The Indians look like contenders this year,
Things are looking up for the Cleveland Indians on the minor league front. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked the club as having the 11th-best farm system in baseball, while Baseball Prospectus declared it “one of the deepest in the American League.” They’re most prized possession, Bradley Zimmer, is a five-tool center fielder who has the potential to be a perennial all-star. However, the rest of their farm oozes talent as well.
Brady Aiken has the talent of a number-one overall pick, Clint Frazier is said to possess ”unbelievable” bat speed, which leads to great power, and the duo of Justus Sheffield and Rob Kaminsky offer Cleveland future middle-of-the-rotation arms. Adding in depth with tantalizing ceilings like Mike Clevinger and Dylan Baker, and it’s pretty easy to say that the Indians system is in solid shape. On the major league front, things might be looking even better.
The Tribe were a trendy sleeper pick heading into 2015. They had a pitching staff stocked with young talent and a Cy Young winner, a freshly broken out superstar in Michael Brantley who anchored the lineup, and one of the game’s best backstops in Yan Gomes.
Flash forward a year, and things didn’t quite turn out as planned, as they never seem to do. The team got off to a 19-25 start and never really recovered, finishing with a record of 81-80. Plenty lead to this uninspiring season. Through the first half, the Indians had a historically atrocious defense, helping them dig a hole they never got out of. Both Corey Kluber and Brantley, while still good, fell back down to earth after the best seasons of their career.
Worst of all, Gomes turned in one of the most disappointing performances of 2015, going from an all-star catcher to barely above replacement level. All in all, it was a pretty disappointing season. However, looking past the superficial numbers, Cleveland was actually a pretty good team last year.
Fangraphs’ BaseRuns statistic takes all the individual events a team has (singles, doubles, etc.) and strips out the context, providing a record that the team “should” have based on their individual production. According to BaseRuns, the Indians played like an 89-win team in 2015. Going by Baseball Prospectus’ own adjusted standings statistic, third order winning percentage, the team should have won 93 games. This 12-win gap between their real record and their “true-performance” record made the Tribe one of the unluckiest teams in baseball last year.
This year, Cleveland is bringing back almost the exact same squad, with their biggest offseason acquisitions being one-year deals for players in their mid-thirties. They will be relying on their luck to turn around as they seek a postseason berth. Looking at their roster, it seems like a fairly reasonable plan.
The rotation is still loaded with talent, as Kluber and Carlos Carrasco form one of the best 1-2 punches in baseball, and the group is projected to strike out more batters than any other starting five. In the bullpen, Cody Allen is coming off a season in which he emerged as one of baseball’s best relievers, striking out over 12 batters per nine while only giving up two home runs all year.
As for the lineup, even though Michael Brantley will be starting the season on the DL, this group can still pack a powerful punch. Jason Kipnis was the best second baseman in baseball last year, providing a great bat to go along with solid defense. Although Gomes is coming off a terrible season, he’s a good bet to bounce back, bringing a solid bat and fantastic defensive skills to the plate. At shortstop, Fransisco Lindor is fresh off his fantastic rookie campaign in which he performed so well on both sides of the ball that he challenged Carlos Correa for the rookie of the year.
The projection systems have reflected the team’s potential for success. Fangraphs’ projections see Cleveland as the best team in the AL Central, five games ahead of the Tigers and one of the eight best teams in the majors. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system is even more bullish on the Tribe, seeing them as a 92-win team, 10 games ahead of the White Sox in the division and one of the three best teams in baseball.
Given how good Cleveland’s odds look right now, it seems like this year is the time for the team to go for it. However, if they find themselves in the midst of a playoff race come this year’s deadline, the Indians’ front office should not sell the farm.
While the aforementioned projections peg the rest of AL Central to be a weak division full of middling teams, that’s quite deceiving. These systems have drastically underestimated the Royals for the past two years. Given how Kansas City has performed, Cleveland shouldn’t consider their division locked up in March.
However, the more important reason for the Indians to exercise patience is how the division is going to look in a few years. The Royals seem like a formidable opponent, but they are built around a core of bullpen and defensive talent. Given that bullpen success is notoriously volatile, and that defense peaks early and declines fast, it’s not unreasonable to expect Kansas City to fall back down to earth in the coming years.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have an old roster that appears to be pushing for one last hurrah with Justin Upton before the inevitable crash comes. The White Sox seem to be going for it again with their current core, but they’ve been unsuccessful doing so in the past, and their rebuild seems just around the corner as well. The Twins have some potential to be good down the line, but their current roster does little to inspire confidence for the near future.
Given the present and future state of the division, the Indians look to have a wide open window of contention through the second half of this decade. Add in the fact that their current core is locked up for the next few years, and Cleveland should have no reason to narrow the window by going all in this year. Instead, by hoarding their top level prospects, they could find themselves atop their division for many years to come.
The Indians are a small-market team. It can be difficult to achieve success when your best players keep leaving every few years. If the Indians try to cash in their prospects to win now, the pieces they’ll get in return aren’t going to be around longer than a couple of seasons. By building they’re roster from within, they can instead maintain success over a longer period of time and supplement any losses they might sustain with talent from the farm. This might make them worse in an individual season, but if a power vacuum forms in their division, it wouldn’t really matter, as the team will still have enough talent to win.
The Indians look like the favorites in the AL Central this year, but they shouldn’t waste the opportunity to have an extended period of contention just because they’re experiencing success. That said, if the team needs to move a mid-level prospect to add an extra bullpen arm, they should absolutely do it. They just shouldn’t ship out Bradley Zimmer for a rental who will leave at the end of the year.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus
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