Fantasy Breakdown: Cleveland for 2021

A preview of Cleveland's lineup, rotation, and bullpen for 2021.

As we prepare for the season ahead, the Pitcher List staff will be creating profiles for every fantasy-relevant player for 2021. Players will be broken up by team and role through starting pitchers, bullpen, lineup, and prospects. You can access every article as it comes out in our Player Profiles 2021 hub here.

At A Glance

 

Every fantasy league has that guy/gal. The one that on paper has a really strong team with several star players. Sure, the roster has a few holes, but overall there is a lot to work with there. You wouldn’t be excited to face them in the playoffs. And yet for some reason, that guy/gal gets frustrated with their team and shakes things up, sending out players in uneven trades, gradually dismantling their roster over time, and then they inevitably sink in the standings, not to be heard from again.

After finishing 35-25 during the 60-game regular season in 2020, Cleveland qualified for the postseason for the fourth time in five years but drew an unfortunate first-round playoff matchup with the formidable Yankees in the Wild Card round. Two New York wins later, and Cleveland goes home (best-of-three series). Now heading into 2021, Cleveland finds itself a bit lost, as the organization appears content to continue to reduce payroll and tighten its budget. With the breaking news earlier this week of the blockbuster trade sending star shortstop Francisco Lindor and starter Carlos Carrasco to the New York Mets in exchange for four players, Cleveland seems to be stockpiling prospects and preparing for a full-blown rebuild despite their recent run of success and their (previous) terrific core of talent, which until the Lindor trade featured two perennial MVP candidates and a Cy Young winner. Cleveland now has the lowest projected payroll in all of baseball (approx. $40M) for 2021.

As other teams in the division such as Chicago and Minnesota seem to be ascending, Cleveland appears to be hitting the reset button and seems destined to finish towards the bottom of the AL Central in 2021. Bob Uecker’s legendary character from Major League 2 sums up my feelings on the current direction of the team quite nicely.

The team has already traded away a front-of-the-rotation caliber starting pitcher in each of the past two seasons, first trading Trevor Bauer to Cincinnati in 2019 and then trading Mike Clevinger to San Diego this past summer. Now, this offseason, even prior to trading Lindor, Cleveland has continued to reduce payroll as it declined to bring back closer Brad Hand, first baseman Carlos Santana (who signed with Kansas City), and outfielders Tyler Naquin and Delino Deshields. 

The lineup will look dramatically different this season, as only superstar third baseman Jose Ramirez, Cesar HernandezFranmil Reyes, and backstop Roberto Perez appear locks to return for the 2021 Opening Day lineup at the moment, along with newly-acquired Rosario brothers, Amed and Eddie (they aren’t really brothers). There is much to be sorted out here. On paper, the outfield group appears to be one of the worst in baseball, so it would not be a surprise at all to see Cleveland address several lineup holes in free agency (1/30 update: Cleveland signed outfielder Eddie Rosario). Meanwhile, even after the losses of Bauer, Clevinger, and Carrasco, Cleveland still boasts one of the better pitching staffs in all of baseball, led by Shane Bieber along with Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, and top pitching prospect Triston McKenzie, who flashed in 2020. With a fantasy superstar in Ramirez, the reigning Cy Young winner in Bieber, and a stable of reliable pitchers, there still remains some fantasy appeal in Cleveland, despite the prospects of a rebuild and a revamped lineup.

*Note: the following lineup projections are based on players currently on the Cleveland roster. Depending on what the team elects to do this offseason – as evidenced by the recent Francisco Lindor trade – things could look much different next spring. I expect there could be numerous new faces on the team come Opening Day 2021, as the team looks to fill the voids left by Santana, Deshields, Naquin, and others. 

