick up his $1.5M option, not exactly a hefty price. I can only assume, therefore, they believe OT’s decline is permanent.
Chopping block: Jason Kipnis, Dan Otero
The 60-day IL is the final group that’s natural for the Indians to consider trimming before turning to the 40-man roster. Luckily, there are a couple of names that jump out as easy decisions. Danny Salazar is in the final year of arbitration, cost the Indians $4.5M in 2019, pitched one time, and looked like a wisp of his former self. No analysis necessary—Danny Salazar has thrown his last baseball as a Cleveland Indian. His split-change will live on in all of our hearts.
Danny Salazar, Cruel 3 Pitch K Sequence (88mph Change, 87mph Change, 97mph Fastball). 🤢 pic.twitter.com/Zlbn9OKe9W
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 28, 2017
Ditto for Cody Anderson, except with fewer nice memories. The Indians stuck with him through his injuries, believing that his raw stuff would ultimately shine through. It never did. Anderson appeared in dozen or so 2019 games split between Triple-A and The Bigs before returning to the shelf with another long-term elbow injury, after requiring two years to recover from the last one. At a projected $800k salary in his second year of arbitration, Cody Anderson isn’t set to cost the Indians much financially, but his roster spot alone is valuable enough that he’s as good as gone.
Chopping Block: Danny Salazar, Cody Anderson
Status: 40/40 SUCCESS
It turns out the Indians have a truly easy path to trimming the roster down to 40. Either due to general ineffectiveness or an expiring contract, all of these cuts are relative no-brainers except perhaps Otero, and even releasing him turns out to be an error, it’s a low-stakes one. However, these are not the final roster decisions the Indians will be forced to make during the month of November.
In protecting Rule 5 eligible minor league players, teams must ask themselves two questions: 1.) “Could this player be an asset on an MLB roster right now?” and 2) “Is this a player that fits into our short- and/or longterm plans?” If the answer to each question is yes, that’s a player worth protecting. But, they’re not always so easy to answer. Consider the case of Elvis Luciano.
Luciano was signed as a 16-year-old by Arizona in 2016 and was traded to Kansas City in the Jon Jay deal the following year. Despite never having pitched above rookie ball, Toronto felt that by last offseason, Luciano possessed two above-average pitches and had finished growing physically, so they selected him in the Rule 5 draft and converted him to a relief arm in the Majors, hiding him in the front end of their bullpen.2 Now, I’m not here to accuse the Blue Jays of abusing the IL or embellishing injuries, but it is convenient that Luciano sprained his elbow and wound up on the IL from June 12 to September 12, missing 93 days of the 183-day season, meaning he was active for 90 days, the exact minimum amount of days a player must be healthy in order to maintain a Rule 5 pick.
Had Kansas City successfully predicted the interest of other teams, they may still have Luciano in the farm; however, adding a young prospect is also quite risky. The Indians added Jean Carlos Mejia to the 40-man roster last offseason to protect him from cases exactly like Luciano’s, but he missed much of the season with a sports hernia. Now the Indians have a prospect unlikely to sniff the big leagues for another two years on their 40-man roster, and they can’t remove him without DFA-ing him. It’s a catch-22.
With that in mind, here is an inexhaustive list of notable Indians minor league players who either become Rule 5 eligible this offseason or improved their stock significantly enough that they are now Rule 5 concerns. N.B. Each player’s name is linked to his FanGraphs page.
Coming into 2019, the Indians were widely criticized for not addressing their outfield, and while it turned out better than expected, it was still a below-average position group on a team trying to contend for October. With Yasiel Puig leaving in free agency, it’s certainly possible that the front office tries to address its outfield needs externally; if not, they have two young, Rule 5 eligible outfielders in the high minors, each of whom is inarguably an MLB asset in some form.
The higher profile player is Daniel “Jet” Johnson, whom the Indians acquired from the Washington Nationals as part of the Yan Gomes deal. Coming into 2019, he was projected by most prospect evaluators to have the ceiling of a fourth outfielder. But, the Jet hit the ground running in Akron-Canton, greatly improving on his 2018 Double-A with Washington before getting promoted to Triple-A. On the year, he hit an impressive .290/.361/.507, walking 9.1% and striking out 21.6% of the time, changing the minds of doubters as he climbed up prospect lists over the course of the year. Johnson has always possessed loud tools—an elite arm, blazing speed, huge raw power—and in 2019, they finally translated to his on-field performance; he’s a valuable, near-ready MLB asset regardless of his Rule 5 eligibility. The victim of his addition isn’t obvious, but I’m guessing Andrew Velazquez’s existence on the 40-man was nothing more than for infield depth. With Yu Chang and Christian Arroyo returning for 2019, Velazquez is probably an odd man out.
Daniel Johnson extended the @CLBClippers‘ lead with a solo homer in the 7th inning.
