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Cleveland's Losing Streak Should Force a Turning of the Page

The team's recent skid is no aberration. After years of straddling the line between contending and rebuilding, it's time for it to start focusing on the future instead of holding onto its past.
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Cleveland snapped its nine-game losing streak Thursday night with a 7–4 win against the Royals that helped Terry Francona’s squad avoid falling below .500 for the first time since May 1. While this young team deserves to take pride in its stirring comeback, capped off by Franmil Reyes’s first walk-off home run at Progressive Field, it appears to be a temporary respite in what seems destined to end up as the first losing campaign of Francona’s tenure in The Land.

Cleveland is still just as close in the standings to the massively disappointing, fourth-place Twins as it is to the division-leading White Sox. Its first nine-game losing skid since the Manny Acta era should cause an overdue reexamination of this club’s ceiling.

July opened with sweeps at the hands of the Astros and Rays, who booted Cleveland out of Tampa with a seven-inning no-hitter, extending a sobering stretch that included series losses to the Tigers, Twins and Pirates over the last three weeks. The no-no’s unofficial nature spared Cleveland from becoming the first team in MLB history to be no-hit three times in one season.

Eddie Rosario was having his worst season at the plate in Cleveland before an abdominal strain sidelined him earlier this week.

Eddie Rosario was having his worst season at the plate in Cleveland before an abdominal strain sidelined him earlier this week.

On June 29, the day before Detroit swept it in a doubleheader to start the losing streak, Cleveland was two games back in the wild-card chase, another half-game behind Chicago in the AL Central and held a 26% chance of making the playoffs, per Fangraphs. That figure was down to 5.4% before Thursday’s win. There are still four AL East teams and four AL West teams with better records, meaning the climb to clinch a wild-card spot is perhaps even more daunting than the eight-game divisional lead held by the White Sox.

The two starters with the most innings pitched—Shane Bieber and Aaron Civale—are on the injured list with no timetable to return, and the third (Zach Plesac) returned from a freak thumb injury Thursday on a 60-pitch limit. He hung a bunch of off-speed pitches, two of which resulted in homers to Carlos Santana and Hunter Dozier, and gave up three runs in four innings.

Aside from that trio, Cleveland’s starters have combined for an 8.00 ERA, which has dragged down the rotation’s collective ERA to 5.30 (27th in MLB, 13th in AL)—a disastrous result for an organization with a reputation for churning out young arms.

Sure, Cleveland is still only five games back in the wild-card hunt, and that’s not a shameful deficit considering all of the injuries (the aforementioned starters, Eddie Rosario, Josh Naylor, Jordan Luplow) it has sustained in recent weeks. Perhaps the Fightin’ Franconas can salvage this final first-half series against the Royals, come out strong after the All-Star break and convince the front office they have a chance to compete this season.

For the first time in a long time, however, it’d be the wrong move for Cleveland to buy at the deadline. All that time in the treatment room, combined with poor showings by many of the roster’s healthy players, has doomed the club’s shot at maintaining its status as a true contender with the remnants of the core that got it to the Fall Classic in 2016. It’s time to start looking past the second half, and even beyond '22.

Last season, Cleveland finished one game short of its fourth division title in five years, even with Francisco Lindor enduring what was, at that point, his career-worst year at the plate (an output Mets fans would only be slightly less upset about). The strength of last year’s team was its pitching and defense. If you squinted, you could see a possible return to the postseason behind Bieber, José Ramírez and a bunch of talented youngsters beginning to realize their potential.

But Bieber hurt his shoulder, and while his healthy form was good enough to merit an All-Star invite, he was not quite the world-beater he was in 2020—which would've been a lot to ask regardless. Ramírez also deservedly made the All-Star team but is unlikely to match his three previous top-three MVP finishes. The biggest problem of all, now and for the future, is the lack of development displayed by Cleveland’s young position players.

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Bobby Bradley, a 2014 third-round pick, has exhibited the most promise of the bunch as a power-hitting first baseman. But he has a lot of holes in his swing and, accordingly, strikes out a ton; if he’s your system’s best hitting product, there’s a problem. Amed Rosario is still only 25, but we have nearly 2,000 big league plate appearances telling us he’ll never be an average offensive shortstop—and his defense isn’t nearly good enough to make up for it. Corner infielder Yu Chang and utility-type Owen Miller were both completely overmatched in their major league stints this season. Andrés Giménez is just 22 and could still be the shortstop of the future he was acquired to be in the Lindor trade, but his .179/.226/.308 slash line in 85 plate appearances this year wasn’t exactly encouraging. He was optioned to Triple A in mid-May. Jake Bauers was traded to the Mariners last month after he ran out of chances.