 

Hitters

 

Projected Lineup

 

Infielders

 

Amed Rosario (Shortstop)

2020: 20 R, 4 HR, 15 RBI, 0 SB,  .252 AVG/.272 OBP/.371 SLG | SS #43

2021 ADP: 346.87

With the blockbuster deal sending Francisco Lindor to the Mets, newcomer Amed Rosario – part of the return package in the trade – tentatively takes over both of Lindor’s spots as both the starting shortstop and leadoff man (although it’s certainly possible that Rosario could be traded again or even moved to the outfield as well, to make room for infielder Andrés Giménez now that the team re-signed César Hernández to play second base). Over his short career, Rosario has established himself as something of a second-half performer. During his breakout in 2019, he hit .319 in the second half with a 114 wRC+. And while the gap in performance wasn’t as stark in 2018 – when he hit just .268 over the latter half of the season – he did steal 18 bases over the final few months that year. It’s possible the shortened season didn’t give Rosario enough time to find his groove in 2020, but no matter how you slice it, it was a huge letdown of a season for him. Not only did he fail to muster even a single stolen base – arguably his strongest area of production for fantasy purposes – but his already poor plate discipline took a nosedive, as he drew just four walks all year. He’ll be just 25-years-old heading into 2021, and still in possession of the tools that previously made him a top prospect in New York. With the change of scenery in Cleveland, Rosario will be given a fresh start and a chance to prove that he can reach his ceiling, which is likely that of a .275 hitter who could chip in 15 homers and 25 stolen bases.

 

César Hernández (Second Base)

2020: 35 R, 3 HR, 20 RBI, 0 SB, .283/.355/.408 | 2B #19

2021 ADP: 371.10 (2B #35)

The team re-signed second-baseman César Hernández to a one-year, $5 million contract after he arrived in Cleveland prior to last season on a one-year deal. Hernandez was a terrific defender, winning his first career Gold Glove. As a hitter, Hernández no longer offers much in terms of fantasy appeal, as he has stopped stealing bases (zero in 2020 after only nine in 2019) and doesn’t offer much power either (career .736 OPS). He is a solid hitter who gets on base at a decent clip and serves as a nice table-setter near the top of the lineup. He is not a recommended draft target in standard mixed leagues but can offer low-end value as a middle-infield option in deeper leagues, with the potential for more if he starts running again. 

 

Jose Ramirez (Third Base)

2020: 45 R, 17 HR, 46 RBI, 10 SB, .292/.386/.607 | 3B #1

2021 ADP: 8.65 (3B #1)

After a puzzling and disappointing 2019 season, fueled by an absolutely awful first half followed by a sensational second half, Jose Ramirez carried that momentum into 2020 and re-emerged as a five-tool fantasy wrecking ball. Ramirez finished as the top-rated third baseman in fantasy baseball while also finishing as the runner-up to Jose Abreu in the American League MVP voting. He also finished tied for third overall (along with Abreu) on the ESPN Player Rater – trailing only Trea Turner and Fernando Tatís Jr. – while impressively leading his entire team in virtually all major offensive categories (R, HR, RBI, SB, AVG, OPS, SLG, wOBA, wRC+). Pause and re-read that last sentence for me one more time. Absolutely ridiculous. Okay, moving on. Ramirez posted a sensational 163 wRC+ and .415 wOBA while also posting career-best marks in OPS and SLG. If we simply throw out that bizarre anomaly of a first half in 2019, the 28-year-old switch-hitter has essentially been a fantasy superstar for four consecutive seasons and should be treated as such in drafts next spring, as a sure-fire first-round pick. Ramirez remains in his prime years, rarely misses games, and excels in virtually every major statistical category, making him extremely reliable. One thing to keep in mind, depending on how Cleveland elects to address the glaring holes in their lineup this offseason, is that Ramirez’s counting stats could be dinged a bit if his supporting cast remains lackluster (especially with Lindor being moved). This likely drops Ramirez just a slight notch below that elite top tier of hitters (Tatís, Acuña, Betts, Soto, Trout) in the first round of drafts, unless you place a premium on his position-eligibility at the hot corner. Currently the top third baseman coming off the board and being selected around picks 8-10 in drafts, I see no reason to expect anything different from Ramirez in 2021 and would not hesitate to select him in the back half of the first round.

