The Cleveland Indians are Uniquely Rebuilding and Competing

The Cleveland Indians are a compelling case study.

The baseball world keeps waiting for them to embrace a full-blown rebuild. While they’ve traded some high-profile players, it doesn’t feel like they’ve done much. Why? They’re still good enough to contend for the American League playoffs.

Over the last seven months the Indians have made two significant trades. They dealt Trevor Bauer to the Cincinnati Reds in a three-team deal where the Indians acquired outfielders Franmil Reyes and Yasiel Puig, left-handed pitchers Logan Allen and Scott Moss, and infielder Victor Nova.

When this deal was made the Indians were 62-43, in the thick of the AL Wild Card race. They made the deal because they felt they had the pitching depth to withstand Bauer’s departure. Plus, he was having a shaky season, anyway. While they missed the playoffs, Cleveland was in the playoff mix until the cows came home and finished 93-69, two games better than their 2018 mark.

They did this after trading/losing multiple position players to free agency in the offseason (Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion, Yonder Alonso, and Yan Gomes), Corey Kluber breaking his forearm after seven starts, and Jose Ramirez struggling to hit his weight in the first half of the season. That’s remarkable.

Back in December the Indians traded their longtime ace and two-time American League Cy Young Award winner, Kluber, to the Texas Rangers for outfielder Delino DeShields and reliever Emmanuel Clase.

Kluber recorded a 5.80 ERA across the seven starts he made last season. With just two years remaining on his contract, it seemed like a given that the Indians would at least shop Kluber.

Think about it: they were basically without the right-hander for all of last season and still knocked on the door of the playoffs in an AL that saw five other teams win at least 90 games. They turned Kluber into a hard-throwing reliever (Clase) and a seasoned outfielder (DeShields); they’re better than they were five months ago.

Guess what? They Indians are still a player in the AL playoff race.

The biggest story of the 2019 season was the development of their young starting pitchers, specifically Shane Bieber. The 24-year-old right-hander was the leader of Cleveland’s pitching staff last season. Posting a 3.28 ERA and 1.05 WHIP while totaling 259 strikeouts, he was one of the best starting pitchers in Major League Baseball and won the 2019 MLB All-Star Game Most Valuable Player Award.

Meawhile, Zach Plesac turned some heads, recording a 3.81 ERA across 21 starts, and Aaron Civale was a late-season development, posting a 2.34 ERA across 10 starts. This all happened with Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco making just a combined 33 starts. When healthy, the two are All-Star caliber starting pitchers.

Albeit they were 29th in innings pitched (507.1), manager Terry Francona‘s bullpen, headlined by Brad Hand, Nick Wittgren, and Oliver Perez, was one of the more efficient units in the sport. They were second in ERA (3.67), 30th in walks (175), and 27th in home runs (72).

The Indians are loaded around the diamond; Ramirez is an elite two-way third baseman and managed to turn his .629 July 4 OPS into an .806 OPS by season’s end; Francisco Lindor is arguably the game’s best shortstop; Carlos Santana hit 34 home runs and posted a career-best .911 OPS; Oscar Mercado was one of the best rookies in baseball last season, holding down the fort in center field and slapping base hits to all fields.

Jordan Luplow posted a career-best .923 OPS; Roberto Perez is one of the best hitting catchers in baseball; the Indians replaced long-time second baseman Jason Kipnis, 32, with 29-year-old Cesar Hernandez, who totaled a career-high 71 RBIs last season and is a versatile fielder (Hernandez has starting experience at second and third base, shortstop, and center field).

The Indians are also reportedly nearing a deal with outfielder Domingo Santana per’s Paul Hoynes. Santana totaled 21 home runs and 69 RBIs last season and posted an .875 OPS in 2017.

Yes, they play in an AL Central division that has beefed up over the last year; the Minnesota Twins added Josh Donaldson to a 101-win team that had one of, if not the most productive lineup in baseball last season, and the Chicago White Sox are on the come-up and made several significant moves this offseason. At the same time, the Indians play the Twins tough, and the White Sox are unproven.

The Indians have found a way to win 90-plus games in each of the last four seasons. The recurring question is what the future holds for Lindor?

He has two more years left on his contract, has been dangled in numerous trade discussions this offseason, and is one of the few players that remain from the high-octane Indians teams of years past. Practically, it would make sense to maximize his value and get back a king’s ransom to stockpile more young talent.

On the contrary, the Indians seem content holding on to him. Why? They have a well-rounded ballclub with elite players. In the scenario they’re hovering around .500 and/or out of the playoff picture around the MLB trade deadline, they can look to flip Lindor to a contender; he’d still evoke a massive asset consumption.

Cleveland brain trust has the competitive spirit to not rip up their entire core. When they trade a homegrown player, they get back young players with upside who can help them win in the short term.

Reyes demolishes baseballs; DeShields is a capable starter and interchangeably plays left and center field; Clase adds velocity to their bullpen; Santana can play both corner outfield positions and is a proven hitter.

The Cleveland Indians are rebuilding and making moves to win at the same time — and they have a team that can continue to win 90-plus games. It’s fascinating.

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