The Cleveland Indians are coming off their third straight division title, and they are all but certain to win their fourth straight in 2019. The Indians benefited from a historically weak division last year with three teams that were not trying to win, so while their 91 wins were impressive, they were able to pad their record as a result. They were 49-27 within their division, with 39 of those wins coming against the White Sox, Tigers, and Royals. Outside of their division they were a sub-.500 team at 42-44.
Cleveland has not done much this winter. They executed a few minor trades, the most notable of which involved getting Jake Bauers and bringing back Carlos Santana in a three-team trade that sent Edwin Encarnación to the Mariners and Yandy Díaz to the Rays. They also sent Yan Gomes to the Nationals in exchange for a small package of prospects, choosing instead to go with an inferior option by trading for Kevin Plawecki.
We all know that the hot stove is ice cold, and Cleveland has been one of the quietest teams this winter. They brought back Oliver Pérez, one of the best relievers in baseball last year, on a cheap one-year deal. They traded Yonder Alonso away after acquiring Santana and Bauers because there wast no room anymore for him.
I shouldn’t be too hard on Cleveland when it comes to payroll, though. They shaved some salary this year, but last year they spent almost $124 million on the team, which ranked them right in the middle of baseball. That might not sound too impressive, but it was actually the highest team payroll in in franchise history.
Still, this is an outfield that will have Leonys Martín in center field, Tyler Naquin in right field, and presumably some combination of Jordan Luplow and Tyler Naquin in left field. Bradley Zimmer is expected to come back later this season, but there are huge question marks surrounding his ability to hit and stay healthy. This is just a brutal outfield for a contending team to have. According to Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections, the five players mentioned above are projected to be worth just 4 WAR combined.
They let Michael Brantley walk in free agency to the Astros, the team that embarrassed them in last year’s ALDS, and it was just a two-year, $32 million deal, too. A team that really needs outfield help let their best option walk away over a fair contract that I absolutely guarantee you that they could have afforded to beat. Even I think it would be asking too much for them to sign Bryce Harper, but what about A.J. Pollock when he was available? Nick Markakis ended up signing for for pennies. They didn’t even so much as extend a qualifying offer to Brantley!
Thankfully having Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez makes up for a lot of deficiencies in the lineup. Lindor hit .277/.352/.519 last year. Ramírez hit .270/.387/.552, and that was with just a .252 BABIP! Their offense combined with their defense and baserunning made them worth almost 16 WAR combined! With some expected regression, ZiPS still expects them to be worth nearly 13 WAR combined. Lindor is currently out with a calf strain, but there is hope that he will be ready by Opening Day.
Also making up for a lackluster lineup is the team’s stellar rotation. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, and Shane Bieber make for a heck of a starting five. It is a great position of strength to trade from in order to get some outfield help. As painful as it might be for their fans, Kluber might be their best option to get that done. He will be 33 in April, and can be retained through 2020.
As for the bullpen, well, it was not good last year and it might not be much better this year. In 2018, the bullpen ranked in the bottom third in baseball when adjusting for league and park effects. The good news is that they will have a full year of Brad Hand, and it will be interesting to see what Danny Salazar can give them if he can stay healthy all season, as he struck out a third of batters faced last year. There is no way that Pérez repeats his 1.67 RA9 performance last year, though, when his RA9 was nearly 5.00 over the previous three seasons combined.
The closest competition to Cleveland are the Twins, who have made improvements this winter and are clearly trying to win. While it is great to see teams make sincere attempts to be competitive in today’s game, they are still a long way’s off from challenging Cleveland. FanGraphs and PECOTA have them as a 92-win and a 96-win team, respectively.
Both of those projection systems peg the Twins an an 83-win team. They only way I see the Twins taking the division over Cleveland is if something happens analogous to what happened with the NL East in 2015. The Nationals were runaway favorites, but the Mets were able to win the division because everything went wrong for the Nats while everything went right for the Mets.
Cleveland has it pretty good right now. Short of a catastrophe, they are basically guaranteed to win the division. Sure, they might end up getting embarrassed in the ALDS again, but they could also make it to the World Series like they did in 2016. In baseball, all you have to do it make the playoffs. Anything can happen after that.
. . .
Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.