 

Josh Naylor (First Base)

2020: 13 R, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 1 SB, .247/.291/.330 | OF #149*

2021 ADP: 422.68 (OF #104*)

Acquired from San Diego as part of the return package for Mike Clevinger, Josh Naylor played in just 22 games for Cleveland in 2020 and failed to impress in that short time frame, although he did put together two impressive games in the Wild Card playoff loss to New York (5-7, 1 HR, 3 2B, 3 R, 3 RBI). The former 2015 first-round pick is an outfielder by nature but projects to possibly be Cleveland’s starting first-baseman (replacing Carlos Santana) in 2021 and hopes to build off that playoff performance and become a fixture in the everyday lineup, unless the team signs a free-agent to play first-base or elects to give prospect Bobby Bradley another chance. Sporting a career .692 OPS through two seasons, however, and without offering much power or speed to speak of, Naylor doesn’t offer much in the way of fantasy appeal.  The 23-year-old currently has an ADP around 420 – outside the top-100 outfielders* – making him essentially un-draftable in standard 10-team and 12-team formats. However, if he were to secure a favorable spot in the lineup, there certainly could be a path to fantasy relevance for the left-hander. Naylor is another name to simply keep an eye on in spring training. 

 

Roberto Perez (Catcher)

2020: 6 R, 1 HR, 5 RBI, .165/.264/.216 | C #88

2021 ADP: 478.0 (C #37)

Whatever amazing superlatives and praise you can apply to MVP-runner-up Jose Ramirez for his terrific 2020 season, search the exact opposite end of that spectrum and you would likely find catcher Roberto Perez. The 31-year-old veteran backstop is simply a more valuable catcher in real life for Cleveland than for fantasy purposes, as evidenced by Perez winning his second consecutive Gold Glove in the American League this past season behind the dish all the while slumping terribly in the batter’s box. After an impressive 2019 season which saw him hit .239 with 24 HR and 63 RBI, Perez regressed significantly in 2020 after missing most of August with a shoulder injury and then struggling mightily upon his return to the lineup. It’s never a good sign when your OBP exceeds your SLG. He is viewed, at best, as a low-end second catcher option in two-catcher formats who can provide a little pop from the position but can not be relied upon for much else. Perez is backed up by veteran 28-year-old Austin Hedges. Unless you play in some snazzy format that rewards defense for catchers, neither of these guys warrants being drafted in traditional leagues.

 

Andrés Giménez (Second Base/Shortstop)

2020: 22 R, 3 HR, 12 RBI, 8 SB,  .263 AVG/.333 OBP/.398 SLG | SS #31

2021 ADP: 207.25

Previously one of the better prospects in the Mets organization, 22-year-old Andrés Giménez was lauded for his defense prior to his debut in 2020, and he certainly didn’t disappoint. Filling in at shortstop, second base, and third base, Giménez put on a clinic when he was on the diamond, forcing himself into the lineup a lot more than the Mets likely had anticipated. As the centerpiece of the trade package for Lindor, Giménez may not begin the season as a starter (unless the team elects to move Amed Rosario to the outfield or trade him) and could potentially begin the season in the minor leagues. Known more for his glove than his bat, which dims his fantasy appeal a bit, there’s definitely a potentially intriguing player here, as Giménez’s contact ability looked fairly advanced for his age, and he has the wheels to swipe upwards of 30 bases in a season.

