The Los Angeles Dodgers just finished off the Tampa Bay Rays in six games to capture the 2020 World Series. With that it is officially the start of the MLB offseason and a chance for all 30 teams to look towards next season. The Indians are finishing what has been an exciting five-year run with four playoff appearances and an AL Pennant to show for it. There hasn’t been this kind of consistency in Cleveland baseball since those great 1990s teams.
Like all those teams, with the turn of the decade that period has come to an end and the Indians are about to start a rebuild. Most Indians fans will be frustrated by this, but when one looks at how the team has finished the last couple of seasons it has become apparent that the roster isn’t up to snuff with the other top teams in baseball.
When Indians fans think of a rebuild it harkens back to the decade-plus rebuild of the early 2000s or the generation and a half rebuild between the late ’50s and the mid ’90s. This won’t be that type of rebuild as GM Chris Antonetti and president Mike Chernoff have done an excellent job balancing the need to win now and maintaining a strong farm system. Though most of the rankings have the Indians just outside the top ten, their farm system is deep as nine of their twelve top prospects are not even 21 years old yet (mlb.com). Also taking into account that SS Francisco Lindor and possibly SP Carlos Carrasco will be on the move this offseason, they will possibly add several more high end prospects. This will put the Indians, who already have a championship-caliber rotation, in an excellent position to reboot quickly.
Now, prospects are never guarantees and there is no telling for sure how long it will take the Indians to rebuild their lineup. That was the most glaring weakness on the team this season and made the short 60-game schedule feel a lot like a 162-game season. The writing has been on the wall since the 2017 playoff series with the New York Yankees, when the Indians blew a two to nothing series lead and the offense fell off the map the last three games. It was exacerbated by the three-game sweep at the hand of the Houston Astros where the Indians mustered a total of six runs during the series (baseball-reference.com). After missing the playoffs last year and another subpar showing this season – it is finally time to turn the page.
For Indians fans, the excitement should come from the unknown possibilities of what comes next. If the Indians tried to make a run with the same roster we all know where that would end – another early postseason exit at best. Now the next couple of seasons will be filled with some bad baseball and disappointment as the young prospects go through the typical growing pains. One positive is the Indians will still have one of the best pitching staffs in the MLB and should maintain a solid bullpen. With 3B Jose Ramirez still in the lineup, they will be competitive (just not playoff-ready). This will give time for the Indians to give extended looks at high-ceiling prospects such as 1B Bobby Bradley at first and top prospect infielder Nolan Jones. Both have the potential to be 30 to 40 homerun players and the upside of giving them consistent at-bats is tantalizing. If one or both develop, the Indians could have a powerful lineup with Bradley, Jones, Ramirez and 1B Franmil Reyes.
There are other intriguing prospects who have been blocked at the big league level as well. SS Yu Chang is one such player who has been waiting years to get an opportunity to play everyday. Projected as a shortstop, he doesn’t have the upside to be a SS Francisco Lindor-type player but does have some intriguing power potential and has shown his ability to hit at each level. In the outfield, it will definitely be nice to get some fresh blood as they haven’t had any consistent outfield production since LF Michael Brantley left in free agency after the 2018 season. OF Daniel Johnson and LF Jake Bauers are two guys who could get to see a lot of at-bats and each brings intriguing upside. Johnson is a potential top of the order outfielder who can get on base and has top level athleticism. Bauers is one of those players who has had several opportunities in the big leagues and has yet to show the promise the Indians saw when they traded for him from Tampa. The talent is there and possibly a full season to get his feet under him could do him some good. Another player to watch is LF Josh Naylor who struggled during the regular season but had a big performance in the AL wild card series against the Yankees. It will be interesting to see if he is able to carry that momentum into next year.
Next season will also be a chance for LF Bradley Zimmer and CF Oscar Mercado to see if they should be in the Tribe’s future plans. Zimmer has the potential to be a gold glove defender but has overall struggled at the plate. His great defense has limited his ability to develop as a hitter as an injury in the outfield caused him to miss almost two full seasons. He got a small chance this year to get reacclimated, but next year will be very telling if he can finally live up to the potential. CF Oscar Mercado also had a terrible season this year after a promising rookie campaign. He is a solid defender and has shown flashes at the plate to be a solid everyday player. One could chalk up this season to just a sophomore slump made worse by the pandemic. The positive outlook for Mercado is he learned from this past season and is able to make adjustments to get back to where he was in 2019.
The championship window in Cleveland has closed and that is a tough pill to swallow, but it is time for the Indians to look forward. The lineup next season will be dramatically different but still be just as frustrating. That is a tougher pill to swallow with young players attempting to develop than with aging and underperforming veterans. Going into this season, Indians fans knew the team wasn’t good enough to win the World Series. This upcoming season is of a new beginning and the excitement comes from watching young players attempt to cement their names in the Indians future. The potential of the unknown is better than knowing that you aren’t quite good enough.