Coming off three consecutive division wins and a World Series appearance that fell short of the championship by a single run, this offseason has started differently, with the Indians talking about trading a piece or two from their core. In a weak division with two teams rebuilding, a third team with some big holes left to fill, and a fourth trying to rebuild without rebuilding, can the Indians still maintain their hold on the AL Central for the time being?
In the last quarter-century, the Cleveland Indians have gone through a significant generational change: the franchise is no longer defined by ineptitude. As losers go, it was the Cubs that got the “lovable” label; Cleveland’s forays into last place felt more sad than anything else. The John Hart era changed all this and after more than 40 years without a playoff spot — indeed, without even a finish above fourth place during the divisional era — Cleveland won the Central in six of seven years, starting in 1995. Cleveland has had two other periods of success since, each with different player cores, and the latest one finds the team at the forefront of sabermetric thought.
The end of Cleveland’s 2017 season was a frustrating one. The Indians won 102 games, the most in the American League and behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers overall. It was a team that was built for playoff success, with dangerous arms at the top of the rotation and bullpen. After the aforementioned World Series appearance the previous season, it was a bit humiliating to exit October in a backdoor sweep, losing a 2-0 series lead over the Yankees on seven unearned runs in the final two games and a team offense that only hit .171/.263/.287.
Baseball losses don’t necessarily teach you a lesson — even the 2018 Orioles dealt better teams 47 losses this season past season — and it was a good thing the organization didn’t panic and decide they lost the ALDS to the Yankees due to some fatal construction flaw.
But maintaining a core can be expensive. Cleveland lost seven players in free agency after the 2017 season (Carlos Santana, Bryan Shaw, Jay Bruce, Austin Jackson, Joe Smith, Boone Logan, Craig Breslow) to contracts totaling $150 million, and while only Santana and perhaps Shaw had been key long-term pieces for the team, the departures constituted some real value lost.
Cleveland signed Yonder Alonso as a short-term replacement for Santana at under half the price, but otherwise, it was a quiet winter, with no major trades and just the usual smattering of low-key signings with spring training invitations. Of these quiet signings, only Rajai Davis and Neil Ramirez were significant parts of the 2018 team; later Melky Cabrera would join the fold.
It can be argued fairly convincingly that a more conservative approach was probably the right for the Indians, given a division in which only one team looked like a serious threat to the team’s 2018 ambitions going in. ZiPS didn’t projected Cleveland to be the best team in baseball — the Dodgers and Astros had better preseason projections — but it did project Cleveland to have the clearest path to the playoffs, with an 84.4% chance for the AL Central and 94.1% to make the playoffs overall, both tops in baseball.
That’s not to say the projections didn’t come with concerns. ZiPS was quite worried about Cleveland’s situation in right field, pegging Lonnie Chisenhall and Tyler Naquin as both well below league-average. It was concerned about left field as well, due to Michael Brantley’s injury history. ZiPS thought Alonso would be around league-average and saw Jason Kipnis rebounding to be about the same.
As for the pitching, both starting and relief, the computer was not worried.
Until a six-game winning streak in late May pushed Cleveland over the .500 mark for good, the team struggled a great deal. Luckily for them, the rest of the division was as weak as expected (and the Twins especially so). The team recaptured first place on April 21 with a shutout win over the Orioles and despite going 14-17 over the next month, still managed not to relinquish the lead. The current whispers of a retool might have been a lot louder and come earlier if the team had been in the AL East or AL West.
Despite the poor(ish) start, the Indians were 5th in baseball in runs scored through the end of May, so you couldn’t point a finger at the offense. The team’s starting pitching, with a 3.45 ERA and a 3.91 FIP (6th and 8th in MLB respectively) couldn’t be blamed either. (A full half-run of that was Josh Tomlin, who allowed an 8.10 ERA in his six starts before losing his job).
Based on nothing but my unscientifically cooked mulligan stew of belief and bias, 90% of fans in baseball think the biggest problem with their team is their bullpen, which they believe to be the worst bullpen in the history of the universe. Cleveland fans that believed this were, for once, close to right. With a 6.13 ERA, Cleveland’s relief corps was a serious letdown. It was so bad that even ex-Indians Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith posted 5.84 ERAs for their new teams through May, which was either a form of sympathy underperformance or, more likely, pure coincidence that we shouldn’t read into at all.
What was increasingly exasperating was that the bullpen was supposed to be good. Even smart teams can fall prey to a case of the s’pose’das (From the Hank Scorpio episode of The Simpsons. I’m a Generation Xer; I love a good Simpsons reference), as the Cardinals did early on with Dexter Fowler.
