AL Central: Cleveland Indians keeping the window wedged open

DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 29: Shortstop Francisco Lindor #12 of the Cleveland Indians tags out Victor Reyes #22 of the Detroit Tigers trying to steal second base during the sixth inning at Comerica Park on August 29, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 29: Shortstop Francisco Lindor #12 of the Cleveland Indians tags out Victor Reyes #22 of the Detroit Tigers trying to steal second base during the sixth inning at Comerica Park on August 29, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images) /

The staff at Motor City Bengals has been having a lot of fun this week discussing matters around the AL Central with our colleagues covering the Detroit Tigers’ division rivals. Our focus today is on the Cleveland Indians.

Recently I proposed some questions to Chris O’Reilly (@cjoreillyCLE) at “Away Back Gone” where they provide top notch coverage of the Cleveland Indians. We hit a wide range of topics on the Tribe.

Terry Francona’s club won 93 games last year…the most of any non-playoff club in MLB by seven games. Winning 93 is a very solid year but it’s never satisfying to sit home in October after a year like that. Can the Tribe win over 90 games and find a way to win the AL Central or capture a wildcard? Here is the outlook Chris shared with by answer a few questions:

MCB: 1. Are the Indians a 90+ win team again in 2020 despite trading Corey Kluber and making no significant additions?

Chris O’Reilly: Yes, the Indians can absolutely win 90-plus games and the division in 2020. But they’re clearly counting on a lot to go perfectly right, and after some bad injury luck in spring training, things are already not off to a good start in that regard. I don’t believe even the most pessimistic denizen of Cleveland can dismiss a team with Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Carlos Santana, Carlos Carrasco, Shane Bieber, and Mike Clevinger from the playoff conversation this early on. The trick is supplementing those guys with enough help from the rest of the roster. A breakout year for Franmil Reyes and a more sure-handed bullpen could make the difference.

2. What is the realistic ceiling you see for Oscar Mercado?

In 2020, I think Oscar Mercado’s realistic ceiling is to remain and improve as the Indians’ everyday center fielder. That’s not a knock on him; not every team has an everyday center fielder. But I think a lot of Indians fans are being deceived by the fact that he hit second in the lineup for most of last year. He had the second-highest swinging strike rate on the team among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances, and the lowest walk rate. You don’t want your two-hitter to have a ton of swing-and-miss in his game, and you definitely want him to be more of an on-base threat. Yes, it was Mercado’s rookie season, and he deserves a ton of credit for contributing in the ways he did. I just worry that some within the Tribe community are expecting him to be a right-handed Michael Brantley in Cleveland’s batting order, and that may not be the case. Luckily, the Indians don’t necessarily need Mercado to be the second coming of Brantley. He provides excellent defensive value and is a handful on the base paths. If he simply hits well enough against both lefties and righties that the Indians don’t have to platoon him, they’ll take that all day. As far as a statistical ceiling, Mercado could join Lindor and Ramirez in the 20/20 club with enough plate appearances. He was a 15/15 guy last season.

3. What do you sense from the fan base regarding the Francisco Lindor saga? Are they passively resigned to a move being made after other stars being moved in the past? Or are they angry at the thought of it?

The answer here is definitely a mixture of both, but if I had to choose one word to describe how Indians fans collectively feel: despondent. We have seen this scenario play out so many times in the past that we are almost desensitized to it, and know that in all likelihood history will repeat itself with Lindor. I don’t think Indians fans would be nearly as upset about the way this has all played out if it was obvious that ownership was doing everything in its power to win a World Series while he’s still around. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’d absolutely live with losing Lindor for nothing via free agency if I could look back on his time here and know the team genuinely tried its best to build around him (and the rest of the Tribe’s exceptional core of young players). Instead, the team has slashed payroll in consecutive years. That is what is truly frustrating and infuriating.

4. Which player is most important to the Indians’ success in 2020 who gets mentioned the least?

Different people will have different opinions here, but Jake Bauers is my biggest X-factor on this team. Bauers was once a top-100 prospect with the Tampa Bay Rays, and he maintains worlds of promise if he can turn the corner in 2020. After a rough first year with the Tribe, however, he’s a man without an everyday spot right now. His most likely role out of camp will be to platoon in the outfield with Jordan Luplow while occasionally spelling Carlos Santana at first base and getting some reps at DH here and there. Ideally, he’ll slug his way into a more prominent position by the All-Star break and be a staple in the middle of the Tribe’s lineup. I love the idea of a fully operational 5-6-7 punch of Franmil Reyes, Bauers, and Domingo Santana.

