Cleveland Is Winning the Offseason

Money still matters in major-league baseball. Sure, the small-market, low-payroll Cleveland Indians just made the World Series. And, sure, the small-market, low-budget Kansas City Royals won the World Series the year before, after making it the previous season. And while, sure, the relationship between money and wins did seem to be going down for a time, the capacity to spend has consistently helped a team’s chances — and, last season, the relationship between wins and money was quite strong. This is a generally troubling trend for a team like Cleveland. Nevertheless, the club has done very well to capitalize on the free-agent market and put themselves in good shape for next season.

While it might not be fair to say that Edwin Encarnacion fell into the team’s lap, it would be appropriate to note that, at the beginning of November, the prospect of Cleveland being able to afford Encarnacion didn’t seem realistic. Right after the World Series, I mapped Cleveland’s path back to the playoffs and presumed more modest intentions:

Cleveland doesn’t need to sign a load of free agents to contend again next season, and the expiring contracts of Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher serve as a reminder of what can happen when a club gives out multi-year contracts to middling players. Many of the pieces are already in place, and a few minor additions should bolster a roster ready to compete. With the Detroit Tigers sending signals they want to rebuild, the Kansas City Royals’ run potentially closing, the Chicago White Sox mired in perpetual mediocrity, and the Minnesota Twins licking their wounds from a very tough 2016 season, the Central division will be Cleveland’s to lose — and it might not take as many wins to get to the playoffs next year.

I mentioned names like Carlos Gomez, Matt Holliday, Austin Jackson, Jon Jay, Adam Lind, and Mike Napoli as players Cleveland could add to good effect. Instead, Cleveland went out and signed perhaps the best free-agent hitter available and had to commit only three years to do it. While the recent signing of Austin Jackson won’t make waves, he provides more flexibility in an outfield that could be usefully mixed and matched to provide average production despite a handful of seemingly below-average players. Against a right-handed pitcher, Cleveland can send out lefties Michael Brantley, Tyler Naquin, and Lonnie Chisenhall, while against lefties, they can sub two of those three for Austin Jackson and Brandon Guyer, maximizing the platoon advantage.

Last season, Cleveland won 94 games. By BaseRuns, they were roughly a 91-win team, so they didn’t have a fluky season. Putting together back-to-back 90-win campaigns with a payroll in the bottom half of the baseball is a difficult task — one that hasn’t been performed since Tampa Bay and Oakland did it in 2012 and 2013. With Cleveland’s additions, however, they’ve put themselves in very good shape to do so.

The table below shows the production Cleveland got from each position last season, as well as the production those positions currently project for this season in our Depth Charts.

Cleveland in 2016 vs. 2017 Projections
Position 2016 2017 Projection Difference
C -0.5 2.4 2.9
1B 2.8 2.7 -0.1
2B 4.7 2.7 -2.0
SS 6.3 5.3 -1.0
3B 3.3 3.2 -0.1
RF 2.1 1.4 -0.7
CF 4.4 1.6 -2.8
LF 3.0 2.3 -0.7
DH 1.9 2.4 0.5
SP 13.8 17.2 3.4
RP 5.0 5.4 0.4
Total 46.8 46.6 -0.2

The projections call for a pretty sizable step back for Tyler Naquin, with Jason Kipnis losing some ground and Francisco Lindor slipping a little off his fantastic 2016 season. However, ZiPS is a bit more bullish on Kipnis and Lindor. Not-terrible production from Yan Gomes and little more health in the rotation makes up for any regression elsewhere. While it might not seem like putting together a roster that’s roughly as good as last year’s would amount to winning in the offseason, repeating as an elite team is difficult.

The graph below shows every team’s BaseRuns Wins from 2016 — essentially showing the production the team received after stripping out sequencing — plotted againt their current projected wins for 2017.

Most teams, like Cleveland, are clustered around the middle, projected to win roughly as many games as their production in 2016 indicated. Teams on the left side of the line are projected to take a step back while teams on the right side of the line are projected to move forward. That Cleveland appears set to remain the same, given the success of 2016, is a good thing. On average, teams that were above .500 by BaseRuns in 2016 lost a little over three wins per team, while teams below .500 gained around three wins per team. It’s a lot easier for poor teams to make moves forward. The Cubs and Red Sox recorded over 100 BaseRuns wins last season, and the Nationals were at 98, so some regression from those clubs is to be expected. Of the seven teams within five of Cleveland’s 91, five have lost ground this offseason, with only the behemoth that is the Los Angeles Dodgers gaining, and some of that might have to do with the expectation of good health from a rotation unlikely to provide it.

Cleveland did expunge around $13 million in dead money from the Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher contracts, including the amount they still owe for Chris Johnson, but they didn’t exactly have a ton of money compared to where they started 2016. Raises for their arbitration-eligible players and those who they’ve signed to long-term contracts added close to $26 million. Andrew Miller will make $9 million after costing one-third of that last season. Removing the salaries of Mike Napoli, Juan Uribe, and Rajai Davis, in addition to the dead money, means that Cleveland was already going to be over their Opening Day mark in 2016.

Signing Edwin Encarnacion indicates that the team was always going to use some of the profits generated by a World Series appearance, as well as the bump in attendance, on the on-field product. Austin Jackson, meanwhile, could provide just as much as Rajai Davis at a lesser cost. The team might not even be done with a bullpen addition potentially strengthening what should be one of the best bullpens in baseball. With the announcement that Cleveland will host the All-Star Game in 2019, the team got another piece of good news. If they can manage to contend until then, they will have one of the greatest runs in franchise history, recalling the late-90s teams that finished in first place five years in a row.

Cleveland exceeded expectations last season, they’ve exceeded expectations this winter, and that success has caused them to move past the times of exceeding expectations, as meeting them would be a tremendous success.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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7 years ago

Indians are doing well, but the best thing they have going for them is that they play in the weakest division in Baseball. If they were in ANY other division, they would have strong competition. Indians should be able to take advantage…

7 years ago
Reply to  Zonk

I’m not sure if this is what you meant, but here are the projected wins for the 2nd place team in each division by Depth Charts:

Blue Jays — 84
Tigers — 83
Angels/Mariners — 84

Mets — 83
Cardinals — 84
Giants — 88

It seems to me that the projected winners face about the same level of competition from their closest rivals, with only the Dodgers facing a substantially tougher closest rival.

7 years ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

The second best team in the division is only part of the story. Cleveland will get to play nearly a third of their games against the Twins (who won the fewest games in MLB last year), the White Sox (who traded away 11 WAR and would like to trade away 11 more without acquiring much in the way of 2017 MLB ready talent), and the Royals, who seem to be on the decline. They should go roughly 35 – 15 against those teams which gives them a leg up in the wild card if the Tigers (also moving towards a rebuild) surprise and win 90 games.

Also, using those same Depth Charts predictions, the Royals, Twins, and White Sox are all predicted to be among the eight worst teams in baseball.

Ernie Camachomember
7 years ago
Reply to  MikeS

Even though the Tribe are an excellent team even without the strength of schedule element added to the projected win total, your observation is no doubt true, and FanGraphs’ playoff odds will surely reflect this when they are released soon. I expect the Tribe’s playoff odds to be the highest in MLB by quite a bit.
7 years ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Just want to point out the typo in your post. You have Angels next to second place.

7 years ago
Reply to  Zonk

Correct me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t the AL Central been to the World Series 4 of the past 5 years?

7 years ago
Reply to  soccrtiger13

While you are right, let’s be honest here: those Tiger and Royals world series teams have virtually no bearing on 2017.