 

 

Outfielders

 

Eddie Rosario (OF)

2020: 31 R, 13 HR, 42 RBI, 3 SB, .257/.316/.476 | OF #15

2021 ADP: 117.48 (OF #30)

After combining to hit 83 home runs from 2017-2019, Eddie Rosario emerged as a legitimate power threat and fantasy producer in Minnesota over the past few seasons, before surprisingly being non-tendered by the Twins after the 2020 season after still finishing the 2020 season ranked as the #15 fantasy outfielder. Cleveland recently signed the free-agent outfielder to a one-year, $8 million contract, and he should immediately slot into a favorable spot right in the middle of the batting order. While his numbers dipped a bit in 2020, Rosario still hit 13 home runs with 42 RBI in just 57 games played, which is still well over a 30 HR, 100+ RBI pace over a 162-game season. Remaining in the AL Central division, the 29-year-old left-fielder should again be a viable power threat and run-producer in fantasy leagues and makes for a worthwhile pick in the middle rounds of fantasy drafts as he stands to have a very good shot at outperforming his current ADP. 

 

Franmil Reyes (DH/OF)

2020: 27 R, 9 HR, 34 RBI, .275/.344/.450 | OF # 40

2021 ADP: 147.83 (UTIL #93)

Franmil Reyes arrived in Cleveland in 2019 via the three-team trade that sent Trevor Bauer to Cincinnati and was a popular breakout target in the fantasy community entering 2020 due to his power profile. In 2019, Reyes slugged 37 home runs and ranked among the league-leaders in numerous advanced metrics such as barrel percentage (14.8%), exit velocity (93.3 mph), hard-hit percentage (51.0%), and xwOBAcon (.486) leading many to believe that Reyes was on the verge of a full-fledged breakout and contending for a home run title. However, Reyes’ 2020 campaign was a bit of a disappointment, due in large part to a poor September, as the slugger showed regression in all over the aforementioned categories while hitting only nine home runs in 59 games (a 24-25 HR pace over a full season) with a pedestrian .795 OPS. On the flip side, Reyes still hit a solid .275 with a .450 SLG, saw an increase in his walk rate, his strikeout rate held steady with his career averages, and he still ranked among the league-leaders in exit velocity. He also could bat cleanup next season behind Ramirez, so there is a lot to like here. Keep in mind that Reyes showcased his upside in 27 games in August, when he hit .313 with 19 R, 7 HR, and 22 RBI during that one month. Reyes is never going to score a ton of runs or steal many bases, and he’s unlikely to ever hit for a sustainable high batting average either.  But it would not come as a shock to see him lead the league in home runs at some point either. With a current ADP in the 140-150 range, Reyes makes for a great post-hype target in the middle rounds of drafts in 2021, especially for those searching for power and upside. 

 

Jordan Luplow (OF)

2020: 8 R, 2 HR, 8 RBI, .192/.304/.359 | OF #171

2021 ADP: 750.09 (OF #203)

Similar to first base, this spot in the lineup could go any of a number of directions for Cleveland in 2021. I will pencil in another name – emphasizing pencil – into the lineup as the starting right fielder. A former third-round pick by the Pirates, Jordan Luplow flashed fantasy potential in 2019, his first with Cleveland, when he slugged 15 home runs in just 85 games with an exceptional .551 SLG and .923 OPS. However, in very similar fashion to teammate Oscar Mercado (who we will discuss below), Luplow cratered in 2020, homering only twice in 29 games while sporting an anemic .663 OPS. While Luplow has never played more than a half-season at the MLB level, his 2019 campaign sure screams “outlier”  when looking at his career numbers as he posted an OPS of .660 (2017) and .631 (2018) with Pittsburgh. Due to a complete lack of options on the current roster, Luplow could be ticketed for a spot in the opening day lineup in right-field in 2021 (unless the team signs another free agent) although prospect Daniel Johnson looms as an option as well. Luplow’s fantasy value, much like that of his fellow outfield teammates in Cleveland, is on life support currently. He is not a recommended target in 10-team and 12-team formats.

