2021 Cleveland Indians: Still Strong Enough to Compete

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The 2021 Cleveland Indians will be a very interesting team to observe throughout the upcoming season, as they have a lot of individuals trying to take the step from being interesting young players to everyday big leaguers mixed in with proven veterans. Despite the recent departures of Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, and the majority of the other players on the teams that were chasing a World Series banner during the late 2010s, this does not mean the team will be in the basement of the American League this upcoming season.

2021 Cleveland Indians: How They Got to This Point

The Cleveland Indians organization is in its current position because the only two players left from the teams of the late 2010s are Jose Ramirez and Roberto Perez. Cleveland let go of the rest of the individuals on those teams by trading them, releasing them, or letting them sign with other teams after entering free agency.

Many people mistakenly see the trades of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Mike Clevinger as losses for the Cleveland Indians organization based on a skewed perception of the value these three former Indians possessed when they were traded. Credit to the front office must be given for capitalizing on the value of an asset that already depreciated greatly in Kluber, due to injury issues that have prevented him from returning to the form that got him two Cy Young Awards.

Bauer was an individual with volatile trade value due to inconsistent performance, and the Indians front office getting two MLB ready individuals in Franmil Reyes and Logan Allen and three prospects while only giving up a risky and overpriced starting pitcher with one and a half years of control and a Cy Young level ceiling is an extremely underrated transaction.

Mike Clevinger has performed throughout his professional career but has had a myriad of injuries due to his strenuous pitching mechanics and at times his command can suffer when his mechanics get out of whack. I believe the Indians traded him at his peak value, getting a total of six players back who all have a viable chance to contribute to the major league club sooner or later. After Clevinger was traded to San Diego, it was announced that he would need Tommy John surgery for the second time in his professional career.

In my predictions article for the 2021 Cleveland Indians, I already stated what Josh Naylor, Cal Quantrill, and Austin Hedges can bring to the table for the upcoming season. I believe that Emmanuel Clase will have a breakout season since he has one of the most unique individual pitches in MLB history in a cutter that sits around 100 miles per hour, and a slider that is a nasty pitch in its own right. Franmil Reyes is a full-time designated hitter but showed flashes during the 2020 season that proved the Indians front office was correct to make him the centerpiece of the return for Trevor Bauer.

In my assessment of the Francisco Lindor trade, I elaborated why the trade was a pathetic salary dump but also expressed some optimism because of what Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario bring to the table as young, athletic infielders. Gimenez has the tools to be the starting shortstop of the Cleveland Indians right now and has the ceiling of an All-Star caliber shortstop to go along with the fact that he is under team control until at least 2026. Amed Rosario is an interesting reclamation project due to his former prospect pedigree and viable set of tools who doubles as an interesting trade chip since the free-agent shortstop market is drying up due to a multitude of infielders being singed recently.

The resigning of Cesar Hernandez to play second base is an encouraging sign that the front office still thinks this roster can compete against the rest of the AL Central. Since Hernandez only brings so much value, similar additions via free agency or trade would be very nice to see. The Indians have a plethora of young starting pitchers with multiple years of control, a.k.a. the most valuable trade commodity in the sport and a large group of talented prospects in the lower minors.

The addition of Eddie Rosario also provides some stability in the outfield and raises the floor of the team a little higher. The front office said that they would reinvest some of the savings from the Lindor trade, and they have done so.

What Will Happen Next

The 2021 season will be extremely important for the Cleveland Indians organization as a whole. Because there was no Minor League Baseball season in 2020, a lot of prospects that will be the future of Major League Baseball missed out on a whole year of development. This was a huge blow for Cleveland’s farm system, as a majority of the top 10 prospects are below 22 years old and have not played above High-A. In addition to the top 10 prospects, there are a lot of interesting players in Cleveland’s farm system that will be eligible to be selected in the annual Rule 5 Draft if they are not added to the forty man roster by a deadline that is set in December of every year.

