Indians Drop CarGo, Retain Baggage From Offseason

When the Indians signed Carlos Gonzalez on March 19, it had the feel of a student buying an off-brand version of Cliff’s Notes at the Starbucks cash register to thumb through on the way to the final exam. It’s not that the team didn’t do their homework on the 33-year-old outfielder specifically — there’s a reason he was still a free agent at that late date. It’s that they went into the season looking particularly ill-prepared with regards to their outfield picture. The poor play of Gonzalez and the team’s other options isn’t the only reason why Cleveland finds itself looking up at the Twins in the AL Central standings, but it has contributed to a team-wide offensive decline that ranks as the majors’ largest.

The 2018 Indians, who went 91-71, were a very good offensive team. The 2019 Indians, who finished Wednesday 25-23, are not:

The Indians’ Offensive Decline
2018 5.05 216 8.8% 18.9% .259 .332 .434 104
Lg Rk 3 4 5 1 2 3 4 6
2019 3.92 51 10.4% 24.2% .224 .310 .366 78
Lg Rk 13 13 2 9 13 12 14 13

That 26-point drop in wRC+ is the majors’ largest.

Team-wide Changes in wRC+, 2018-19
Team 2018 2019 Dif
Indians 104 78 -26
Blue Jays 101 76 -25
Marlins 83 67 -16
Reds 95 79 -16
Pirates 96 84 -12
Tigers 84 72 -12
Nationals 101 90 -11
Athletics 110 101 -9
Red Sox 110 103 -7
Giants 82 77 -5
Orioles 87 83 -4
Yankees 111 107 -4
Rockies 87 84 -3
Padres 84 85 1
Rays 105 106 1
Dodgers 111 113 2
White Sox 92 94 2
Angels 100 104 4
Brewers 99 103 4
Mets 95 100 5
Royals 88 93 5
Phillies 91 97 6
Braves 97 106 9
Cardinals 98 107 9
Mariners 101 110 9
Diamondbacks 88 100 12
Cubs 100 113 13
Rangers 90 108 18
Astros 110 132 22
Twins 95 119 24

Note the 51-point swing in wRC+ among the AL Central’s top two teams. Where the Indians’ scoring has dropped by 1.13 runs per game relative to last year, the Twins’ has increased by exactly the same amount (from 4.56 to 5.69). At 32-16, they lead the Indians by 6.5 games; our playoff odds give them an 80.2% chance of winning the division to the Indians’ 19.8%

Roster turnover is a major reason for the Indians’ fall-off. Most notably, they lost Michael Brantely (124 wRC+) to free agency, as well as the oft-injured Lonnie Chisenhall (129 wRC+, albeit in just 95 PA due to time lost to strains in each calf), and in-season pickups Melky Cabrera (102 WRC+ in 278 PA) and Josh Donaldson (140 wRC+ in 60 PA). They also traded away Edwin Encarnacion (115 wRC+), Yandy Diaz (115 wRC+), Yan Gomes (101 wRC+), and Yonder Alonso (97 wRC+). In all, that’s eight of their 10 most productive bats (50 PA minimum), with Jose Ramirez (146 wRC+) and Francisco Lindor (130 wRC+) — two of the top hitters in the league — the holdovers. More on them shortly.

The trades have been a mixed bag, at least in the short term. Encarnacion and Diaz were part of a three-way deal that yielded Carlos Santana from the Mariners and Jake Bauers from the Rays. Santana, who spent 2010-17 with Cleveland before signing a free agent deal with the Phillies, has been the team’s best hitter (.291/.409/.491, 136 wRC+), more or less on par with Encarnacion (.254/.368/.514, 140 wRC+) but with more regular play at first base instead of DH. The 23-year-old Bauers, who hit just .201/.316/.384 (95 wRC+) as a rookie last year, has hit for a higher average but been less productive overall (.227/.312/.360, 79 wRC+) while Diaz has blossomed in Tampa Bay (.256/.339/.500, 124 wRC+). Alonso has fizzled with yonder White Sox (65 wRC+), as has Gomes for the Nationals (69 wRC+). That said, the Indians’ overall level of offensive production at catcher is virtually unchanged, as Roberto Perez’s gains have been offset by the struggles of backup Kevin Plawecki. In a lower profile move, the team dealt light-hitting backup infielder Erik Gonzalez for 25-year-old outfielder Jordan Luplow, who had managed just a 72 WRC+ in 103 PA in Pittsburgh; though he’s struck out in 34.2% of his 73 PA for the Indians, his 105 wRC+ (.242/.301/.500) is good for third on the team.