5. Where do you see the Indians rotation matching up against the rest of the AL Central?

Well, the first part of my answer actually requires the Tribe’s rotation to be healthy. Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco are already banged up, which is far from optimal. Those two and Shane Bieber give the Indians the best top of the rotation in the division. The argument could be made that the Twins and White Sox have deeper staffs, and I’m not sleeping on the likes of Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, or Lucas Giolito. Moreover, I’m not exactly looking forward to the possibility of breakout years from Chicago youngsters Dylan Cease or Michael Kopech. But as it stands now, I’d take Clevinger, Carrasco, and Bieber over anyone else’s top three. If the Tribe’s collection of relatively unproven young arms can be serviceable like they were last year, this should still be the best rotation in the AL Central one-through-five.

6. Which win total will have the bigger change from last year: The Twins winning under 101 games or the White Sox winning more than 72?

I love this question. The easy answer is Chicago, because the Twins are still viewed as division favorites and are returning pretty much the same squad that bulldozed its way to 101 wins in 2019 (plus Josh Donaldson). But the White Sox wouldn’t be the first young team with a ton of new, moving parts to struggle in their first year together. Just look at the Phillies last year. As for the Twins’ chances of a repeat, I think the AL Central is a more tightly contested division in 2020 than it was last year, and the American League in general won’t feature as many hapless teams. Minnesota went a combined 29-10 against the White Sox, Angels, Rangers, and Rays in 2019. The Rays are already an excellent and well-rounded club, and the other three have improved. I’ll take the White Sox here by process of having an easier time believing they can finish at least one game over .500, as opposed to the Twins finishing under 90 wins.

7. How imperative is a rebound season from Jose Ramirez?

Let’s put it this way: If the Indians get a full year of 2019-second-half Jose Ramirez, they win the division and he wins the American League MVP award. If they get 2019-first-half Ramirez for any prolonged stretch, it once again stifles the offense, thus creating a burden on the starting rotation and a bullpen that wasn’t nearly as good as its surface-level numbers last year. Simply put, the Indians don’t have enough wiggle room in the standings for their stars not to be stars.

8. Which Tigers prospect do you suspect Tribe fans will wish was in another division someday?

The low-hanging fruit here is Casey Mize, and I’m certainly not looking forward to dealing with him for more than half a decade. In the interest of mixing things up, though, I’ll go with Riley Greene. The Indians might not have to see Mize every time the teams square up, but Greene will be in the lineup every day. If he reaches his potential, he’s going to be a thorn in the AL Central’s side for years to come.

9. The Indians will win the AL Central if…

Besides simply staying healthy and getting the best version of Jose Ramirez for a full season, here are my top five determining factors on the Indians’ 2020 division title hopes:
– Jake Bauers evolves into a solid everyday hitter
– Franmil Reyes hits like he did with San Diego, prior to being traded (we saw glimpses of it down the stretch last year)
– Brad Hand rebounds; James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase become forces out of the bullpen
– Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac keep the Indians in games as the fourth and fifth starters
– Cesar Hernandez restores balance and on-base ability to the top-third of the batting order

10. Which Indians rookie is most likely to make a significant impact in 2020?

If Nolan Jones should receive a call-up this year, it would be him. The problem is there’s not a natural way to fit him into the defensive alignment, as he’s a third baseman by trade. If Bobby Bradley could cut down on his strikeout tendencies enough to be a semi-regular DH/first baseman hybrid, the Indians could certainly use another left-handed thumper. But by virtue of having a somewhat clear path to playing time, outfielder Daniel Johnson is the “most likely” to play often enough to make an impact. Cleveland’s outfield is anything but set in stone, and it’s not hard to envision Johnson earning a chance to play over the likes of Delino DeShields, Greg Allen, and Bradley Zimmer at some point this year.

Thanks to Chris O’Reilly for going deep on each of these questions. It’ll be fun to look back as the season wears on to see how the Tribe fulfilled his outlook.