If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper! For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear. It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about. It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.
These answers were obtained before (or very soon after) spring training was halted and Opening Day was delayed. Obviously, things may be very different when baseball returns but my hope is that this gives you a good feel for the Indians, even if some specific items may be affected.
For the first time in three years, the Indians didn’t get to represent the AL Central in October. It didn’t seem that it fazed them, however, given the quiet offseason they had. Well, save for that one trade that stood out. We’ve got our Cleveland friends here to talk all about that and much, much more!
C70: From the outside looking in, the biggest move of the offseason for the Indians was the trade of Corey Kluber. What did you think about that deal?
Joseph: From the inside, this was also considered the biggest move. Over the years as we’ve followed Kluber we’ve used a lot of different superlatives to describe him and now there is no question that he was one of the greatest pitchers in Indians history and at least the best since Sam McDowell in the late 1960’s. With a team friendly contract through his mid-30’s, it appeared that he could be the team’s first superstar to spend his entire career in Cleveland since Bob Feller. I believe that trading him instead of declining his option and allowing him to hit free agency was incredibly disrespectful towards a player who played under market value for his entire career. Obviously, this way they were able to do more for the franchise by bringing back a highly thought of reliever in Emmanuel Clase, so it wasn’t just a salary dump, but it doesn’t sit well with me.
Nino: I have always been okay with the idea of trading Corey Kluber. I think he provided some tremendous value on the market, and with a rotation that has plenty of options, you could really improve other areas of your team with the right swap or deepen your prospect stash and open up salary to make an addition somewhere else. Turns out the avenue the Indians took was the last one. Turns out though, the Indians didn’t open up salary to get the impact outfielder a lot of people thought they’d add when they pulled the deal. The Indians pulled in a good arm in Emmanuel Clase, a slick throwing reliever, and the thought was they’d then use the money freed up to get an outfielder to complete their offseason. That never happened and now Clase is out for a few months. So, woof, the deal may not look all that great on the surface even though Clase could make an impact, this year and long term.
C70: A lot of Cardinals fans still keep tabs on Oscar Mercado. What are your expectations for him this year?
Joseph: It’s hard to know what to expect with Mercado, because his 2019 season was completely unexpected. Immediately after the trade, the reports from the Cardinals based sites that I saw considered him a great defender and base stealer with little to no power and his numbers from the generally offensive skewed PCL backed that up. Instead, he was a decent power threat for Cleveland and was poor defensively early on. As the season went on, his defense improved significantly and I would expect him to also become more aggressive on the bases as his confidence continues to increase. With a terrifyingly thin group of outfielders set to start the 2020 season, Mercado seems to be the only guaranteed starter and could provide some consistency up the middle as they try to plug the corners.
Nino: Big things. Mercado is the one outfielder that the Indians can feel really good about. He brings an important dynamic to the lineup and is really the guy the Indians have to rely on defensively to cover a lot of ground. With Bradley Zimmer needing to stay healthy, Mercado has really settled himself as the team’s outfielder for now and the future. Recently he sprained his wrist, but if that’s the extent of it, he should be ready to go this year and I think the expectations for him are super high. It will be mostly interesting to see how the Indians utilize him in terms of lineup positioning, but wherever it is, he’ll be an important piece to it.
C70: Is there a prospect that will come up and make a major impact this season?
Joseph: There will likely be quite a few as the MLB roster is very light in a few places, particularly the outfield as already mentioned and second base. The biggest name, however, is certainly Nolan Jones at third. While the current plan is to keep Jose Ramirez at third, Jones is such an impressive hitter and such a poor fielder that it’s almost a certainty that Ramirez will be moved back to second at some point. Other than his glove however, Jones also had the set back of surgery on his right thumb during the 2019 Arizona Fall League season and that could be enough of an excuse to keep him out of the big leagues for awhile.
