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Know your enemy: The Cleveland Indians

Cleveland Indians v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Seemingly every year, the Cleveland Indians trade an All-Star caliber player away, and every year pundits decry their cheap ways, predicting this will be the move that sends the franchise into a funk. But more often than not, the player they send away turns into a pumpkin, the prospect haul turns out to be pretty good, and they seemingly find a guy off the street to replace him with a performance just as good.

In the past two years, the Indians have traded away Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco, and Francisco Lindor, and allowed Brad Hand and Carlos Santana to walk without any compensation in return. And yet, they still have a pitching staff the envy of baseball, and an MVP candidate in the middle of their lineup. Reports of the demise of the Cleveland Indians have been wrong for years, and they may very well be wrong again this season.

Cleveland Indians

2020 record: 35-25 (pro-rated to 95 wins in a full-season)

2020 pythag: 35-25

2021 ZIPS projection: 80-82

2021 PECOTA projection: 86-76

Key additions: Andrés Giménez, Amed Rosario, Eddie Rosario

Key losses: Carlos Carrasco, Adam Cimber, Delino DeShields, Brad Hand, Francisco Lindor, Tyler Naquin, Carlos Santana, Domingo Santana

The Indians haven’t had a losing season since 2012, and they have only won fewer than 90 games just twice in that time period (aside from the shortened 2020 season, when they were on pace to win 95 games). They have achieved this relying largely on pitching, finishing in the top four in the American League in runs allowed in each season since 2015, including best in the league last year.

The rotation is headed by reigning Cy Young winner Shane Bieber, who pulled off the Triple Crown in the shortened season by leading the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts. Zach Pleasac turned into an amazing strike-thrower last year, walking just six hitters in eight starts. Skinny Triston McKenzie looks like a stiff wind may blow him over on the mound, but he stood firm with an impressive 3.24 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 33 13 innings in his rookie campaign. The Indians have some depth, with Logan Allen, Adam Plutko, Cal Quantrill, or Scott Moss able to fill that fifth spot.

The bullpen finished third in the American League in ERA, but lost closer Brad Hand. For tough out situations, they will count on James Karinchak, who struck out nearly half the hitters he faced last year, although his walk rate was rather high. Emmanuel Clase and hsi 100 mph fastball return after missing all of last year with a teres major strain and a PED suspension. The rest of the pen is pretty thin, but the Indians always find a few guys to surprise.

Indians pitching

Rotation ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9
Rotation ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9
RHP Shane Bieber 1.63 2.07 77.1 14.2 2.4
RHP Zach Plesac 2.28 3.39 55.1 9.3 1.0
RHP Aaron Civale 4.74 4.03 74.0 8.4 1.9
RHP Triston McKenzie 3.24 3.91 33.1 11.3 2.4
LHP Logan Allen 3.38 5.35 10.2 5.9 5.9
Bullpen ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9
RHP James Karinchak 2.67 1.52 27.0 17.7 5.3
RHP Emmanuel Clase - - 0.0 - -
RHP Nick Wittgren 3.42 4.42 23.2 10.6 2.3
RHP Phil Maton 4.57 2.22 21.2 13.3 2.5
LHP Oliver Pérez 2.00 3.14 18.0 7.0 3.0

The lineup was definitely the weaker unit, tying the Royals for the second-fewest runs scored in the American League and finishing dead last in home runs. They did that with Francisco Lindor, who was traded to the Mets, and with José Ramírez putting up MVP-type numbers, which will be hard to replicate this year. Eddie Rosario looks like a bargain free agent pickup, but the Indians will need to have former prospects like Josh Naylor, Jake Bauers, and Oscar Mercado to live up their potential after disappointing performances last year.

But there could be some help on the way. Shortstop Andrés Giménez was acquired in the Lindor trade and could move Amed Rosario to a reserve role. First baseman Bobby Bradley hit 33 home runs in Triple-A in 2019. And Nolan Jones is a top 100 prospect at third base that could fuel José Ramírez trade rumors. Cleveland, as always, will look to trade their star players to maximize trade value and keep the talent cupboard stocked.

Indians lineup

2B César Hernández (S) 261 3 .283 .355 .408
3B José Ramírez (R) 254 17 .292 .386 .607
LF Eddie Rosario (L) 231 13 .257 .316 .476
DH Franmil Reyes (R) 241 9 .275 .344 .450
RF Josh Naylor (L) 104 1 .247 .291 .330
C Roberto Pérez 110 1 .165 .264 .216
1B Jake Bauers (L) 0 0 - - -
CF Oscar Mercado (R) 93 1 .128 .174 .174
SS Amed Rosario 147 4 .254 .272 .371
C Austin Hedges (R) 83 3 .145 .231 .290
IF Andrés Giménez 132 3 .263 .333 .398
OF Jordan Luplow (R) 92 2 .192 .304 .359

The Indians have a .587 winning percentage over the past five seasons, better than every team except the Astros and Dodgers. However they have not won a playoff series since 2016, when they suffered a crushing defeat to the Cubs in the World Series. Rather than push their chips in for one big push to win it all, the Indians continue to ante up, hoping that with enough bites at the apple, one day they’ll find that straight flush that can win the big pot. Time will only tell if that strategy pays off, but in Cleveland, they have been waiting for decades.


How many games will the Indians win this year?

This poll is closed

  • 9%
    More than 90
    (17 votes)
  • 37%
    (68 votes)
  • 37%
    (68 votes)
  • 10%
    (20 votes)
  • 4%
    Less than 75
    (9 votes)
182 votes total Vote Now