 

Oscar Mercado (OF)

2020: 6 R, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 3 SB, .128/.174/.174 | OF #192

2021 ADP: 375.85 (OF #92)

After his call-up to the big leagues in 2018, outfielder Oscar Mercado emerged as an intriguing and useful dual-threat fantasy outfielder, posting an impressive power/speed combo with 15 HR/15 SB in just 115 games played and generating plenty of sleeper buzz entering 2020. Then the wheels fell off. Mercado was miserable in 36 games played in 2020, hitting just one homer, stealing only three bases, and posting both an identical OBP and SLG less than his weight (197 lbs). Not great, Bob! Mercado became a part-time player down the stretch, and there are serious questions about his role with the team moving forward. Given the promise he showed in 2019 and the off-kilter nature of 2020, I expect Cleveland will give Mercado another chance to be their everyday center fielder in 2020, assuming they don’t add a center fielder in free agency. Mercado also stands to face competition from another former highly-regarded prospect in Bradley Zimmer as well. Given his stolen base potential, Mercado’s role with the club should be monitored closely in spring training, and he makes for an intriguing late-round flier in fantasy drafts if he can secure an everyday spot in the lineup and recapture his 2019 form.

 

 

Watch List Considerations

 

The main thing to watch with Cleveland on the offensive side of things, as noted above, is what they decide to do in free agency (update 1/30 – the team signed outfielder Eddie Rosario). How willing are they to spend money at this juncture to bolster their lineup, or will they be willing to just trot out the hodgepodge group of guys they currently have as they continue to rein in their budget as part of a rebuild? Two players that warrant mentioning are Bradley Zimmer (OF) and Jake Bauers (1B/OF). The Cleveland outfield situation remains an unsettled mess as of this writing, so just about all options are on the table at this point. Zimmer himself is a former top prospect but now at 28-years-old appears on the verge of having worn out his welcome in Cleveland. After showing a bit of promise by stealing 18 bases in just 101 games in his debut season in 2017, Zimmer has never posted an OPS above .700 nor an OPS+ above 80. He hit just .162 in 20 games in 2020 and now holds a career .224/.300/.349 slash line over 164 career games. Not good. He posted an identical hard-hit percentage (16.7%) in both 2018 and 2019 (MLB average ~ 35%). Not good at all. Bauers, meanwhile, owns an equally unimpressive .214/.314/.371 slash line with just 23 home runs over 213 career games between two seasons with Tampa Bay and Cleveland. The 25-year-old has a keen eye at the plate, always showing the willingness to take a walk, but offers limited fantasy upside and likely belongs in a platoon role on the team as a corner outfield/first base option off the bench. Another position that bears watching is first base, with Carlos Santana signing with Kansas City this offseason. First-base is a complete mystery for Cleveland entering 2021 like much of their lineup. Former top prospect Bobby Bradley was once viewed as the first baseman of the future in Cleveland after hitting 33 home runs in just 107 games at the AAA level in 2019 and could still be an option at first-base. Bradley has amassed 147 career home runs in the minors but struggled in his brief cup of coffee with the big club in 2019 (15 games, .178 AVG) and did not play in 2020 as the minor league season was canceled due to COVID-19. Bauers who also did not play in 2020, is another option at first base for Cleveland as well, and it would not be a surprise to see him get the gig either. Bradley strikes out a ton and has a career .254 average at the minor league level – both glaring red flags – but he has also recorded five different 23+ homer seasons during that span as well, suggesting his power can play. Perhaps a year off has allowed him to retool his swing a bit to cut down on the strikeouts. Neither Bradley nor Bauers offers much in terms of fantasy appeal at this juncture (ADPs of 747 and 686 respectively as of this writing), especially at first base which is one of the deepest positions in fantasy baseball, so both guys are merely wait-and-see options to keep on your deep-league radars for the time being. Cleveland’s sweet-swinging top position prospect Nolan Jones, a third baseman by nature who appears blocked by Jose Ramirez (unless he follows Lindor in a trade out of town), could also prove to be an appealing option at first base or a corner outfield spot for Cleveland once he is ready to be promoted during the season. Unless he finds a way to break camp with the team in spring training (which seems unlikely after not playing in 2020 due to the pandemic), Jones would not be worthy of drafting in redraft leagues but is a name to keep in mind once he gets the call as he would offer the most upside of this bunch. 25-year-old outfield prospect Daniel Johnson is another outfield option that could emerge in spring training as well as the everyday right-fielder. 