The Indians signed only one free agent to a major league contract this past winter, namely lefty reliever Oliver Perez — I swear, this isn’t the punchline from a decade-old Mets joke — on a one-year, $2.5 million deal. Of the position players they signed to minor league deals, Hanley Ramirez hit just .184/.298/.327 (69 wRC+) in 57 PA before getting his walking papers. Matt Joyce didn’t even make it to Opening Day; he was released on March 19, when the Indians signed Gonzalez, who hit just .210/.282/.276 (50 wRC+) in 117 PA; he managed just two home runs, and was striking out at a career-worst 28.2% clip.

By the time the Indians signed Gonzalez, it was already clear that they were considerably undermanned in the outfield. On February 1, I tried to match unsigned free agents from our Top 50 list with teams that had obvious needs, noting that according to our depth charts forecasts, the team’s left fielders ranked 29th in the majors in WAR, and their right fielders 28th; between those two positions, the bulk of the playing time was earmarked for Luplow, Tyler Naquin, Greg Allen, and Bradley Zimmer, the last of whom was (and still is) recovering from July 2018 surgery to repair a torn labrum. None of them had produced at anything close to an acceptable level last year, and aside from Luplow, none has done so this year, though in both cases, we’re not talking about huge sample sizes:

Cleveland’s Unproductive Corner Outfielders
Player 2018 PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ 2019 PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Jordan Luplow 103 .185 .272 .359 72 73 .242 .301 .500 106
Tyler Naquin 183 .264 .295 .356 72 96 .278 .316 .378 80
Jake Bauers 388 .252 .201 .316 95 170 .227 .312 .360 79
Greg Allen 291 .257 .310 .343 75 42 .105 .167 .158 -18
Bradley Zimmer 114 .226 .281 .330 63 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A

I’ve included Bauers here because while he was expected to be the team’s regular first baseman, he’s started there just six times, compared to 24 in left field and four in right. Note that aside from him, we’re not talking about spring chickens. Naquin is 28 years old, Allen and Zimmer are 26, and Luplow is 25. While one can find reasons why the Indians might remain committed to each of those players or find them potentially useful — Allen is a speedster who can play center field, Luplow a pull hitter with plus power and the only natural righty swinger in this mix, Naquin an above-average hitter in his most substantial taste of major league action in 2016, Zimmer a 2014 first-round pick who was on top 100 lists as recently as 2017 — none of them projected well, as the aforementioned rankings suggest, and as a group, they made for a high-risk portfolio. Thus, I suggested that Adam Jones, a much-needed righty bat, could provide a boost despite coming off a subpar season (98 wRC+, 0.5 WAR). The Indians ignored my sage advice (they always do, alas), and he went unsigned until March 11, when he landed with the Diamondbacks on a one-year, $3 million deal. Thus far, he’s hit .265/.323/.476 (110 wRC+) with nine home runs, a total that would lead the Indians. Oops.

Jones’ production is a reminder that not every late-signing free agent has struggled out of the gate, but Gonzalez, who as a lefty fit into the mix less well, certainly did. While the Indians tried him as a middle-of-the-order bat, the production wasn’t there; among players with at least 100 PA, his 50 wRC+ put him in the fifth percentile, while both his 86.6 mph average exit velocity and .286 xwOBA put him in the 18th. Still, it’s a jarring sight to see yesterday’s cleanup hitter become today’s just-released free agent, particularly with Naquin having recently hit the IL due to a left calf strain. Zimmer is set to begin a rehab assignment next week, which leaves room for 24-year-old rookie Oscar Mercado, a 45 Future Value fourth-outfielder type who placed 12th on the team’s list this year, to get a look.

As for the rest of the lineup, center fielder Leonys Martin, whose acquisition I praised last July 31 thanks to his newfound ability to elevate the ball, has returned from the life-threatening infection that felled him after he played just six games for the Indians. While he showed some pop in April (five homers, 93 wRC+), he has scuffled mightily in May (one homer, 60 wRC+). Second baseman Jason Kipnis, who is coming off a pair of subpar offensive seasons (81 wRC+ in 2017, 89 in ’18) but was good enough defensively to still post 2.1 WAR last year, has been dreadful (.218/.301/.336, 70 wRC+).

