Cleveland Indians Season Preview: Falling Behind in Improved AL Central

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It was another frustrating winter for Cleveland fans, who watched their club spend more time fielding trade offers for superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor than trying to improve his supporting cast. Instead, they dealt ace Corey Kluber (sensibly, perhaps, given Klubot’s decline) to Texas for centerfielder Delino DeShields and reliever Emmanuel Clase–two supporting pieces for a roster crying out for another star.

From 2016 to ’18, Cleveland played in a division where the competition simply wasn’t on its level, and mostly wasn’t trying to be. Now, faced with strong challenges from the Twins and White Sox, the Indians aren’t even putting up a fight. The team’s payroll dropped $20 million from ’18 to ’19, and it’s projected to drop similarly from ’19 to ’20. The Tribe’s refusal to get locals excited is damaging attendance, which fell 9.8% last year even as the team won 93 games.

Even more frustrating: Cleveland has a championship-caliber foundation. Lindor is a top-five player and a marketer’s dream. Righthander Mike Clevinger is becoming an ace. Shane Bieber, 24, a control artist coming into ’19, struck out 259. All-Star infielder José Ramírez was lost for half a season and still managed to be a three-win player. The bullpen could be the hardest to hit in the game (although Clase will miss three months with a back strain). But the team won’t address the bottom 15 roster spots. The big free agent? Thirty-year-old second baseman César Hernández, who has a career 97 OPS+.

There’s a path to 90 wins, especially if Carlos Carrasco returns strong from leukemia. Still, it’s hard to look at the Indians, with so much homegrown talent paid so little, and not wonder whether Larry Dolan’s aggressive payroll cutting means they’ll never get back to where they were in 2016. — Joe Sheehan

Projected Record: 84-78, 3rd in AL Central

Trading Corey Kluber may not have hurt much, but Cleveland didn’t get better this winter. Because the Twins and White Sox improved, standing still was the same as getting worse.

Key Question: Will the Indians trade or extend Francisco Lindor?

Cleveland is in a tough spot when it comes to the face of the franchise. The Indians’ window of contention is closing, and there is a legitimate concern they won’t be able to afford Lindor, one of the games best players, when he hits free agency after the 2021 season. To avoid that, their two logical options are 1) to trade him this season for prospects and/or young MLB players, or 2) to sign him to an extension before he hits the open market and then build around him throughout the length of that new contract. — Matt Martell

Player Spotlight

Moving Up: James Karinchak, RP

Karinchak, 24, appeared in only five MLB games in ’19, but in 30 1/3 innings in the minors he struck out 74 batters—or 22 whiffs per nine.

Moving Down: Aaron Civale, SP

Civale’s performance over 10 late-season starts was a bit of a mirage. He doesn’t throw hard, and his FIP was a full run higher than his ERA.

Watchability Ranking: You Could Do Worse

Francisco Lindor and José Ramirez still have the potential to be the most fun infield tandem in baseball. But it’s understandably hard to find this team too exciting after another less-than-inspiring winter in a division that’s only gotten tougher. (There was one must-watch addition, however: Emmanuel Clase, acquired in the Corey Kluber trade.) — Emma Baccellieri 

Preview of the 2030 Preview

Francisco Lindor, SS: After Lindor opted out of his Angels megadeal, signed in 2022, to pursue shorter-term, higher-salary contracts in Texas and Atlanta, the door was left ajar for a reunion on the shores of Lake Erie. The supposed acrimony between Lindor and Cleveland was always overblown—both sides knew his departure was inevitable. Though his power is limited, he’s still lithe and quick, and his smile is just as radiant as it was in his ’15 debut. Lindor is not a star anymore, but he is back where he became one. — Craig Goldstein