The 2019 Cleveland Indians season ended in a special way. No, not the special kind that sees them playing October baseball. Special in the sense that it was both a success and failure of a season at the same time.
The Indians overcame an 11.5 game deficit this season amidst a flurry of injuries and setbacks. Corey Kluber missed basically the whole year, Trevor Bauer was traded after throwing a ball over the center field wall in Kansas City, Francisco Lindor missed a month, and much more. Heck, Carlos Carrasco was diagnosed with leukemia and still made his way to the mound in a bullpen role. This ballclub showed heart and grit at so many points this season, you could not help but be impressed.
Sadly, this time might most be remembered for a 1-5 finish that cost them an American League Wild Card spot and an October run.
Frustrating is probably the best word to use when describing the 2019 Tribe. So close, but yet so far at the same time.
On August 11th, Carlos Santana hit a go-ahead grand slam in the 10th inning to lead the Indians to a 7-3 win over the Minnesota Twins. The win tied the AL Central with the Indians surging, and the Twins seemingly falling apart. The next day the Indians knocked off the Boston Red Sox on a Twins off day, giving Cleveland a half game central division lead.
It was the last day they would hold the division lead.
Three series losses later, including a sweep from the New York Mets, and the Indians were 3.5 games back of the Twins again. The end of August and into September spelled doom for Cleveland as well. A sweep from Tampa Bay and a series split with the lowly Chicago White Sox at home were enough to convince many that this team flat out did not have it.
The Indians had chances to grab a wild card opportunity. However, Jose Ramirez had hand surgery at the end of August that kept him sidelined till late September, and Jason Kipnis had season-ending wrist surgery to start the final month of play.
Struggling Against Quality Opponents
The Indians inability to beat good teams ended up costing them big time this year. Of all the 90+ win teams in 2019, Cleveland was the only one to finish with a losing record against teams over .500.
30 of Cleveland’s wins came from beating the Royals and the Tigers this year. Teams do not control who they play, and usually each division has a cupcake team or two. Still, perhaps we overestimated the Indians as a result. Plus, a 8-11 season series record against the White Sox is… not ideal.
Feast or Famine
The Indians offense was an obscure one to say the least. Let’s go back to the 22nd of September. Cleveland put up 10 runs against the Phillies, followed by an 11-run winning performance over the Chicago White Sox. The Indians failed to score more than three runs in four of their final five games after that, with that fifth game being a 10-7 loss to Washington.
Much of the inconsistency stems from the bats going cold when runners are in scoring position. The Indians RISP batting average this year finished at just .247, the fifth worst in the MLB.
Overall, the Indians were just plain lost at the dish during the most crucial stretch of the season. Batting just .202 through the last six games of the season is why the Indians are on October vacation.
Plug and Play
It wasn’t all bad for the Indians in 2019. One thing that should not be overlooked was Cleveland’s brilliance with the young starting pitchers in their organization. Twelve different Indians started a game this year, including four major league debuts. Jefry Rodriguez, Aaron Civale, Zach Plesac, and Adam Plutko all deserve praise, especially the last three, who threw over 250 innings between them.
Civale and Plesac were both selected in the 2016 draft, with their quick MLB come-up serving as a testament to the Indians pitching development. One of the final Indians TV broadcasts honed in on how and why these pitchers were able to contribute at the major league level so quickly and efficiently.
The secret? Minor League Pitching Coordinator Ruben Niebla, the man all the young arms turn to. Indians fans should hope Niebla is not poached by another team. It is all but guaranteed that the rest of the league has taken notice of what the Indians have done with their starters.
Youngster in the Outfield
Maybe it was one month too late, but at least it happened. I’m talking about the call-up of Oscar Mercado to the major league level in May.
Mercado hit .389 through spring training and caught the attention of Cleveland fans quickly. However, the Indians opted to keep Leonys Martin in the starting center field position for the early portions of the season. Martin hit just .199 in 65 games before being DFA’d in June.
Mercado hit for a .318 average in June, his first full month of action. He cooled off a bit in the second half and struggled at times in the field. The Indians love his speed though. Mercado finished 2019 with 15 stolen bases, the 6th most among rookies. Oscar certainly showcased enough to prove he’s the future in center for Cleveland.
The previously mentioned Trevor Bauer trade shook up things in Cleveland. After the Kansas City incident, many theorized Bauer would be on the move. They were right.
A three team trade took place, featuring the Indians, San Diego Padres, and Cincinnati Reds. Yasiel Puig of the Reds and Franmil Reyes of the Padres were the main pieces Cleveland acquired in the trade, with Bauer being shipped off to Cincy. Both were plugged right into the lineup.
Reyes hit just .237 in Cleveland, spending the majority of time as the DH. The Indians have team control of Reyes through 2021 and want him to be a fixture in their outfield. The plan is for him to lose some weight, get a little faster, and contribute both in the field and at the plate.
As for Puig, he hit .297 this year despite a cold spell down the last stretch of the season. It is unclear whether Puig will be back or not, depending on how other clubs value the 29 year-old. Indians president Chris Antonetti is not ruling anything out. “We wouldn’t close the doors on anything”, Antonetti said in his end of season press conference. “Yasiel did a really good job in his time with us”.
Man, who would have thought Santana would have the year he did? ‘Los set a flurry of career highs, including his batting average. That escalated from .229 in Philadelphia last year to .281 this season, a .052 jump. He also set career highs in runs, hits, OPS, slugging percentage, and RBI’s. I wrote a piece earlier this season that went more in-depth as to why Santana had the year that he did.
Santana’s magical season was not enough to put Cleveland in the postseason, and it’s unlikely he sees another year like this in 2020. However, his team-first attitude and veteran locker room presence will serve this ballclub well moving forward. Well, unless you bring Fortnite into the locker room.
The Indians have already made some decisions regarding their future. Corey Kluber’s $17.5 million option was picked up by the club despite an injury-riddled 2019 from their ace. Jason Kipnis’ $16.5 million option was declined, an easy decision and one most assumed would happen. Still, he is not worth nearly that much now in his career, and a return to Cleveland on a newer and cheaper deal remains possible.
I have to mention Danny Salazar since his $4.5 million contract in 2019 was only brought up every five minutes on Twitter. Not a chance he pitches in Cleveland in 2020, and maybe not ever again in the majors.
Of course, the possibility of Francisco Lindor being traded remains. Kluber’s option being picked up tells me they want another run at the postseason in 2020. But hey, who’s to say they both don’t get traded?
Depending on what Jose Ramirez chooses position wise, Cleveland will need to pursue either a second or third baseman this winter. Ramirez is open to playing either, which adds flexibility. As mentioned, the return of Kipnis on a new deal would fill a second base void. However, if Jose wants to play second and Kip moves elsewhere, a third baseman will be needed. The Juan Uribe signing before 2016 comes to mind here. He was a somewhat effective veteran “bridge” guy, and someone like him would buy time for highly touted prospect Nolan Jones to get to Cleveland.
There are certainly teams with brighter futures, but Cleveland’s is far from dull. If pitching continues to develop as it has and the offense finds consistency (looking at you, Ty Van Burkleo), they will be just fine. This year did not end the way they anticipated, but they have blocks to build on moving forward. For a team that started the year with Hanley Ramirez and Brad Miller in the starting lineup, this season wasn’t too shabby of an effort.
Author Twitter: @Noush9602
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