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Could an AL Central Superteam Beat the Cleveland Indians?

Cleveland spent its winter vacation cutting tens of millions of dollars in payroll, flirting with trading some of its best players to save even more money, and scarcely taking any steps to fix the glaring holes on its roster. Yet none of that transactional nonsense is likely to matter for the team’s 2019 fortunes, at least in the regular season.

Cleveland plays in the AL Central, which last season rated as the second-worst division in MLB history. The division looks just as lackluster this year: According to current FanGraphs projections, while the Twins appear likely to finish in the .500 range, the White Sox, Royals, and Tigers forecast as the fifth-, fourth-, and third-worst teams in baseball, respectively. For the regular season, then, Cleveland can thus afford to cut costs and play down to its meager competition, because it can still return to the playoffs with ease (and management apparently didn’t care that the team looked overmatched in last season’s playoff sweep). But even with the roster looking weaker than it did last season, we wondered just how wide Cleveland’s advantage over the rest of the division extends: Could the other four AL Central teams combine to form a roster that would best the three-time defending division winners?

We’ll go position by position to compare the two rosters using FanGraphs’ WAR projections for 2019: Cleveland’s on one side, the combined rest-of-the-division’s on the other. Oh, and because all four other teams have won a World Series more recently than Cleveland, we’ll call them the Champs.

Catcher

Welington Castillo (White Sox) vs. Kevin Plawecki
Position WAR: 1.6 for the Champs vs. 1.1 for Cleveland
Total Count: 1.6 vs. 1.1

Cleveland began its financial restructuring this winter by trading erstwhile starter Yan Gomes, a 2018 All-Star, to Washington for a trio of young players. So while new Cleveland catcher Plawecki and backup Roberto Pérez don’t form a terrible duo, they’re not built to match the production from Team Champs. That group starts with the advantage even with the previously indefatigable Salvador Pérez (Royals), initially slated as this team’s starter, out for the season due to Tommy John surgery.

First Base


Miguel Cabrera

Miguel Cabrera
Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Miguel Cabrera (Tigers) vs. Jake Bauers
Position WAR: 2.4 vs. 1.2
Total Count: 4.0 vs. 2.3

The projection systems (FanGraphs’ Depth Chart projections are a blend of the ZiPS and Steamer models) believe in a bounceback for Cabrera, who wasn’t healthy last season and didn’t hit the year before. But they peg him for a more productive 2019 than Chicago’s José Abreu, so he grabs the starting spot and widens the Champs’ lead.

Second Base

Whit Merrifield (Royals) vs. Jason Kipnis
Position WAR: 3.1 vs. 2.1
Total Count: 7.1 vs. 4.4

That advantage grows further with another established contributor in Merrifield, who received a handful of MVP votes last season after leading the majors in both hits and stolen bases. Team Champs has bested Cleveland through each of the first three positions—it looks like a rout early.

Shortstop

Adalberto Mondesi (Royals) vs. Francisco Lindor
Position WAR: 3.6 vs. 6.0
Total Count: 10.7 vs. 10.4

Look at all these Royals! But don’t get used to it. No other Kansas City position player qualifies for the roster, and on the pitching side, only a pair of Royals manage to sneak on to the very back of the staff. After the two-year magic of 2014 and 2015, the Royals’ rebuild is only now beginning in earnest, so the priority for 2019 is player development, particularly with prospects in the lower levels of the minor leagues. At least with the likes of Merrifield and Mondesi, who in last season’s second half combined to steal more bases than 27 teams, the major league Royals will be a thrill to watch on the base paths.

Even with Lindor sidelined for at least the start of the season due to a calf strain, and with Mondesi entering the season with an impressive projection of his own, Cleveland has the clear advantage at this position. The rout is off. The best shortstop in the majors almost erases the Champs’ gap from the first three positions by himself.

