5 questions facing Cleveland entering 2021

December 31st, 2020

CLEVELAND -- The Indians knew they would have a lot of questions to answer this winter in preparation for the 2021 season. Two months of the MLB offseason have passed, and the club has gotten few answers.

The uncertainty of the pandemic has been a factor in many teams’ offseason, as it’s challenging to financially plan for the future. But entering the new year, the Tribe will have a few things left to figure out. Let’s take a look at five questions Cleveland will need to answer before the season gets underway:

1. Will Francisco Lindor be traded?
Nothing is a guarantee, but a Lindor trade seems inevitable at this point. Cleveland is looking to trim its payroll, and Lindor’s approximate $20 million owed in arbitration next year probably doesn’t look the most enticing. It’s also becoming much clearer that the Tribe and Lindor will not be coming to an agreement on a long-term deal.

Where Lindor could land is still up for debate, but the Blue Jays may be the best fit for the Tribe. Cleveland is always searching for young talent, and Toronto’s system is loaded with options. Plus, the Tribe could use some help in the outfield, and someone like Lourdes Gurriel Jr. could be an answer.

2. Who will play second base?
This is a question that may not be answered until Spring Training. The Tribe will need to figure out how much financial wiggle room they have to determine if they could add a free-agent second baseman. Some fans are holding out hope that a reunion with Cesar Hernandez could still be possible. But even if he is out of Cleveland's budget, the team has free agents it could pursue, such as Jonathan Schoop, Tommy La Stella, Brock Holt or Hanser Alberto.

But like Cleveland manager Terry Francona said two weeks ago, internal options are also on the table, and the team seems to be confident in giving Yu Chang an opportunity. If the club doesn’t sign a free agent, Chang would likely be the first option to start at second.

3. Who will play first base?
Second base isn’t the only question mark in the Tribe’s infield for next season. After the team decided against picking up Carlos Santana’s option for 2021, the slugger signed with the Royals, leaving Bobby Bradley, Jake Bauers and Josh Naylor as the top candidates to compete for the starting job in Spring Training.

Francona previously indicated that it may be time to give Bradley his chance at the big league level.

4. Who will be in the outfield?
When Cleveland's season came to an end in 2020, the team was confident in Oscar Mercado’s plans for the offseason to improve on his disappointing season. After the Tribe non-tendered both Delino DeShields and Tyler Naquin, it seems even more likely that Mercado will still have his spot in center next season.

That leaves the corners. Daniel Johnson seems set to get his shot in right field, and Jordan Luplow will be an option in left. If neither Naylor nor Bauers earns the starting job at first, they could be options in the corners as well. However, the Tribe may try out Nolan Jones, their No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline, in the outfield. Jones is a third baseman, but because José Ramírez is at the hot corner, Jones has been getting more repetitions in the outfield this offseason. He could be an option to platoon with Luplow in left.

5. Who will be the closer?
The Tribe parted ways with closer Brad Hand, declining his $10 million option for 2021. While Francona was hesitant to list any names who could be potential replacements this early in the offseason, he did note that James Karinchak -- the favorite to take over the closer's role -- will certainly be one of their high-leverage hurlers.

“There's so much swing-and-miss there,” Francona said. “Like young kids, he had some ups and downs this year, which is expected. The one thing we've noticed is that bullpens are volatile. The names might be the same, but the production maybe isn’t the same year in and year out. We got a little spoiled with guys like [Bryan] Shaw and Cody Allen, where they were so consistent. But I think we feel strongly that we need to develop our bullpen from within for the most part, just because of the volatility.”