Which brings us to Lindor and Ramirez, the twin engines of this lineup, and two of the majors’ six most valuable players by WAR last year (7.6 for the former, 8.0 for the latter). Lindor, who set additional career highs with 38 homers and a 130 wRC+, missed the team’s first 19 games due to a right calf strain, but has largely returned to form (.296/.349/.513, 119 wRC+). Ramirez, who outdid Lindor with 39 homers and a 146 wRC+ while spending most of the 2018 season as an MVP candidate, has the majors’ seventh-lowest wRC+ out of 170 qualifiers (60) via an abysmal .196/.296/.302 line. As Devan Fink noted just two weeks into the season, his struggles actually date back to last August, and appear to coincide with his attempts to beat the shift while batting left-handed. Focusing only on 2019 stats, he’s been shifted against in 57% of his left-handed plate appearances but just 35% of his right-handed ones. Shift or no, he’s been pulling the ball less, going opposite field more often, and as he’s done it, his average fly ball distance has fallen dramatically:

Jose Ramirez’s Batted Balls, 2018-19
Split GB FB Pull Oppo Avg FB Dist HR/FB Avg FB Dist Pull HR/FB Pull FB wRC+
2018 L 32.1% 46.4% 47.6% 20.6% 329 19.1% 356 52.0% 212
2019 L 32.0% 46.6% 42.3% 24.0% 311 4.2% 326 16.7% -17
2018 R 36.4% 44.8% 55.5% 18.1% 309 8.7% 320 12.5% 45
2019 R 30.4% 52.2% 37.0% 34.8% 301 8.3% 314 25.0% 17

From the left side, which constitutes 62% of Ramirez’s plate appearances, his average fly ball distance has decreased by 18 feet, and his rate of home runs per fly ball is just a quarter of what it was last year. He’s dropped eight feet while batting righty, where his home run rate is basically unchanged (we’re talking about a sample of just 24 fly balls). Note the 30-foot gap when he pulls the ball on the fly, which is central to the Indians’ offensive philosophy, as Travis Sawchik pointed out last year. In 2018, 26 of his 50 pulled fly balls as a left-hander went over the wall, but this year, it’s just two out of 12; from the right side, the percentage has risen, but in smaller sample sizes (from four out of 32 to two out of eight).

How much of Ramirez’s struggles are mechanical versus psychological or philosophical, I can’t say, but his fall-off has been precipitous, and the Indians’ dearth of solid bats to help the lineup withstand his slump sticks out like a sore thumb. The play of Mercado and the return of Zimmer aside, any influx of offense will have to either come from within or by trading from a farm system that’s generally considered to be in the upper half of the league but is currently lacking in near-ready help.

Note that while the team has lost starting pitchers Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger to injuries until at least next month, the rotation still ranks among the AL’s top five in both ERA (4.03) and FIP (3.97), while the bullpen (3.04 ERA, 3.69 FIP) is in the top three in both categories. The pitching has kept this team competitive. The Indians are in danger of missing the postseason for the first time since 2015 due to an offense whose gaps were entirely foreseeable.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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4 years ago

This is something like the 1000th time someone has said this, but teams that look at the projections and say “gee, we’re projected to win the division by 8 games! let’s not improve!” are really much too trusting of the projections. Cleveland has played like a .500 team, is now 7 games back of the Twins, and the whole thing seemed so preventable.

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

It feels sometimes like everyone forgets that the “projections” come from averaging out 34984390843 simulations, and that each one of them, individually, is a possible, viable outcome.

4 years ago
Reply to  hebrew


– Baltimore Orioles and Miami Marlins

4 years ago
Reply to  hebrew

Sometimes I think that the 34984390843 simulations give us a false sense of security, though. You can get a long way with simulations, but only if you’re feeding it the right data. Injuries, in particular, can really wreck a team, and while simulations can try to take that into account there are some obvious scenarios that teams may not really do much to avoid.

4 years ago
Reply to  hebrew

Dr. Strange has nothing on baseball analytics possible outcomes.

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Going into last offseasons 3 teams were projected to be clear division favorites, Astros, Indians, and Dodgers. Dodgers and Astros both kind of just shuffled some deck chairs, letting some guys go, signed some other guys, and tried to rely on some young prospects to improve and contribute more. Right now, Both of those teams are doing exactly what everyone thought they’d be doing.

