Last Updated: 2019-03-04
For the longest time, I viewed the MLB playoffs as nothing more than a tournament of variance. You get a ticket to the dance and then you see how the night plays out. The 2016 Cleveland Indians were a strong example of this, as they took a rotation with essentially 2.5 pitchers because of injuries and came one painful and miserable game short of ending a 68-year drought.
In the two seasons since the infamous rain delay and the Jason Kipnis foul ball, the Indians have waltzed into the playoffs without breaking a sweat. The team has outwardly stated time and time again that its goal is to get to the playoffs and see what happens. What has happened is an American League Division Series exit in each of those two years. What has also happened is that the best team in baseball has won the World Series. So much for a tournament of variance.
Going into this offseason, the Indians needed to pivot. Their previous goal of winning the Central Division has been replaced by putting together a team actually capable of winning the World Series. The 2017 team had a better chance than the 2018, but neither team got the chance because neither team made it past the first round.
That pivot hasn’t happened. The roster has more questions than it had going into last season, but at least the unproven players have a lot more athletic upside than last year’s collection of outfielders and corner infielders.
Mike Chernoff masterfully navigated the SS Block C through a narrow channel to get out into some open waters from a payroll standpoint, with a trade of Edwin Encarnacion and a salary dump of Yonder Alonso. The thought was that the Indians would reallocate that money. They didn’t. Not yet, anyway, as they’re going to pinch their pennies until the Trade Deadline.
At least the Indians have the luxury of beating up on quite possibly the weakest division we’ve ever seen for a two-year span and they’ve already won the AL Central for the fourth straight year before a pitch is even thrown for the 2019 season, barring an epic failure. That, however, should not be the goal. That is a formality. That is a regular season comprised of 162 Spring Training games before the season actually begins in October.
For too many summer months last season, the Indians laid atop the water on a flamingo float with a cocktail in each hand and not a care in the world when they should have been swimming laps around the competition to get ready for the postseason. The Houston Astros were head and shoulders above the Indians and proved it with a three-game sweep in which the Indians put up historically low offensive numbers.
Here’s the thing. As embarrassing as the playoff exit was, the Indians are still a good futures bet because they’re virtually assured of making the playoffs. What they do when they get there is another story.
Season Win Total Odds
2018 Standings Data
Actual Record: 91-71
Run Differential: +170 (818-648)
Pythagorean W/L: 98-64
BaseRuns Record: 94-68
BaseRuns Run Differential: +125 (5.05/4.28)
3rd Order Win% Record: 92.1-69.9
Record in One-Run Games: 22-24
Additions: Carlos Santana, Jordan Luplow, Daniel Johnson, Jake Bauers, Jefry Rodriguez, Andruw Monasterio, Max Moroff, Chih-Wei Hu, Alex Call, Trayce Thompson, Kevin Plawecki, AJ Cole, Wilson Garcia, Mike Freeman, Josh D. Smith, Justin Grimm, Brooks Pounders, Nick Wittgren, Tyler Clippard, Tim Federowicz, Dioner Navarro, Ryan Flaherty, Matt Joyce, Asher Wojciechowski, Alex Wilson, Hanley Ramirez
Losses: Edwin Encarnacion, Yan Gomes, Yandy Diaz, Cole Sulser, Yonder Alonso, Erik Gonzalez, Tahnaj Thomas, Gionti Turner, Dante Mendoza, Ignacio Feliz, Sam Haggerty
The Indians had some maneuvering to do this winter. They were back to operating with a tight budget after record-high payrolls and disappointing attendance over the last couple of seasons. The outfield, which has been a weak link for the better part of the decade, needed attention.
They acquired toolsy, MLB-ready-ish outfielders like Jordan Luplow, Daniel Johnson, and Jake Bauers to battle for playing time at the corners to flank Leonys Martin, who is like an addition after a mysterious, life-threatening illness ended his 2018 season just six games into his tenure with the Tribe. Hanley Ramirez is not an outfielder, or a defender of any kind, but could be an interesting hitter.