The more conventional answer would be Daniel Johnson who should have been called up last September, but was sent home following the AAA season. He provides a similar skill set to Mercado with more power and could make the Indians outfield a defensive asset instead of the liability it is expected to be.
Nino: If the outfield perils continue, Daniel Johnson will probably be needed and could be an impact in terms of a bat that the Indians will need, but I’m anticipating James Karinchak to be the prospect that makes the most impact. Karinchak is electric and can be a huge asset out of the bullpen from the get-go.
C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?
Joseph: This is the first season in a long time that the Indians haven’t been the unilateral favorite to win the division and they certainly didn’t do anything during the off-season to improve the franchise. That being said, the core of the team (Francisco Lindor, Ramirez, Carlos Santana, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber to start) is as strong as any team in the league. I expect them to compete strongly for the division along with the Twins, but to ultimately sit behind them in the standings. The White Sox are a looming threat as well and could compete for a Wild Card spot along with the Indians.
Nino: I, and many others thought last year was a given. And it wasn’t. The Twins really put things together and the Indians lackluster start turned out to be their demise. It will absolutely happen again this year if they don’t start off better this year. The thought is they can make a mid-season deal to improve the team, but that shouldn’t be the strategy and if this team doesn’t come together in some way in the beginning, they won’t win the division again. They have pieces, they have solid pitching, arms in the bullpen, and a solid core. What is holding them back is the lack of supportive cast and options if some of those core pieces go down.
C70: What’s the main topic Indians fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?
Joseph: If Mike Aviles and Jason Kipnis can play center and Carlos Santana can play left in the World Series with absolutely no experience at the position, how bad can Franmil Reyes really be out there? With Santana, Bobby Bradley and Reyes expected to be on the 26 man roster and Nolan Jones knocking on the door, the Indians have a ton of designated hitters/first basemen and, unlike you National Leaguers, only get one DH per game. The rule changes to increase the roster to 26 people and essentially destroy the LOOGY could help the Indians roster all these players, but won’t help maximize offense without killing the defense. An outfield of Daniel Johnson and Mercado could help hide someone like Reyes, however, and the short field in left has certainly helped quite a few poor defenders in recent Indians history.
Nino: Not quite sure what the buzz is around the Indians for people outside looking in. Probably the will/they won’t they with Francisco Lindor but I can say that is likely more of a non-issue for fans. Most are resigned to the fact that he’s probably leaving and the Indians will either trade him or make a run with him. The biggest issue around the offseason I mentioned earlier was not using funds freed up from the Kluber trade. Indians fans like to fixate on one thing and right now, the lack of moves made is the big thing.
C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?
Joseph: Since 2011, my main beat has been covering the Indians AZL teams and the first great player I covered in Goodyear was Bobby Bradley (2014 AZL triple crown winner and MVP). Personally, it’s very exciting to see players that I’ve followed for their entire professional career reach the big leagues. The strength of the Indians MiLB system as a whole could show through greatly this season as the young starters like Aaron Civale and Bieber are backed up by the next generation of big arms (potentially including Triston McKenzie) and infielders like Jones and Yu Chang should help sustain the loss of longtime Tribesman Jason Kipnis.
Similarly, the bullpen is a huge question mark that could be very exciting as new blood (Clase and James Karinchak specifically) looks to supplant some of those pitchers who have been worn down over the last few seasons. Of course, we are also under strict orders to enjoy Francisco Lindor, so that’s a necessity.
Nino: I honestly got nothing. Last season was really depressing with all the expectations. The only thing that can really make a lot of us feel better about things is winning it all and that’s always coming down to the crap-shoot that is the MLB postseason the way the Indians build their team. So, I guess I’m looking forward to seeing if this team has enough to not let the Twins win the division again. We need to see some of the young guys settle into some spots. There’s a lot of promise with some of the players outside the big names of Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger, but they all need to take steps. Shane Bieber, may be one of them as he’s a front of the rotation guy now and between him and Clevinger, the staff is really going to need to rely on both of them to stay healthy and productive all year.