Third Base

Miguel Sanó (Twins) vs. José Ramírez
Position WAR: 2.3 vs. 6.3
Total Count: 13.0 vs. 16.7

And now that gap is gone entirely, and in fact flipped in the other direction. That’s what happens when a team with two top-tier MVP candidates (Ramírez finished third in last year’s AL vote, Lindor sixth) faces a team without a single one. Part of the problem for the Champs is that even though they rate as at least average at every position, they don’t stretch much beyond that anywhere. Mondesi forecasts as the Central’s best non-Cleveland player; Cleveland has five players who project to be better than him in Lindor, Ramírez, and three pitchers to come.

We’ve also entered the Twins portion of this exercise. Minnesota remains the clear second-best team in the division after second-place finishes in 2016 and 2017, and the separation in talent starts to appear now.

Left Field

Eddie Rosario (Twins) vs. Jordan Luplow
Position WAR: 2.7 vs. 0.9
Total Count: 15.7 vs. 17.6

The most perplexing part of Cleveland’s offseason was its handling of the outfield. That set of positions was already a problem, as the team had to resort to starting Melky Cabrera in last year’s playoffs—and then it worsened, as the team let three-time All-Star Michael Brantley leave in free agency without so much as extending a qualifying offer. And the club’s biggest move to shore up those positional predicaments was to trade for the Pirates’ Luplow, a 25-year-old non-prospect with a career .194/.274/.371 batting line in 190 MLB plate appearances.

Rosario, for comparison, enjoyed his best season yet in 2018. Despite debuting in the same year as Byron Buxton (who was once the no. 1 prospect in baseball) and Max Kepler (no. 30), Rosario has somehow amassed the best career for a 2015 rookie Twins outfielder thus far.

Center Field


Byron Buxton jumps to catch a ball on the warning track

Byron Buxton
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Byron Buxton (Twins) vs. Leonys Martín
Position WAR: 2.4 vs. 1.6
Total Count: 18.1 vs. 19.2

And yet! For the fourth spring in a row, it’s time to declare Buxton a top breakout candidate for the upcoming season. The player who once drew Mike Trout comps produced a batting line last season that was almost unimaginably terrible: .156/.183/.200 in 94 plate appearances in the majors, with no home runs, three walks, and 28 strikeouts. His wRC+ was negative. St. Louis Cardinals pitchers combined to do better at the plate.

But Buxton hit well in Triple-A again, and he would have had the chance to improve those MLB numbers had the Twins not left him off the roster during the September expansion to presumably fiddle with his service time. He’s since started spring training with a .429/.500/1.143 batting line, including three homers and a double in 14 at-bats. He’s perhaps the best defensive center fielder in baseball and the fastest runner, and those parts of his game are so impressive he needs to hit just a smidge to become the star he was always destined to be.

Right Field

Eloy Jimenez (White Sox) vs. Tyler Naquin
Position WAR: 3.0 vs. 0.3
Total Count: 21.1 vs. 19.5

In this fantasy, touted prospect Jimenez receives a healthy 574 plate appearances (as he’s projected to on FanGraphs). One can only hope he meets this number, as the White Sox look likely to suppress his service time by holding him in the minor leagues for at least a couple weeks.

Jimenez is one of just two Chicago position players to qualify for this combined team, and Castillo made it only as an injury replacement. No White Sox starting pitcher does, either. Not only are the White Sox keeping a good young player in the minors to deny him a full year of service time; they’re keeping their projected best player in the minors to deny him a full year of service time.

While the closest to the majors, Jimenez isn’t Chicago’s only hyped youngster, as second baseman Nick Madrigal, outfielder Luis Robert, and pitcher Dylan Cease—who came to the organization along with Jimenez in 2017’s José Quintana trade—rank as top-50 prospects. Yet Chicago’s rebuild seems stalled (and its farcical, failing pursuit of Manny Machado certainly didn’t help). The three best prospects acquired for Chris Sale and Adam Eaton two offseasons ago have all lost some luster since then: Infielder Yoán Moncada hasn’t solved his glaring strikeout problem, as he led the majors last year with 217; pitcher Lucas Giolito had the worst ERA, FIP, park-adjusted ERA, and park-adjusted FIP of any qualified starter last season; and fellow right-hander Michael Kopech, who also rates as a top-50 prospect, will miss 2019 due to Tommy John surgery. The club’s playoff drought will reach 11 years in 2019, and it might not relent for a while longer. At least Jimenez will delight South Side fans in the meantime.

