The Annual ‘What Went Wrong’ Indians Recap – Part One
Bob Toth | On 23, Oct 2020
Even with the shortened 60-game regular season and a brief two-game playoff stint, I needed a break from coverage of the Cleveland Indians (also, some grueling hours at the job that pays the bills over the last couple of weeks made time for writing minimal). An underwhelming offseason the winter before, mixed results during the 2020 campaign, and an abysmal showing in the expanded playoff format a few weeks ago piled on to make it tough to put my thoughts into appropriate family-friendly terms. The step away helped to give me some prerogative on what transpired over the course of the last couple of months, but does not give me a lot of happy vibes about what is in store for the Indians’ organization in the months and years ahead.
Obviously, the 2020 season didn’t go as planned for anybody. Spring Training ramped up in February and was near its conclusion in March when the coronavirus began to truly run rampant across the United States, slamming the door on nearly all non-essential activities. After an uncomfortable amount of bickering as to the length of a shortened schedule shined an unpleasant light on future labor negotiations in the not-so-distant future between players and ownership, baseball returned for Spring Training 2.0. The shortened 60-game slate of games was pulled off, with only a handful of glitches in particular hot spots across the MLB landscape. Playoff bubbles were implemented to help conclude play and, shockingly to some, the World Series started Tuesday from Arlington, Texas, where the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers began the final leg of their championship pursuits, one which may come with an asterisk next to it in the annals of baseball history.
As for the Indians, this season is another “what if” story in the 120-year history of American League play on the shores of Lake Erie.
After heading home early with a “disappointing” second place finish at 93-69 in 2019, the Indians shook up their starting rotation for the second time in five months last offseason. Following the trade of Trevor Bauer at the July deadline for a package of prospects, rental Yasiel Puig, and outfielder/DH Franmil Reyes, the Tribe dealt two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber in December for what seemed to be an underwhelming return of Delino DeShields and Emmanuel Clase. DeShields caught COVID before reporting to Cleveland, delaying the start of his Indians career and limiting him to just 37 games. Clase got busted for performance enhancing drugs and watched the season from home. He was expected to team with Brad Hand and James Karinchak in the back end of the Cleveland bullpen, so that threw a wrench (instead of a cutter) into the Tribe’s relief plans.
Kluber, to the chagrin of the Texas Rangers, pitched one inning before tearing his right teres muscle. He missed the whole season.
The Tribe’s biggest offseason move was signing free agent second baseman Cesar Hernandez from the Philadelphia Phillies. That decision, while underwhelming on paper at the time, was one of the things that went right for the Indians in 2020. The 30-year-old eighth-year man played in 58 of 60 games, posting a .283/.355/.408 slash with an AL-high 20 doubles while playing on a one-year, $6.25 million tender. He would be a wise investment by the Indians front office this offseason, if he did not outprice himself from the team’s dwindling financial resources (that statement is one of the looming things that has gone wrong and will continue to go wrong for this organization moving forward).
The lack of offseason moves left far too many questions across the lineup card, even with expanded rosters anticipated for parts of the season (ultimately kept for the duration). Beyond the all switch-hitting infield quartet of Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Hernandez, and Carlos Santana from left to right, there were some concerns. Roberto Perez was coming off of a career year at the plate and a Gold Glove season behind it in 2019, but he was injured in the first game of the season and never got going at the plate (limited to just 32 games, he contributed a .165/.264/.216 slash with two doubles, one homer, and just five RBI). Defensively, he led baseball with a 71% caught-stealing effort.
While the team may not have expected the decline of Perez offensively (most probably a result of his early injury), they could not have had high hopes at the plate for the reserves behind him. And little they did – the combination of Perez, Sandy Leon, Beau Taylor, and Austin Hedges hit .135 with a .251 on-base percentage and .197 slugging mark with three homers and 11 RBI on the year. Not surprisingly, the catching group was the worst among all 30 teams, with stats that included a batting average more than 30 points worse than the next closest team (San Diego at .168) and the only catching core in baseball to fail to slug .300 or better (they were 108 points behind Colorado’s .305 mark).
The outfield group wasn’t much better. Individually, each of the three spots was in the bottom fifth in key offensive stats while the team ran out option after option looking for someone to take the jobs available. The outfield as a whole in 60 games provided a .196/.270/.304 line with 24 doubles, four triples, eleven homers, and 62 RBI.
Left field primarily went to Jordan Luplow, who was slowed out of the gate with a back injury and was supposed to be a platoon option at best. Josh Naylor took over the role heavily after coming over from San Diego, but he hit .230 with just three doubles and two RBI in 22 games after being acquired via trade.
