In a recent tweet, fantasy baseball writer Scott White lamented that 21 of the 22 teams in his dynasty league were rebuilding. This sad state of affairs shows how easy it is for fantasy baseball players to throw in the towel for a whole year without having to worry about the consequences of a dwindling fanbase or disgruntled sponsors or deteriorating reputation.
Last season in MLB, there were at least eight teams with no intention of competing for a playoff spot, although the San Francisco Giant’s rebuilding plans took a hit when they found themselves second in the division at the trade deadline.
There are very few teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers or St Louis Cardinals who appear immune to the cyclical nature of a baseball franchise’s contention window and can field competitive teams each season without having to tank completely. Even fewer teams are able to pull off the elusive rebuild-but-stay-competitive strategy perfected by the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays.
So what is happening with the Cleveland Indians?
When Rajai Davis took Aroldis Chapman deep to tie up Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, it appeared that Cleveland was on course to claim their first World Series since 1948. Instead, the franchise is saddled with the longest drought in MLB.
Slowly, the core of the team is being dismantled. None of the five pitchers used in Game 7 (Kluber, Bauer, Andrew Miller, Cody Allen or Bryan Shaw) remains, and only five hitters from the 25-man roster are still on the books (Roberto Perez, Carlos Santana, Lindor, Tyler Naquin and Jose Ramirez).
The Indians have only spent $6.25 million on free agency acquisitions this offseason, while simultaneously saying goodbye to Kluber, their best pitcher of the last 50 years, and Jason Kipnis, the second baseman who had been with the club since the Indians drafted him in 2009. Ownership has saved $25 million compared to last season’s payroll but has not looked eager to spend.
At the opposite end of the ambition scale, and despite breaking the MLB home run record, the Minnesota Twins have not rested on their laurels. They have committed $134 million to Josh Donaldson and six other free agents, in an attempt to solidify their position as AL Central favourites.
However, it is the team from the Southside of Chicago that is making the biggest offseason waves. The White Sox have invested $282 million in free agents, extensions and arbitration avoidance. Only the New York Yankees (with Gerrit Cole), Washington Nationals (Stephen Strasburg) and Los Angeles Angels (Anthony Rendon) have spent more. The White Sox are making a serious push for the 2020 postseason.
From an optimistic viewpoint
Perhaps the wise minds in Cleveland know Kluber doesn’t have another 200-inning season in him and were wise to trade him before he threw a single pitch this season. Perhaps Emmanuel Clase, who they got from the Rangers in the Kluber deal, with his 99 MPH cutter, is the next Kenley Jansen. Perhaps Delino Deshields, acquired in the same transaction, can live up to the hype he generated as a highly-touted prospect. OK, that last one is a bit of a stretch.
Maybe the underrated on-base machine named Cesar Hernandez (the Indians only offseason acquisition to date) is a better and cheaper option at second base than Jason Kipnis.
Perhaps Franmil Reyes (acquired in the Bauer trade) will take another step forward. I’m not going to argue with anyone suggesting he could lead the AL in homers.
And finally, when Lindor is traded, perhaps the Indians get back a package of MLB regulars and highly-rated prospects, like this one suggested on the MLB.com website.
Rosario is no Lindor, but the difference is manageable, and the 24-year-old could break out at any time.
From a more pessimistic viewpoint
Losing the combined potential of 400 innings from Bauer and Kluber puts so much pressure on the unproven pitchers at the back of the rotation/Triple-A. Can a team with Adam Plutko and Zach Plesac combining for 50 starts realistically contend?
The front office opted not to strengthen the outfield, so the below-average trio of Greg Allen (63 wRC+), Jake Bauers (78 wRC+) and Oscar Mercado (95 wRC+) will likely start on Opening Day. They are no match for the heavyweight outfield in Minnesota or Chicago.
And then you still have the Lindor question. Even if the Indians get back a Major League shortstop, the lineup takes such a hit without the charismatic Puerto Rican. It is quite easy to structure an argument for Lindor as the best player outside of Mike Trout and Mookie Betts.
Another MLB.com trade scenario, shown below, might excite the money men but it puts a nail in the coffin of ending the 72-year World Series drought.
Potential Indians – Dodgers trade
Dodgers get: SS Francisco Lindor
Indians get: OF Alex Verdugo, RHP Dustin May (MLB’s No. 32 prospect), C Keibert Ruiz (MLB’s No. 33 prospect), INF Jeter Downs (MLB’s No. 87 prospect)
Whatever happens, watching the Indians’ season progress will be one of the more intriguing storylines of 2020. At least with the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers in the same division, Cleveland cannot finish lower than mid-division.
Photos by Scott Taetsch, Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images