Designated Hitter

Nelson Cruz (Twins) vs. Carlos Santana
Position WAR: 2.8 vs. 1.7
Total Count: 23.9 vs. 21.2

Across four seasons in Seattle, Cruz led the majors in homers and ranked eighth among qualifying hitters in wRC+, one spot behind Bryce Harper. And Minnesota’s Target Field rates as a much friendlier park for right-handed power than Seattle’s T-Mobile Park (née Safeco), so it’s easy to see another 40-homer campaign from the six-time All-Star.

Bench

Willians Astudillo (Twins), Marwin González (Twins), Jeimer Candelario (Tigers), Max Kepler (Twins) vs. a mix of Cleveland reserves
Position WAR: 4.1 vs. 1.3
Total Count: 28.0 vs. 22.5

The Champs boast reasonably impressive depth, with average MLB players like Moncada, Twins second baseman Jonathan Schoop, and Tigers outfielder Nick Castellanos not projecting well enough to make the 25-man roster. The four replacements who did can all hit and contribute in different areas in the field: Candelario can back up Sanó (and fill in while the Minnesota man recovers from his current injury), González the other infield spots, and Kepler the outfield. And while Astudillo seems unlikely to qualify for Minnesota’s Opening Day roster, the Twitter favorite’s placement on the team isn’t just fan service: He boasts the best per-plate-appearance projection of any catcher in the division, at 2.8 WAR per 600 plate appearances, so he’s actually the best fit to maximize the team’s total production.

So through the position players, the Champs lead Cleveland by more than five WAR, and their 28.0 figure would place seventh in the majors between the Cubs and Nationals. The situation looks promising. On to the pitchers.

Starting Pitchers

1. José Berríos (Twins) vs. Corey Kluber
Position WAR: 2.9 vs. 5.3
Total Count: 30.9 vs. 27.8

Well, that’s OK. Kluber’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball for a half-decade, and only three starters in all of baseball project as more valuable in 2019; of course he cut into the gap.

2. Michael Fulmer (Tigers) vs. Carlos Carrasco
Position WAR: 2.4 vs. 4.5
Total Count: 33.3 vs. 32.3

But that’s not good.

3. Kyle Gibson (Twins) vs. Trevor Bauer
Position WAR: 2.3 vs. 4.4
Total Count: 35.6 vs. 36.7

That’s even worse.

4. Michael Pineda (Twins) vs. Mike Clevinger
Position WAR: 2.1 v.s 2.7
Total Count: 37.7 vs. 39.4

And now the gap is growing in the wrong direction.

On the one hand, it’s encouraging for Minnesota that three of the Champs’ top four pitchers come from the Twins. On the other, that’s perhaps a greater commentary on the other three teams’ lack of options than any reflection of Minnesota brilliance, as the Twins’ rotation beyond Berrios and Gibson looks likely to hold the team back from playoff contention this season.

It’s a challenge, first, to count on Pineda. Outside 12 minor league rehab innings last summer, he hasn’t pitched since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2017—and that rehab stint was cut short after Pineda tore the meniscus in his right knee. He hasn’t pitched consistently well since 2014, when he also missed three months to a shoulder injury, this one coming after he had sat for two full seasons following shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum.

After Pineda on the depth chart is Jake Odorizzi, a fine but unspectacular pitcher, and Martin Pérez, last seen collecting a 6.22 ERA (5.72 FIP) in Texas last season. The depth options are even worse, with unproven lefty Adalberto Mejía, who’s suffered left arm injuries in consecutive seasons, leading the pack.

There might not be a team in more desperate need of free-agent starter Dallas Keuchel than the Twins. Even the less-heralded Gio González, a fellow free-agent southpaw, would give Minnesota a necessary boost. The Twins have the position players to make a run at Cleveland but nowhere near the pitchers.