Oscar Mercado became the posterchild for the sophomore slump. The only player truly locked into an outfield position during the spring, he lost the role after a horrific start and never got going. He was eventually optioned to the team’s alternate training site in Lake County after DeShields was activated from the injured list and performed when given the chance. He made 33 appearances in center for the Tribe, while Mercado made just 21.
Tyler Naquin was supposed to carry the lion’s share of the innings in right field but, shocker to few, he landed on the injured list after a fluke foul ball late in the second spring training resulted in broken right big toe. He missed a couple of weeks and provided inconsistent results upon returning to the lineup.
Domingo Santana was signed to a one-year, $1.25 million deal with a $5 million option for 2021, but he lasted just 24 games before the team cut bait. He was hitting .157 at the time with three doubles, two homers, and 12 RBI. He proved to be a low-risk scratch-off lottery ticket that came up a loser.
Franmil Reyes served almost exclusively as the team’s designated hitter and he was as streaky at the plate as anyone. He played in all but one game for the team during the year and posted some of the best offensive numbers on the roster (.275/.344/.450 with ten doubles, nine homers, and 34 RBI) around some streaks of hot and cold play. Hitting just .163 through his first 13 games, he hit .515 with seven multi-hit games in a nine-game span in the second and third weeks of August to shoot his average up to .316, but then he cooled off dramatically. After a ten-hit series (including a 5-for-5 day on September 1) in a three-game set with Kansas City to end August and open September, he hit just .169 with just one homer in his final 23 games of the season. He frequently went from locked-in to lost with the stick and it appeared as though he was making matters worse pushing hard to fix things with the short clock of the season ticking away quickly.
The first baseman Santana had the worst season of his career, which really hurt an offense that was banking on production from him. In season eleven, he was a mainstay in the lineup, but he contributed a .199 average with a .349 OBP and a .350 slugging mark, all career worsts. Every-other-year Santana had put up career numbers the year before in his first All-Star season in 2019, but he was limited to seven doubles, eight homers, and 30 RBI in 60 games. He did do one thing well as he led the league with 47 walks, but the down numbers entering his age-35 season next year may make the Indians declining his $17.5 million option an easy reality, especially with the front office very openly talking about the devastating financial implications this season placed on the franchise.
Lindor similarly posted his worst career marks at the plate and at the worst time for an Indians organization that may have waited a year too long to try to move the face of the franchise. With the ever-growing likelihood that he gets traded as his contract increases steadily in arbitration, the 26-year-old posted career lows in all three triple stat lines (.258/.335/.415). After hitting .266 through the first five weeks of play with five homers, he opened September hot, hitting .347 in the first half of the month. He was moved out of the three-hole into the leadoff spot, but he went ice cold down the stretch, hitting .136 in the second half of the month, drawing ten walks with just two extra base hits. Like Santana, he was being counted on for much more than he provided.
The best of the bunch was Ramirez, who used an offensive surge late in the campaign to make himself a bona fide Most Valuable Player candidate in the league. His start was quiet and a little underwhelming, with the second of two four-game hitless stretches did some damage to his overall contributions and dropped his average to a season-low .230 on August 21. But in the final week and a half of August, he started to pick things up at the plate, hitting in seven of nine to push his season average back up to .248. He lit the baseball world on fire in September, smashing extra base hits all over the place. Playing through some nagging injuries, he still managed to put up a .366/.453/.841 slash (1.294 OPS) in 23 games, hitting nine doubles and ten homers while driving in 24. Each of his last eleven hits in the regular season were good for extra bases.
The MVP-caliber contributions from Ramirez and the generally pleasant overall results from Reyes still were not enough to make the Tribe offense a threat in a year that the club finished in second place in the AL Central with a 35-25 record. The bats averaged 4.13 runs per game, tied with Kansas City for the second-fewest in the AL (Texas was the worst at 3.73). The Royals were 26-34 on the season and the Rangers were 22-38, the worst record in the AL and second-worst in all of baseball, so the Tribe having an offense comparable to those two clubs was certainly not an encouraging sign.
Thankfully for Indians fans and the organization, the touted pitching staff performed at levels even higher than expected (around some unfortunate decisions made by several members of the rotation and the relocation of one of those core pieces in the blockbuster trade that brought Naylor and others back to Cleveland). Despite that, the strong overall results provided by the pitching staff did not carry into the team’s postseason games, leading to a frustratingly brief stay.
Coming soon: Part 2 of the season in review, focusing in on the pitching staff and the coaching staff.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images