 

Starting Pitchers

 

Shane Bieber (Locked In Starter)

2020: 8-1, 77.1 IP, 122 K, 1.63 ERA, 0.87 WHIP | SP #1

2021 ADP: 8.70 (P #3)

Repertoire: 37.4% four-seam fastball, 26.3% curveball, 16.2% cutter, 11.6% slider, 8.5% changeup

 

It’s humorous to type the words “locked-in starter” next to Shane Bieber’s name. Not a difficult call on that one. What else is there to say about Bieber’s phenomenal 2020 campaign? Not only did he win his first career AL Cy Young Award (in a unanimous vote), but he also completed the rare pitching Triple Crown in the American League – leading the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts. The last person to accomplish that marvelous feat was one of my favorite pitchers, Twins ace Johan Santana, in 2006. The 25-year-old was deGromian in 2020, notching double-digit strikeouts in eight of his twelve starts and not allowing a single run in six of his starts.

Bieber’s arsenal relies mostly on his fastball-curveball-cutter-slider, mixing in an occasional changeup as well, and his calling card is his pinpoint control and the ability to limit free passes. As anyone who watched him pitch in 2020 can tell you, nothing about Bieber’s profile in 2020 suggests a fluke (xFIP 2.04), as he ranked among the league-leaders in K%, xBA, xERA, xwOBA, and xwOBAcon. Bieber has improved each year he has been in the league, and his historic 2020 season has cemented his status as a first-round pick in the top-tier of fantasy pitchers in drafts next spring, along with Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom.

 

Zach Plesac (Locked In Starter)

2020: 4-2, 55.1 IP, 57 K, 2.28 ERA, 0.80 WHIP | SP #14

2021 ADP: 59.61 (P #20)

Repertoire: 37.6% four-seam fastball, 27.8% slider, 25.3% changeup, 9.3% curveball

 

In 21 starts in 2019, Zach Plesac was about a league-average starting pitcher. He was 8-6 with a 3.81 ERA and a rather pedestrian 88 K’s in 115.2 IP. However, after his first three starts in 2020, the right-hander began emerging as yet another potential ace in Cleveland. The 25-year-old gave up only three earned runs across those three outings while compiling 24 K’s in 21 innings.  Then, Plesac’s season went sideways as he would be placed on the team’s restricted list, along with teammate Mike Clevinger, when they violated the league’s health and safety protocols by going out with friends after a game one night, a careless decision that infuriated teammates and many of those within the organization (which led to some trade whispers as well). Plesac was out of action for the majority of August as punishment before returning to the rotation in early September. Once back on the mound, he picked right back up where he left off, posting a 2.88 ERA and 0.87 WHIP in September, including completing the rare Immaculate Inning against the Tigers on 10/18/20. Plesac’s arsenal won’t jump off the screen at you when watching him pitch, but he does one thing exceptionally well: limits walks. Plesac ranked in the top 1% of the league in BB% in 2020, issuing only six free passes in 55.1 IP which led to his sterling WHIP. The jury is still out on whether Plesac has the goods to become a true fantasy ace, but he showed more than enough this past summer to warrant being drafted in the SP 20-25 range next spring with the possibility of outperforming his ADP.

 

Aaron Civale (Locked In Starter)

2020: 4-6, 74 IP, 69 K, 4.74 ERA, 1.32 WHIP | SP #96

2021 ADP: 187.92 (P #67)

Repertoire: 28.9% sinker, 28.7% cutter, 21.2% curveball, 9.5% slider, 9.2% changeup, 2.5% four-seam fastball

 