Then there are the outfielders, who have been the second-least valuable group in the sport. Bradley Zimmer, a 2014 first-round pick, is 28 and has never matched the .692 OPS he recorded as a rookie in '17. Luplow and Oscar Mercado are both batting below the Mendoza Line. Naylor and Rosario were both below league-average at the dish before getting injured. Harold Ramírez, a 26-year-old castoff from the Marlins in February, has the highest OPS+ (104) among the active options.

This is not the core of a club that can make noise in October.

Oscar Mercado is one of my Cleveland outfielders struggling this season.

Oscar Mercado is one of my Cleveland outfielders struggling this season.

But we ought not to worry about GM Mike Chernoff making any shortsighted moves. Even when it would have behooved the team in the recent past to be more aggressive about acquiring veteran players, team owner Larry Dolan has displayed little desire to exceed his set payroll. When Cleveland had a legitimate chance to end MLB’s longest title drought during its three-year division championship run (2016–18), he largely let the moment pass by after coming so close against the Cubs in the World Series curse-off.

Cleveland traded Trevor Bauer to the Reds before the 2019 trade deadline, then shipped off Mike Clevinger to the Padres before the '20 deadline—both moves abruptly harming campaigns harboring playoff aspirations to avoid losing players who would later leave in free agency. In January, Lindor and Carlos Carrasco were sent to the Mets in a cost-cutting move. Former rotation member Adam Plutko and reliever Adam Cimber were also traded last offseason in separate deals, both for simple cash in return. Instead of using the money saved in all these trades to shore up the outfield, Cleveland sat on its hands.

Oddly enough, its 2016 World Series opponents have fallen to the fringes of playoff contention at the exact same time with an 11-game losing streak that finally ended Wednesday with a Cubs win. Chicago, too, seems to be in for a cost-conscious rebuild that some would call overdue. But the average Cleveland fan probably would have traded fan experiences with the Wrigley faithful in the aftermath of their classic championship matchup, even setting aside the historic victory. At least Cubs fans could see their team's core make multiple runs at a repeat without having multiple key components of the roster cut out midseason. Ramírez and Roberto Pérez are the only meaningful contributors from 2016’s pennant-winning team who have stayed all along in Cleveland, and Pérez is hardly a difference-maker.

So, if it doesn’t make sense to buy, which players could Cleveland sell to true contenders over the next few weeks to recoup prospects? There aren’t many options. In a reflection of the franchise’s league-low $53 million payroll, per Spotrac, the roster contains just a few pending free agents, none of whom would bring back a substantial return. The most likely trade candidates in a measured sell-off would be Cesar Hernandez (.223 BA, .303 OBP and -6 defensive runs saved), injured outfielder Eddie Rosario (who was nontendered by Minnesota last winter and has a career-low .685 OPS in 2021) and reliever Bryan Shaw (3.25 ERA with 45 strikeouts and 27 walks in 36 appearances).

The sad irony here is that trading Ramírez is probably the most sensible path forward. The team’s MVP is signed only through 2023. Unless a bunch of young players drastically improve or Dolan suddenly enables a postpandemic spending spree, Cleveland doesn’t have a path to the World Series over the final two and a half years of Ramírez’s contract (which pays him $12 million in '22 and $14 million in '23). The organization’s farm system was ranked No. 2 by The Athletic’s Keith Law during the preseason, and a blockbuster deal of the three-time All-Star and three-time Silver Slugger winner could vault it up to the top spot. A move of such magnitude would likely happen in the offseason, but if they’re blown away this month with an offer heavy on prospects close to the majors, why not get a head start on the inevitable reload now?

Cleveland's José Ramírez

Trading José Ramírez, Cleveland's best position player, is probably the team's most sensible path forward.

Cleveland announced in December it would adopt a new nickname ahead of the 2021 season. It’ll be a new era for a franchise that’s been known as the Indians since 1915 and long resisted parting with the racist and tasteless Chief Wahoo. It’d be ideal to usher in the new nickname with a World Series–worthy team next season. But the tightfisted approach of its owner has already made that nearly impossible.

As painful as it may be for the team’s fans to hear this for the umpteenth time, the probability of a future World Series title will likely only significantly increase with a move that’ll heavily decrease the odds of a championship this season and the next. Even without a Ramírez trade, it almost certainly isn’t going to happen, anyway.

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