Organizations that are adept at developing productive young players will periodically have a large number of talented individuals in their respective farm systems approaching eligibility to be added to the forty man roster. These organizations will simultaneously see what they have amongst the prospects that have garnered the most internal interest via call-ups and trade other prospects to improve the major league roster immediately instead of sifting through all the prospects to determine who will sink or swim at the highest level of professional baseball. The most recent examples of organizations navigating forty man roster crunches are the Astros, Rays, and Padres.

The front office of the Cleveland Indians is absolutely aware of the inevitable forty man roster crunch on the horizon. The aforementioned trades of Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, and Mike Clevinger could be categorized as preemptive moves to prepare for this important crossroads as the organization trudges down the path of “rebuilding on the fly”. Cleveland’s front office has repeatedly reminded the press about the organization’s goal of balancing the present and future to build a sustained amount of success and minimize the time between windows of playoff contention.

During the first Spring Training of the 2020 season, the majority of the non-roster invitees for Cleveland were prospects from within the organization. While this was partially done to cut costs, the organization wanted to evaluate its prospects and see where they were at. The Indians scouting and player development groups place a high value on young players that can compete against older competition because they interpret it as a future sign of success. The organization’s player development/evaluation philosophies and recent transactions lead me to believe that Cleveland’s front office is using a similar method to comprise the actual twenty-five man roster to evaluate and determine who can compete in the major leagues while wearing a Cleveland uniform

All in all, the Indians front office is placing a huge bet on its ability to develop players based on its recent transactions to inject youth into the 25-man roster. The starting rotation has seen an influx of young starters in recent years as Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, and Triston McKenzie have been the latest products of the Cleveland Pitching Factory. The bullpen and position player group are moving in the same direction with young guys that have made their MLB debuts recently set to get the lion’s share of opportunities and minor leaguers waiting in the wings to get called up.

How the Team Will Compete

Preventing runs by trotting out a starting rotation and bullpen that could go against any lineup was the main reason why the Indians were competitive during the late 2010s, and that organization is sticking to that formula as it begins a new era. Bieber, Plesac, and the rest of the starting pitchers on the 25=man roster are all 26 years old or younger, have at least four years of control, and offer a tremendous amount of upside combined with a safe floor.

Emmanuel Clase, James Karinchak, and Nick Wittgren lead the charge for a very young but talented bullpen. Relief arms in the minors that may get a call up to the majors during the 2021 season include former outfielder Anthony Gose and 6’8” Sam Hentges, two lefties who can throw 100 miles per hour. Nick Sandlin and Robert Broom are two right-handers who throw from a sidearm slot and offer different looks.

The position player group will only have four true veterans in the everyday lineup: Jose Ramirez, Eddie Rosario, Roberto Perez, and Cesar Hernandez. Despite the position player group being the weakest facet of the 25-man roster, there is still a lot of potential amongst the individuals that comprise it. 2021 will be the season to determine who will sink or swim at the MLB level, and I am very interested to see who earns their keep out of the many youthful question marks.

A large amount of youth on the roster means there could be a lot of variance in how the 2021 Cleveland Indians perform. There is a possibility of the team finishing with 74-79 wins, the young position player group struggling to score runs while showing flashes of potential as the pitching staff performs well but also has hiccups of its own due to youth. There is a version of this team that finishes at or slightly above a .500 win percentage with 81-84 wins. The team looks like it could make a run at an American League Wild Card spot but bows out as the season trudges on.

The absolute peak of this roster in its current form is 85-90 wins and sneaking into the American League Wild Card on the back of an elite pitching staff and numerous breakouts from young position players to supplement Jose Ramirez and the rest of the veterans having great seasons in their own right. The only way this happens is if everything goes right for Cleveland and good luck befalls upon the team as well, with a late-season run similar to what happened in 2013 happening again. The 2021 Cleveland Indians are strong enough to compete, but they probably will not be strong enough to win.

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Pat Ellington Jr. is a black filmmaker, screenwriter, novelist, and sports journalist from Northeast Ohio.