Aaron Civale, much like his aforementioned teammate Plesac, is also a 25-year-old right-hander who was in his second season with Cleveland this year after debuting in 2019. Unlike Plesac however, who took a gigantic step forward in 2020, Civale appeared to regress, after having posted a 2.34 ERA and 1.04 in 2019 (while admittedly pitching above his peripherals). Don’t be fooled though. A closer look at his season suggests that Civale actually was a very solid and extremely reliable starter for Cleveland in 2020, whose final season stat-line was marred by a poor September, punctuated by his final outing of the year against Pittsburgh (8 ER in 4 IP). Civale was a true workhorse, logging at least 6 IP in every single one of his starts (11 in a row) until that final poor outing. Although his final season stat-line looks pretty ugly, he sported a roster-able 3.99 ERA and 1.26 WHIP before that final implosion against the Pirates. He also recorded seven quality starts in the process. Civale’s upside in fantasy leagues is limited by his lack of strikeouts, but he is an above-average major league pitcher and makes for a fine late-round addition to your fantasy rotation (especially in leagues that reward innings).

 

Triston McKenzie (Likely Starter)

2020: 2-1, 33.1 IP, 42 K, 3.24 ERA, 0.90 WHIP | SP # 56

2021 ADP: 168.33(P #64)

Repertoire: 53.1% four-seam fastball, 20.2% slider, 16.5% curveball, 10.2% changeup

 

One of Cleveland’s top prospects entering 2020, right-hander Triston McKenzie was called up to make his MLB debut against the Tigers on August 22nd, and he dazzled to the tune of 10 K’s over 6 innings, scattering two hits, one run, and a walk while picking up the victory. Two starts later, McKenzie hurled six shutout innings with 6 K’s against the Royals. The slender 6’5″ hurler relied heavily on his fastball while averaging more than one strikeout/inning over his six starts with the club. While the sample size was small and the competition was admittedly not very stout, the 23-year-old showed enough down the stretch to stake claim to the fifth spot in the Cleveland rotation entering spring training in 2021. However, after missing the entire 2019 season due to injury, don’t expect a heavy workload for the skinny top prospect next season which should temper fantasy expectations a bit. Additionally, the right-hander ranked near the bottom of the league in barrel-percentage (12.0%) last season, so some regression is to be expected as well as he works to refine his off-speed arsenal instead of relying so heavily on his heater. He remains a coveted pitcher to have in dynasty/keeper formats, and while he is certainly worth drafting in the later rounds of redraft formats, tread carefully due to workload concerns.

 

Watch List Considerations

 

With the departure of Carlos Carrasco to the National League, right-hander Cal Quantrill might be a candidate to replace Carrasco in the rotation unless the team signs a starter during free agency. Quantrill has functioned as both a starter and a reliever over the past two seasons with San Diego and Cleveland, after struggling mightly (5.16 ERA) as a starter in 2019. While he started just two games for Cleveland in 2020, he functioned mostly as a reliever and fared quite well, registering a 2.25 ERA and 1.22 WHIP with 31 K’s in 32 IP. He could prove to have some low-end/streamer value if he earns a spot in the rotation. Another name to keep in mind is soon-to-be 20-year-old Daniel Espino. The 2019 first-round draft pick was terrific in the low minors in 2019 and then was unable to take the next step forward in 2020 due to the pandemic. The talented right-hander remains one of Cleveland’s top prospects and while he is likely still a ways away from his big league debut (and standard league value), he should absolutely be rostered in all dynasty formats.

 

Relief Pitchers

 

Bullpen Roles

 

James Karinchak (Closer)

2020: 1 SV, 8 HLD, 27 IP, 53 K, 2.67 ERA, 1.11 WHIP | RP #42

2021 ADP: 109.18 (P #40)

With the departure of closer Brad Hand, who was non-tendered by Cleveland at the outset of free agency, incumbent closer James Karinchak and his dazzling, Hader-esque 17.7 K/9 will assume ninth-inning duties in Cleveland in 2021. The 25-year-old emerged as a closer-in-waiting over the past year and now will get his opportunity to shine, immediately becoming a top-tier fantasy closer. Even in an impressive 2020 campaign as a set-up man, Karinchak’s .342 BABIP suggests he was even a bit unlucky and could have been even better. Karinchak has notched 61 K’s in just 32.1 career IP to this point – which is just stupid good.