Columbus is up 4-1 and on the verge of winning the Governors’ Cup Finals.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 13, 2019
Meanwhile, Ka’ai Tom is an organizational guy who seemed to break out of that label in 2019. Much like Johnson, the 25-year-old Tom spent his entire 2018 in Double-A and had the worst offensive performance of his professional career. Upon repeating the level, Tom glistened, putting up a .290/.380/.532 line with an 11.6% and 22.7% walk and strikeout rate, respectively, in 554 PAs split between Akron and Columbus. And unlike Johnson, whose impressive tools keep him afloat in the outfield, Tom has the instincts of an outfielder to go along with his equally blazing speed. Just take a look at this play he made earlier this season:
— Minor League Baseball (@MiLB) September 13, 2019
…or this one:
…or this one!
— Minor League Baseball (@MiLB) August 3, 2019
…OR THIS ONE!!!
Wait, what?!?! 🤯🤯🤯 pic.twitter.com/SfW1KnvJPO
— Columbus Clippers (@CLBClippers) August 21, 2019
Each of these guys is likely to be selected in the Rule 5 draft if they’re not protected by the Indians. The problem is, including the injured Naquin, they make seven players on the 40-man roster who can only play in the outfield.18% of the roster devoted to the outfield is hefty, especially considering Jake Bauers and Franmil Reyes can also fill a corner in a pinch. Johnson is all but certain to be protected, as his ceiling is more highly thought of. Thus, the Indians likely have to choose two of Tom, Greg Allen, and Bradley Zimmer. Each youngster plays a mean outfield, but neither Allen nor Zimmer have had success at the dish in The Bigs, while Tom’s big-league experience is zilch. My suspicion is that the Indians hold onto Zimmer because of the prospect pedigree, but it’s anyone’s guess as to whom they prefer between Allen and Tom.
On the hill, more decisions abound. Like the Allen/Tom decision, the futures of many of the Rule-5-eligible pitchers with the Indians comes down to whether they prefer them to other arms at the bottom of the roster, like AJ Cole, Hunter Wood, Phil Maton, or James Hoyt. Another consideration is that in 2020, the three-batter minimum takes effect, meaning specialists like Tyler Olson and Adam Cimber lose a lot of their value.
Right-hander Jared Robinson is a big-league ready bullpen arm. Ignore the rough ten outing blip in Triple-A; Robinson can run his fastball into the high 90s and has a plus slider. He’s likely to be in some MLB bullpen in 2020. Meanwhile, Juan Mota and Luis Oviedo, like Elvis Luciano, are each struggling minor-league starters with wicked stuff who could soar through the minors with a conversion to the bullpen.
However, there are bigger names the Indians must consider: the lanky Triston McKenzie has become Rule 5 eligible. Once a top prospect in the system, McKenzie missed the entire 2019 season to a mysterious back injury, about which the Indians have publicly commented very little. The talent and raw stuff make him easy to dream on; his presence on the mound is intimidating in a Chris Sale type of way:
— Minor League Baseball (@MiLB) August 31, 2018
On the other hand, we, the public, know next to nothing about his injury, and so it’s hard to predict whether the Indians decide to protect him. If the front office knows his injury has a good chance of lingering into next season, there’s no path for him to help an MLB team, meaning there’d be little reason for the Indians to add them to his 40-man. And, even if they do add him, the risk is that the injury reoccurs, essentially making him a dead roster spot. I have no idea what the Indians will do about Triston McKenzie, but whether or not they decide to protect him will be the most intel we’ve had on his injury in quite some time.
Finally, evaluations of left-handed starter Scott Moss vary widely throughout the mainstream prospect evaluators: MLB Pipeline, for instance, ranks him 17th in the Indians organization, while FanGraphs doesn’t have him in the top 40. My guess is that the Indians agree more with MLB Pipeline, as he was one of the prospects in the return package for Trevor Bauer this past July, and his performance has only improved since that trade. In 2019, across two levels and two organizations, Moss ran a 2.96/3.37 ERA/FIP while striking out nearly 30% of batters. However, because of the injury issues in the 2019 rotation, the Indians have nine players who started a big-league game in 2019 on the 40-man roster. Moss and McKenzie would make 11 present or future starters. The logjam could be partially fixed by bullpen conversions for Zach Plesac or Jefry Rodriguez, each of whom has fringy third offerings and therefore may fit better in relief anyway. While the Indians have been stubborn in the past in converting starters to relievers, it may be the best way to make all of their talented arms fit on the 40-man roster.
The Indians are a secretive organization, which ultimately probably offers them a competitive advantage. However, that secrecy can make some of their moves puzzling and pieces like this highly speculative. It also makes November a highly informative time of the year, when the Indians are forced to make several telling roster decisions. In less than a month, we’ll know which bullpen arms they most value, to what extent they’re concerned about Triston McKenzie’s injury, and the shape of the outfield potentially for years to come. This article turned out way too long, and yet there’s so much more to delve into about each of the players I discussed and many, many more whom I neglected to mention. That’s the beauty of following a Major League Baseball team, though; there are so many people and moving parts to consider that no matter how closely one follows, there’s still so much we don’t know. The last 2000 or so words could be completely off-base because of some piece of inside information that I don’t have access to. All we as fans can do is try our best to keep up. And so with that in mind, here’s what the Cleveland Indians 40-man roster would look like if I were in charge.