If you love something, set it free. If it comes back again, it was meant to be. That’s what Hallmark says, right? Well, Carlos Santana is back after leaving in free agency prior to last season. The Indians saved some short-term capital by sending Edwin Encarnacion to Seattle and brought Santana home to give the team more flexibility in the field and also another switch hitter in the lineup.
Roberto Perez and Kevin Plawecki, at least for now, will handle the pitching staff after the trade of Yan Gomes to Washington. Johnson was the centerpiece of that return and flamethrower Jefry Rodriguez is an option for a bullpen short on depth behind Brad Hand. Chih-Wei Hu could play a huge bullpen role this season.
The long-rumored Corey Kluber trade never happened. It seems ludicrous to be disappointed that your favorite team failed to trade a two-time Cy Young Award winner, but here I am.
BA: .259 (2nd)
OBP: .332 (6th)
SLG: .434 (6th)
wOBA: .330 (4th)
wRC+: 104 (7th)
BABIP: .291 (22nd)
K%: 18.9% (1st)
BB%: 8.8% (12th)
It doesn’t hurt to have a starting point of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. The dynamic duo combined for 15.6 fWAR last season. Ramirez was on track for even more until a second-half swoon kept him from getting to 39 home runs. Fatigue was a big factor, as the Indians, who had the division locked up, still pushed Ramirez to 157 games and 698 plate appearances. Lindor played 158 games and had 745 plate appearances.
Lindor, as we all know, is already dealing with a calf injury. Ask former Indian Josh Donaldson about calf injuries. Or former Indian Lonnie Chisenhall. While Lindor is much younger and seemingly in better physical shape, a Lindor injury is a doomsday scenario. He’s expected to be back in early April, but Indians fans and backers will have to hope his injury doesn’t linger.
It is nice that the Indians have those two guys, who combined for 77 home runs, because the rest of the lineup has a lot of uncertainty. Carlos Santana has reunited with the Tribe after one season in Philadelphia after leaving the Indians in free agency. Santana never seemed to fit in with the Phillies, but still posted a world-class walk rate of 16.2 percent to offset the fact that he only hit .229 because of a .231 BABIP. Santana’s ground ball batting average was .123 as a left-handed batter. That was well below league average, by a direct byproduct of the shift.
The return of Santana is big because the Indians, who are relying on guys with great minor league track records like Jordan Luplow (.277/.368/.465), Jake Bauers (.276/.361/.414), Greg Allen (.380 OBP) in the outfield. Leonys Martin, who survived a life-threatening illness last season, did post a career-best .425 SLG last year, but was an above average hitter for the first time in his career with a 103 wRC+.
One thing we know for certain about the Indians is that they will draw walks. Jason Kipnis posted a 10 percent BB% last season and Santana, Lindor, and Ramirez all have above average walk rates in recent seasons. Bauers also works a lot of counts. So do catchers Kevin Plawecki and Roberto Perez.
The Indians probably won’t be as potent in the power department, but with the walk rate, they should be able to get a lot of runners on base. Offense in the big leagues is all about creating run-scoring opportunities. That’s why the Moneyball craze took hold in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Not making an out is the chief objective of a hitter. The Indians should be good in that department.
That being said, behind the proven MLB players, the Indians have a ton of question marks in the outfield and are extremely thin on depth. Depth is often one of the most important factors for me in picking season win totals.
ERA: 3.77 (9th)
FIP: 3.79 (4th)
xFIP: 3.66 (4th)
K%: 25.4% (4th)
BB%: 6.7% (2nd)
LOB%: 76.0% (4th)
The full-staff numbers are certainly interesting because they look a lot different if you simply isolate the starting rotation. The starters were third in ERA at 3.39, third in FIP at 3.44, third in xFIP at 3.51, second in K% at 26.3 percent, and first in BB%. It will be more of the same in 2019.
