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Cleveland Indians 3 Ups and 3 Downs Heading into 2019

The Cleveland Indians have a lot of assets on their side, and some holes, so let’s look at where they are succeeding and where they are falling short…

The Cleveland Indians are coming off of their 3rd straight American League Central title, and with just about everyone picking them to win a fourth in a row one would think spirits would be high heading into 2019.

A sweep in the first round of the playoffs, however, followed by a disappointing offseason has to lead to a lot of frustration from the fans.

Beyond the addition of Carlos Santana, most of the signings made by the Indians were depth moves. These are normal for all teams as they add depth heading into spring training, but the Indians lost quite a bit as well.

The Tribe has a lot of assets on their side, and some holes, so let’s take a look at where they are succeeding and where they are falling short…

Ups

Starting Rotation

The Indians starting rotation was right up there among the best in baseball. An argument can be made that they were indeed the best in 2018. Tribe starters ranked right at the top in nearly every major pitching category.

The collective 22.9 fWAR of all Indians starters was the best in the Major Leagues, topping the Astros (22.5), Mets (17.5), and Dodgers (17.4). Cleveland starters also won more games (76) than the starters of any other MLB team.

Only the Astros starters, with a 10.37 K/9, struck out batters more often than the Indians second best 9.66 K/9. On the flip side, Cleveland starters walked batters at the best rate in baseball, leading the Majors with a 2.21 B/9.

The fWAR, K/9, and B/9 are all things directly under the control of the pitcher. Runs allowed is greatly dependent on the defense, so it isn’t always the best metric to measure a pitcher. That being said, it does still tell us about the overall effort of the pitcher and his defense.

In this area, the Indians starters were 3rd in MLB with a 3.39 ERA, trailing just the Astros (3.16) and Dodgers (3.19). A better way to measure a pitchers runs allowed is FIP.

FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching, isolate those things that a pitcher can more directly influence. Home runs, strikeouts, walks, hit batsmen, and innings, all essentially eliminate as much defensive influence as possible and isolate the pitchers’ individual performance.

In this regard, the Indians starters finished again in 3rd place with a 3.44 FIP, just falling short of the Dodgers 3.42 and trailing the Astros 3.28.

The Indians starters were dominate in 2018 and could be considered the best in the game, or at least right up there with the best. If the Tribe expects to make a playoff run and reach another World Series in 2019, they will need these starters to duplicate their 2018 performance and step it up come the postseason.

The Infield

Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez both had monster seasons in 2018. The two young infielders finished in the top 5 in MLB in fWAR and were both tops at their respective positions. Ramirez also finished first in the Majors with 12.0 BsR, the leagues top base runner last year.

Jason Kipnis didn’t have as poor of a year as it looked on the surface. He’s only two years removed from back-to-back 4+fWAR seasons and his 2.1 total last season put him right at league average for a starter.

His .230 batting average was an obvious poor showing, but his 10.0% walk rate buoyed his value. He hit 18 home runs, the second-best single-season total of his career, and he finished with positive defensive metrics. His 4.2 UZR in 2018 was above league average glovework.

Jake Bauers is a new addition to the Indians infield and one that could produce some excitement in 2019. The most reliable projections (Steamer, ZiPs, PECOTA) have Bauers hitting around 20 home runs with a 12% walk rate and a 105 wRC+. Those would be above league average numbers for a 23-year-old in his sophomore season. That’s the reason for excitement for me.

The Division

The Indians are not in a full rebuild, but rather a retool that should allow the team to stay competitive as some of the current core group of guys find a home elsewhere and the front office leans out the payroll.

It bodes well that, at least this season, the American League Central is an extremely weak division. Despite an uninspiring offseason, the Indians should still dominate their division rivals.

RotoChamp has been a pretty accurate projection tool and they use a method that combines other models like Baseball Prospectus, Davenport, and Fangraphs.

They are, in my opinion, a little generous with the Indians record, but they are right on with the Tigers, White Sox, and Royals. While the White Sox have made some moves this offseason, they still have one of the worst rotations in the game and their offense is not much better.

The Twins are an up and coming team in the division for sure. They have a solid and young rotation with several promising hitters. They will challenge the Indians for the division lead, next year…hopefully.

For now, the Indians are still the front runners of the Central and that opportunity afford them a very good chance at another playoff berth. With their rotation, anything can happen in October.

Downs

Outfield

This year’s crop of outfielders might be the worst since 2004 when Coco Crisp himself accounted for 4.0 of the outfields 6.7 fWAR. That outfield featured a rookie named Grady Sizemore who racked up 1.0 fWAR of his own in just 159 plate appearances.

The Indians are hoping that one of these young outfielders can step up and show some promise. As it stands today, the outfield consists of Leonys Martin in center, Tyler Naquin in right, and Jordan Luplow in left with Greg Allen as the utility man.

The Tribe did sign Matt Joyce who could factor in as a platoon option. Another guy to watch is Bauers, who logged 138 innings in the outfield last season in Tampa Bay. If the Indians feel more comfortable with a non-outfielder’s bat in the lineup, Bauers could move to a corner spot with Santana taking over at first.

Under the current configuration this outfield projects to just 2.6 fWAR as a group. Not good.

Bullpen

The Indians boasted the number two rated bullpen in the game in 2017. Last season they ranked just 27th out of 30 teams and allowed the most home runs per nine innings (1.51) of any team in MLB.

This season the bullpen will look much different from last year but will it be much better? The simple answer is yes, they should be. That doesn’t, however, mean these guys are going to resurrect the bullpen that led the Indians to within one out of the World Series.

Late innings are still going to be rough for the Tribe, other than Brad Hand, no one pitcher in this pen is going to inspire fear into the hearts of his foes. That being said, they are not a garbage squad.

What the Indians will tout out there is a group of league average arms. They are projecting to be worth 2.8 fWAR as a group, much better than the 0.4 fWAR from last year. That 2.8 fWAR would rank them 19th by last season’s numbers. Again, better but still not great.

The addition of Tyler Clippard here helps but isn’t moving the needle far enough to call the bullpen a strength. While the pen should improve overall from last season, a league average relief corp isn’t going to cut it on a playoff team.

Run Scoring

Last year the Indians scored 5.01 runs per game. This team is likely not going to match that output. They made improvements by adding Bauers and Carlos Santana, but they lost ground by losing Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, and Lonnie Chisenhall.

The good news is that even if the Indians drop nearly a run per game to 4.3, they will still project to win the Central, thus putting them in the playoffs again.

The hope is that one of Bauers, Luplow, Allen or any other young hitter can breakout and notch a great 2019 season. Maybe a bounce back of Kipnis or a solid year from Martin will give the offense a boost.

Next: Way too early Indians deadline outlooks

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Right now, runs scoring may be tough up and down the lineup, but even that shouldn’t be enough to keep the Tribe out of the 2019 postseason.

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