To me, the issue with the Indians not upgrading is less that they were projected to win the division, and more that they could upgrade, as they had clear weaknesses where even inserting average starters can make a major difference. Whereas the Dodgers and Astros have organizational depth in talent where getting a good player provides more marginal upgrade and protect against injuries than anything else. It is fine to kind of just shuffle around when your roster is filled with average to above average players, and you have elite prospects in the upper minors ready to graduate.

4 years ago
Reply to  baubo

To be fair, the Dodgers last year basically shuffled some deck chairs because they were projected to win by 11 games or something like that, and it literally took them to an extra game to get there after substantial deadline upgrades. Things could have gone very badly for them!

The Astros and Dodgers this year (and the Astros last year) are happier stories, which makes sense because the projections are (generally) more accurate than not, at least in the broader picture. The Astros even could have improved more, since they literally lost 3/5ths of their rotation in the offseason. Sometimes everything goes the way you expect.

Smiling Politely
4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

LAD signed Pollock and Ryu as FA; HOU signed Brantley–granted, Pollock got hurt, but they did more than shuffle the deckchairs. Additionally, the Dodgers don’t just have depth, but 4-5 guys who would start in anyone else’s OF and didn’t trade them for Realmuto. Jaffe’s larger point–that CLE is apparently run by people unconcerned with winning–distinguishes them from HOU and LAD in particular and it’s worth noting, given how CLE could have strangled the central for years as LAD did in the West.

4 years ago

Dolan is on record saying he won’t resign Lindor. They didn’t even try on Brantley. I was ok with the trades but they are interested in saving money

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Sure, but that was predicated on three things: 1) big pieces like Kluber wouldn’t go down and JRam wouldn’t fizzle, 2) the Indians didn’t have much budget, and 3) the Twins wouldn’t become one of the best teams in baseball.

Adam Jones alone adds maybe 1 win and thus doesn’t make all of that “so preventable.” So what would have?

4 years ago
Reply to  Shalesh

If you take Cleveland’s budget complaints at face value and you’re unwilling to trade your prospects then there’s not a lot you can do.

If you take those two as given, then you have to engage in some what-about-ism to make it work. Melky Cabrera, who was on the team last year, would have been a far better fit than Hanley and he signed for a minor league contract. Dwight Smith Jr. was picked up for international bonus money. Domingo Santana was traded for Ben Gamel. Brian Goodwin was cut by the Royals. Cleveland really went halfway with the potential replacements at DH and the corner outfield with Hanley (who everyone knew was done), Matt Joyce (who pretty much everyone knew was done), and CarGo (who was probably about a 50/50 shot of being done). You can say they already had Bauers and Luplow and Naquin but the Luplow thing is the short side of a platoon and he really shouldn’t go any further than that and Naquin hasn’t been good since his BABIP-inflated half-season breakout in 2016.

The good news for them is that there is going to be an endless supply of potential corner outfielders on the trade market for them (Hunter Pence! Jorge Soler! Nicholas Castellanos!) but they figured they would just buy once they were closer to the deadline, never figuring they would need them sooner.

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I should also note that many of the “what about” statements are a bit unfair. Yes, while Hunter Pence was available, it is perhaps a little unfair to ding them for not signing him when they signed CarGo, who functionally is probably about the same. Adam Jones is a little different because he was a functional baseball player in 2018, unlike Pence. The only one that would really bother me was Melky Cabrera, simply because they had the guy and knew what he could do.

Similarly, is also probably not fair to ding them for not trading Corey Kluber for a boatload of goodies while they still had the chance. And the Yandy Diaz swap looked terrible the first few weeks of the year but Diaz has cooled off a lot and it’s still pretty early to write off Bauers.

I’m not 100% convinced they were that constrained in terms of trading prospects and signing players, but if you take those things as given then it is really hard to find avenues to improve.

4 years ago
Reply to  Shalesh

Shalesh. I generally agree. Jones would help but the collapse involves losing 2 top pitchers for much of the season and the struggles of Bauer/J-Ram

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Sure but on the other hand, the Twins have the largest improvment in RC+, and Kluber and Clevinger are hurt, and Ramirez is worthless. This is an edge case that you typically don’t plan around.

While we’re all in agreement they should have improved, even if they had kept Brantley and Diaz theyd still be looking up at the twins.

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

It may not have been preventable though, with the way the twins are hitting.

4 years ago
Reply to  carter

If the Indians had just retained the players they had in 2019, Brantley and Melky and not traded Diaz, that would be a 5-war upgrade to their current output and their offense would still be good. If they had 5 more wins they’d only be 3 back of the Twins, I would like their odds of catching them.