5. Danny Duffy (Royals) vs. Shane Bieber
Position WAR: 1.9 vs. 2.7
Total Count: 39.6 vs. 42.1

After collecting better than a 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio as a rookie, Bieber enters his sophomore season as Cleveland’s no. 5 starter. He’d be the Twins’ no. 2 and the projected ace for any other team in the division. Other rotations, like Washington’s, can match Cleveland’s in top-level talent, and other rotations, like the Dodgers’, can match it in depth, but no other staff has both.

Spot starters: Daniel Norris (Tigers) vs. a mix of Cleveland reserves
Position WAR: 1.0 vs. 0.8
Total Count: 40.6 vs. 42.9

The final starter innings for the Champs could go to any of Norris, Detroit’s Matt Boyd, and Kansas City’s Jakob Junis, all of whom boast similar projections. But Norris’s is slightly better on a per-inning basis, so he’ll grab the remaining innings that arise from, for instance, Pineda’s lower projected innings total.

The Tigers seem at times like they’re mixing the worst parts of the Royals’ and White Sox’s rebuild efforts. Like the former, it took a while for Detroit to realize that one was even necessary, even as the MLB roster grew older and less viable. Like the latter, many of the Tigers’ most touted trade targets have stalled or regressed, from Norris—once a top-20 prospect acquired from Toronto for David Price, now a struggling back-end starter—to Daz Cameron and Franklin Perez, who were acquired from Houston for Justin Verlander but have fallen on prospect lists due to performance and injuries, respectively. Just one Tiger reached Baseball Prospectus’s top-101 prospect list this winter, pitcher Casey Mize, and the Tigers only have him because they lost so much that they earned the no. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft. There will be a lot more losing between now and whenever the Tigers are ready to contend again.

On to the bullpens, where the Champs have their last chance to reverse Cleveland’s lead.

Bullpen

High-Leverage: Joe Jiménez (Tigers), Taylor Rogers (Twins), Nate Jones (White Sox), Trevor May (Twins), Alex Colomé (White Sox) vs. Brad Hand, Tyler Olson, Dan Otero, Adam Cimber, Oliver Pérez
Total Count: 3.8 vs. 2.5
Total Count: 44.4 vs. 45.4

Beyond the outfield, Cleveland’s greatest hole is the bullpen, which just a few years ago was a transformative unit that propelled the team to the brink of a World Series title. But then Andrew Miller got hurt and Cody Allen got worse, and then both pitchers left in free agency this winter. Hand—acquired at last season’s trade deadline from San Diego—is the best reliever in the division, but the projections show that he’s the only remaining Cleveland reliever who’s better than any member of the Champs’ bullpen.

For the Champs, we’re sorting all four component teams’ relievers by projected WAR and ignoring traditional hierarchies. They don’t need a “proven closer” at the back; they’re just placing all the highest-projected arms in the highest-leverage spots.

Lower-Leverage: Some combination of Jace Fry (White Sox), Jake Diekman (Royals), Blake Parker (Twins), and Shane Greene (Tigers) vs. Neil Ramírez, Danny Salazar, and others
Total Count: 1.6 vs. 0.2
Total Count: 46.0 vs. 45.6—CHAMPS WIN

In the very last spot, in the very final projected reliever innings, the Champs edge ahead and eke out a victory. Outside its top seven, Cleveland doesn’t have a single reliever projected for positive WAR, while the Champs have just enough—all of them closely huddled in the projections, thus the uncertain arrangement here—for the final push.

But WAR is not so precise that such a small fraction of a win is meaningful. Really, what this result shows is that Cleveland could only meet its match in the AL Central if the other four teams combined powers. The Champs have more depth and better hitters, as more than half of Cleveland’s projected position player WAR comes from Lindor and Ramírez, but they don’t have the top-end talent or overall pitching stability that Cleveland does, and the two sides’ advantages mean they essentially meet in the middle.

This result shows the ease of Cleveland’s path in 2019 and explains why the club decided on a course of relative inaction this winter, however frustrating and disingenuous and overly cost-conscious it might be. As long as the rest of the division putters about, it won’t incentivize Cleveland to try any more than the barest minimum it needs to win.



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