Since the team’s playoff berth in 2013, and the onset of the the Francona era, one phrase has been emphasized seemingly endlessly by writers such as this one “threading the needle”. The organization with a limited intention to spend, has focused on the concept of sustained contention, and the idea that sustaining slightly above-average or better rosters for a significant period results in the organizations best financial situation and World Series chance. The team pushed all the chips in from 2016-2018 be it the Andrew Miller trade, signing Edwin Encarnacion, or paying $5 million for left-handed matchup reliever Boone Logan. Since October of 2018, the team has been shedding salary in an exercise towards “threading the needle” and sustaining contention.
It all started with Edwin Encarnacion, a 3-year $60 million deal that the team was unwilling to pay the third year of. However, to call this deal an attempt at threading the needle is probably a bit generous. It was a salary dump, the organization attached Yandy Diaz, to Encarnacion’s contract in order to attain salary relief, and for lesser prospect Jake Bauers. Diaz while not a star has been the high floor player everyone expected, a league minimum position player with above average offense. Also known, as the organization’s greatest shortfall.
Then came the trade of the irascible Trevor Bauer. Bauer was a big time asset with a year and a half remaining, as well as carrying a significant salary. The team was trading an impact pitcher to thread the needle and add long term help. Cleveland received right fielder Yasiel Puig and lefty pitching prospect Scott Moss from the Reds and three players from the Padres: outfielder Franmil Reyes, young left-hander Logan Allen, and rookie-level infielder Victor Nova. The key was of course Franmil Reyes, an individual who has locked in as a long term outfielder, and above average bat. Additionally, the team acquired projects in Scott Moss and Logan Allen for the pitching factory as well as a low-minors flier.
Next came, the inexplicably late trade of Corey Kluber, which once again was more salary dump than effort to thread the needle. The reward was a high-end bullpen prospect in Emmanuel Clase, and a fifth outfielder who played with the frequency of a starting outfielder.
Finally, the Mike Clevinger deal which provided number of solid, win-later prospects in outfielder/first baseman Josh Naylor, catcher Austin Hedges, right-hander Cal Quantrill, minor league shortstop Gabriel Arias, minor league left-hands Joey Cantillo and minor league infielder Owen Miller.
Naylor appears to have been a strong buy-low with a real shot at being a starting outfielder. Castillo and Quantrill are great fits for the pitching factory. Finally, many would argue Arias primarily, and Miller secondarily were the focal points, a few have strong beliefs that Arias could be an impact short stop in a couple of years.
Independently, a number of these deals look strong, especially for the concept of sustained contention, and yet, with a Lindor deal impending for the first time in nearly eight years, the roster may be more average than above-average.
The rotation is once again formidable with Shane Bieber, a pitcher with a legitimate claim on best pitcher in baseball at this moment. Behind him is Carlos Carrasco the heart of Cleveland, all command Aaron Civale, athletic Zach Plesac, and enigmatic Triston McKenzie. The rotation still projects as a top-10 rotation in baseball though not near the heights of peak Bieber-Kluber-Clevinger-Carrasco-Bauer.
Of course, the biggest issue with Cesar Hernandez unlikely to return, Carlos Santana gone, and Francisco Lindor on the block is that in 2020, the team was 27th in wRC+. The team is coming off two straight seasons off abysmal bottom of the league offense, and only looks to lose more offense.
Assuming a Lindor trade and using Dan Szymborski’s ZIP projections, the team is projected to have only 4 average or above offensive players in 2020, Jose Ramirez, Franmil Reyes, Jordan Luplow, and Josh Naylor. Luplow of course is a platoon player, and Reyes/Naylor are on the top end of the defensively limited list. If one was to look for a positive, Nolan Jones is projected at near league average, and has a strong offensive foundation. However, this team played 2019-2020 with significantly below-average and can only really be expected to get worse.
The reality is that a Lindor trade introduces an actual rebuild, because while the team has structured a number of deals around the long term, the team just has not been able to add the position player talent to have continuous sustainable contention. This is not a ringing criticism, the team was a legitimate World Series contender from 2016 to 2018, and was sustainably competitive for an eight year run. Even 2021 does not project to be a bad team but the team’s inability to develop and acquire near term position players over the past two years has hamstrung the franchise.
The bright spot for the organization is that the minor league system is very deep, and perhaps best situated since the Lindor/Ramirez system years. A short rebuild or “retool” is certainly possible as some of the lower-minors talent matriculates closer to the big leagues. The organization was one of the hardest hit by the lack of a minor league season, as a system that entered 2020 with a loaded lower-minor league system and needed further development an differentiation among prospects.
The 2021 Cleveland baseball team will very likely be fine but the team is finally caught closer to the middle than contention, and that will introduce a whole new slew of choices.