On Friday, the Cleveland Indians found themselves in the middle of a classic good news, bad news situation. It was encapsulated by this tweet from their official Twitter account:
We would like to officially welcome Domingo Santana to The Land!
Additionally, Mike Clevinger will undergo surgery on his left knee today and his timetable is TBD. pic.twitter.com/3PSW9gPjeO
— Cleveland Indians (@Indians) February 14, 2020
First, the bad news. While participating in preseason drills earlier in the week, Mike Clevinger partially tore the meniscus in his left knee. After his surgery on Friday, the club announced a recovery timeline of six-to-eight weeks. The short end of his rehab timeline would put him on track to rejoin the team just after Opening Day. But since he’ll have missed all of spring training, it wouldn’t be surprising if he was brought along conservatively. Depending on how much time he needs to ramp up for the season, it’s possible he’d miss as much as the first month.
With Corey Kluber out of the picture, Clevinger’s injury leaves Cleveland with few good options for the fifth spot in their rotation. Adam Plutko is the most likely candidate to pick up those innings, though a strong spring from Logan Allen or Jefry Rodriguez could push them into consideration. Plutko has the most major league experience of the trio, though he hasn’t exactly impressed across three seasons and nearly 200 innings. His extreme fly-ball tendencies have led to a major home run problem. Allen is a former top prospect who was acquired from the Padres in the big Trevor Bauer–Yasiel Puig three-way blockbuster last summer. He reached the majors as a 22-year-old and profiles as a No. 4 starter with a deep repertoire.
Under normal circumstances, losing a pitcher of Clevinger’s caliber for just a month of the season wouldn’t be such a big deal for a team with a deep rotation. But the projected state of the AL Central paints a more dire picture. The defending division champion Twins look even stronger after adding Josh Donaldson and Kenta Maeda and the White Sox look like they’re ready to break out of their years-long rebuilding process. For the first time in a while, Cleveland will be entering the season as a bit of an underdog in their division.
With that context in mind, every single win will be critical for Cleveland in their fight to reach the postseason again. To that end, Cleveland brought in Domingo Santana on a one-year contract. The deal is worth $1.5 million with plenty of incentives and a $5 million club option for 2021. The deal can max out at two years and $7.5 million if all the incentives are met and the option is picked up.
Back in November, I wrote about Cleveland’s unsettled outfield situation. In many ways, they entered this offseason with the same questions about their outfield that they faced prior to 2019. Signing a free-agent outfielder seemed like an obvious need for two offseasons in a row, but no significant move came until now. Unfortunately, signing Santana doesn’t really add anything new to the plethora of options Cleveland already has in-house.
Cleveland has 10 outfielders currently on their 40-man roster. ZiPS projects Santana to have the second-best bat out of this group, but his atrocious defense curtails his overall value to the team. Zimmer and Naquin are both working back from serious injuries, so their availability is up in the air. If Reyes is installed as the regular designated hitter, that leaves Mercado and Luplow as the other two outfielders projected to be more valuable than Santana. The remaining four players all have their warts but each provide Cleveland with plenty of options should they need it.
Santana himself isn’t free of any lingering questions about his abilities either. After a breakout season in 2017, he found himself relegated to a part-time role the next year after the Brewers added Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain to their outfield. Santana had a full-time role again after a trade to Seattle prior to the 2019 season, but a lingering elbow injury curtailed a promising start to the year and he ended up contributing exactly zero wins in over 500 plate appearances.
In many ways, adding Santana feels a bit redundant with Reyes already on the roster. They’re both right-handed, bat-first sluggers with below-average contact abilities. It is likely that Santana’s injury last season diminished his power output. Through the end of July, he had posted a 119 wRC+ with an ISO over .200 and a strikeout rate just over 30%, but he collected just three hits in 51 plate appearances over the final two months of the season. If he’s completely healthy, Cleveland added a potent bat to their lineup on a very affordable contract.
The real sticking point with Santana has been his defense. With the Mariners, he was pushed into left field after playing right field for most of his career. He really struggled with the switch in positions and was the worst fielding left fielder per UZR and the fourth-worst per DRS last year. After Mitch Haniger went down with his unfortunate injury, Santana was shifted back to right field and fared a little better, though he was still far below average with the glove.
If Reyes wasn’t already on the roster, Santana would have made for a perfect candidate to take regular at-bats as the designated hitter. Instead, Cleveland will likely send Santana out to left field with some sort of platoon involving Luplow in right. It’s possible Santana’s bat rebounds enough to provide real value to Cleveland that outweighs his defensive deficiencies — after all, he was worth more than three wins in 2017 despite the poor defense. And despite all the risk that Santana ends up being a flop, the club also has plenty of replacements ready should that turn out to be the case.