He is simply filthy on the mound in the most complimentary sense of the word. There is a clear path for him to emerge as a top-two closer in fantasy baseball, along with the aforementioned Josh Hader, and I could argue he should be the top closer selected in drafts next spring (as Hader has been mentioned in trade rumors) although Cleveland’s likely lower win total limits his ceiling a bit. I mean, look at this Baseball Savant page. He ranked among the league-leaders in nearly half of the Statcast categories. Simply remarkable. Should Karinchak stumble or get injured, right-handers Nick Wittgren and Phil Maton would likely be next in line for saves. While both could be solid options for holds, neither possesses anything close to the sky-high upside of Karinchak. Currently the #6 closer coming off the board in drafts, I would not hesitate to reach for Karinchak a little earlier than that.

 

Nick Wittgren (Set-up Man)

2020: 0 SV, 10 HLD, 23.2 IP, 28 K, 3.42 ERA, 1.01 WHIP | RP #69

2021 ADP: 614.07 (P #244)

With Karinchak inheriting Hand’s closer role, 29-year-old veteran reliever Nick Wittgren will likely slide into the vacated set-up role after posting sub-3.00 ERAs in 2018 and 2019 and then having a solid season in 2020 as well. After registering double-digit holds in each of the past two seasons and averaging more than a strikeout per inning, Wittgren has proven to be a reliable late-inning bullpen arm and could see a slight bump in fantasy value in leagues that utilize holds as he should see even more opportunities this season in a set-up role. Wittgren would also be the most likely candidate to fill in at closer if something were to happen to Karinchak.

 

Phil Maton (Late-Inning Reliever)

2020: 0 SV, 10 HLD, 21.2 IP, 32 K, 4.57 ERA, 1.34 WHIP | RP #86

2021 ADP: 716.40 (P #312)

At first glance, there is nothing exciting about Phil Maton’s 2020 season. Zero saves. ERA – not good. WHIP – not good either. But there might be something brewing here from the former Padre. The 32 K’s in 21.2 IP is certainly impressive (13.3 K/9) and the 10 holds are noteworthy as well. Despite an extremely unimpressive 4.78 ERA and 1.39 WHIP in 144 career innings, a deep dive into his Baseball Savant profile suggests that Maton could be emerging as a truly special reliever. In 2020, he surprisingly ranked among the league-leaders in barrel-percentage, exit velocity, xSLG, xwOBA, hard-hit percentage, and K% while sporting an xERA of 2.81. Maton doesn’t belong on the standard-league radar for now, but given this treasure trove of underlying advanced metrics, he makes for an intriguing bullpen option in leagues that reward holds and could have the makings of a future closer with his fastball-cutter-curveball repertoire.

 

Watch List Considerations

 

Another player that arrived in Cleveland via the Trevor Bauer trade, southpaw Logan Allen has posted rather uninspiring numbers during his short MLB career thus far (24 K’s in 38.1 career innings) and appears to have settled into a middle relief/lefty specialist role with the club. Right-handed reliever Emmanuel Clase is another name to keep on your radar if something were to happen to Karinchak. The 22-year-old impressed in his debut season with the Rangers in 2019 (2.31 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 21 K’s in 23.1 IP) but then was suspended for the entirety of the 2020 season after testing positive for PEDs.

 

ADP data taken from NFBC composite ADPs.

2020 Positional Rankings from Razzball’s 12-team Player Rater (ESPN).

Photo by Erik Drost Wikimedia Commons/flickr | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Lucas Spence

Writer for Pitcher List and contributor for FantasyPros and InStreetClothes. Certified Physician Assistant trained in Emergency Medicine + Urgent Care services. Proud husband and father of three. Follow him on Twitter @lspence24. "No amount of money ever bought a second of time." - Tony/Howard Stark

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