The Indians boast the best rotation in the big leagues. The breakout season from Trevor Bauer means that the Indians have three of the top 10 pitchers in the American League and maybe all of baseball. Corey Kluber was a Cy Young finalist again and Carlos Carrasco just posted the best K%-BB% of his career at 29.5 percent. Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber round out the rotation, as Clevinger posted a 3.02 ERA with a 3.52 FIP in more than 200 innings and Bieber’s first taste of the big leagues showed a lot of promise with a 3.23 FIP and a 3.30 xFIP in 114.2 innings.
The top five starters for the Indians accumulated 24.1 fWAR last season and Bauer missed some time and Bieber effectively pitched 55 percent of an MLB season. Nobody in baseball has a rotation close to this one.
That is a big positive for the Tribe because the bullpen is a work in progress. Brad Hand is a top-notch reliever, but the Indians are looking for some stability otherwise. Tyler Olson and Oliver Perez are good from the left side, but the collection of righties will have to be deployed strategically to have success. Guys like Adam Cimber, Neil Ramirez, Jon Edwards, AJ Cole, Jefry Rodriguez, and Dan Otero all have significant platoon splits. Lefties hurt most of them badly, but they can hold their own against righties.
Nick Goody, Danny Salazar, and Cody Anderson spent most of last season hurt, so they could be the upside guys in the pen. Cimber held righties to a .263 wOBA, Rodriguez held them to a .297 wOBA, Cole held them to a .319 wOBA, and Adam Plutko held them to a .295 wOBA. That running theme, if managed properly by Terry Francona, could allow this bullpen to be better than people expect, but Francona has a big problem with not trusting relievers, so he’s going to have flavors of the month and that could hurt the unit as a whole.
Positives & Negatives
The Indians are in a terrible division, as mentioned above. They’ll play 117 of 162 games against teams that had losing records in 2018, including all 76 against division foes that account for nearly 47 percent of the schedule. As long as Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez stay healthy, they should be going back to the playoffs. The rotation has enough depth to withstand an injury or two, but it will be important for the starting staff to stay together most of the year.
The bullpen is going to be in a state of flux all year. One luxury the Indians have that most teams don’t is that their starters can work deep into games. By now you’ve surely heard of the “TTO Penalty”, which means Times Through the Order. Stats back up the idea that most pitchers get worse when the lineup is turned over for the third time.
For the Indians, their starters have overcome this epidemic. Bauer allowed a .287 wOBA the third time through. Kluber allowed a .242 wOBA, while Carrasco allowed a .261, and Clevinger allowed a .259. Those are truly elite numbers and are a hidden advantage for the Indians that most teams don’t have. That could provide quite a boost to the bullpen.
Pick: Over 90.5
Call me crazy, but I’m far more interested to watch this year’s Indians than last year’s. Or really even 2017’s, for that matter. My fandom may have leaked through at various points in this piece, but I can assure you that my analysis and my prediction are impartial. There are a lot of young players worthy of a look and it’s refreshing not to see past-their-prime or never-had-a-prime veterans hogging plate appearances.
Maybe by virtue of back-to-back first-round exits or maybe by virtue of what appears to be a somewhat improved division, the Indians will care more about the regular season.
All of that being said, this is not a strong pick for me at all. I cannot heavily tout an over with a team that is this dependent on two players for offense. Any long-term injury to Francisco Lindor or Jose Ramirez would be very problematic. However, the Indians have the best five-man rotation in baseball, two top-10 players in the American League (if not all of baseball), and the easiest schedule on paper going into the season.
The Indians won 91 games last year and looked like they couldn’t care less for most of the season. This year’s team is significantly more athletic and the bullpen has a chance to be better after the seasons that Cody Allen and Andrew Miller turned in, if properly managed.
They will win the division. They are still worth a futures bet, especially as the court of public opinion sours on the team. They’ll get to the party and probably leave the dance early, but don’t let the hyperbole and the sensationalism fool you. This is still a top-four American League team and a lot of wins will come.
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