Luckily for Cleveland, the weakness of the division gave them a substantial cushion to attempt to wait out the pen, with the divisional crown not in serious jeopardy at any time after May. The bullpen recovered to a degree, but a 4.33 ERA from May until the Brad Hand/Adam Cimber trade in July was still hardly a championship-worthy performance. Cleveland would no doubt have preferred not to trade the top catching prospect in the game, Francisco Mejia, but given the team’s glaring weakness and the fact that both Cody Allen and Andrew Miller were likely to depart in free agency in 2019, it was a necessary evil, given the team’s unwillingness to spend.
Having two MVP candidates (Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez) and three Cy Young candidates (Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco) makes up for a lot of sins. These five players accounted for nearly two-thirds of Cleveland’s WAR in 2018 (32.6 or 65% of their total).
Despite finishing third in the AL in runs scored, there were a lot of weak spots among Cleveland’s offense. Alonso was at least a mild disappointment at first base and Cleveland only received a .723 OPS from their right fielders and a .662 OPS out of center. The team’s second basemen had a .663 OPS, though most of that was Jason Kipnis not having the bounce back season he and Cleveland had hoped for. Edwin Encarnacion started hitting again after a wretched start, but he also appears to be a player in quick decline as his wRC+ has dropped for the fourth straight season, enough that he may no longer be a plus contributor.
Once gain, Cleveland’s postseason ended in humiliating fashion, being swept by the Astros, getting outscored 21-6 in three games, all losses.
What Comes Next?
There’s been a lot of buzz about Cleveland trading either Trevor Bauer or Corey Kluber (and they’ve already traded Yan Gomes). While it’s not my first option — I’d choose to go full-in on win-now and take a rebuilding period a few years down the road — it’s not as crazy as it initially sounds.
After subtracting Yan Gomes, who did net a prospect return, Cleveland’s payroll is still likely in the $120-$130 million neighborhood, with nearly $90 million in guaranteed contracts for 2019. That doesn’t give the team a lot of wiggle room to pick up secondary talent if they want to maintain current payroll levels. Most of the team’s talent is in the lower minors and as it stands, the starting pitching is a strength. Given that Kluber or Bauer could command an impressive haul, a trade may be hard for the team to resist when their philosophy of roster construction doesn’t leave other obvious ways to fill their holes.
If Danny Salazar is healthy — a big “if” admittedly — the projected rotation is deep enough that Shane Bieber will be on the outside looking in; Triston McKenzie is also knocking on the door. So one can see why Cleveland would be willing to shed a pitcher.
The larger concern to me is how easily Cleveland let go of Michael Brantley. After his 2018, I feel not extending the one year, $18 million qualifying offer of Brantley was a significant mistake. In the worst case scenario, they get to keep Brantley for a price at which they could not get a comparable player. Given the team’s offensive struggles at 1B/LF/RF (left field without Brantley, obviously), I think this needed to be a financial priority. I’m increasingly skeptical that Bobby Bradley will ever be a plus major league hitter at first, which gives the team less coasting room in the outfield (Neither Oscar Mercado or Daniel Johnson strike me as 2019 contributors and Bradley Zimmer has a huge injury question mark).
Cleveland should still enter 2019 as the favorite in the AL Central, but by a smaller margin than in past seasons. I wouldn’t call Minnesota or Chicago dangerous yet, but that is not an unchanging state of affairs. October remains its own beast, full of far scarier competition that will require much more to master than the division will.
ZiPS Projection – Trevor Bauer
ZiPS has always seen Bauer as a pitcher with a lot of upside and 2018 had the look of a true breakout season. Given that Bauer wants to go year-to-year with his contract, one can see why the Indians are shopping him along with Kluber; the team’s model, whether under John Hart or Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff, relies on signing players long-term pre-arbitration, absorbing some risk in order to limit their cost upside.
It’s always nice to see a player ZiPS believes has a high upside actually have that breakout season (shakes digital fist at Nomar Mazara and Danny Salazar), not only because new, young stars are a great thing for baseball, but because I like to trick people into thinking I’m smart once in a while.
There’s some regression here, but that’s natural for any star pitcher, really; the tendency for pitchers to break in a more spectacular fashion than hitters causes the risk to be skewed for star hurlers. Bauer is a legitimate All-Star pitcher, a status he doesn’t need to be anywhere near a 200 ERA+ to maintain.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.