Between now and Opening Day, we’ll be previewing each team by eavesdropping on an extended conversation about them. For the full archive of each 2018 team preview, click here.
Cleveland Indians PECOTA Projections:
Runs Scored: 798
Runs Allowed: 652
AVG/OBP/SLG (TAv): .261/.331/.421 (.260)
Total WARP: 38.7 (18.6 pitching, 20.1 non-pitching)
Aaron Gleeman: Cleveland won the first five—and six of the first seven—American League Central titles after the 1994 strike. Maybe this is just the Minnesotan in me recalling the trauma of those juggernaut Indians lineups crushing the newly created division during my most formative years of fandom, but are we in the middle of a similar run of division dominance? They’ve already won back-to-back division titles, by a total of 25 games, and this season PECOTA projects them as MLB’s second-biggest division favorite at 14 games. It’s a totally different Indians team, built on amazing pitching rather than amazing hitting, but is there any reason to think it won’t continue?
Matthew Trueblood: Yes, and here it is: it’s much harder to stay ahead of the pack now than it was then. Talk to a Cleveland scribe (or just a longtime fan), and they’ll tell you that those Indians could have turned their dynasty into one on par with that of the Braves’ decade-plus of divisional supremacy. There was no one in the division, then, thinking and scouting as well as Cleveland. These days, a bunch of teams are thinking and scouting very similarly to them, especially because a bunch of the guys who have helped build even this group are now running other teams. Being smart isn’t going to keep them ahead of the pack for all that long, this time.
Damn, though, but they are deep right now, virtually all over the roster. I’m not ready to project five straight titles, but two should become three pretty easily.
Gleeman: There are some spots where the Indians might slip a bit, like Yonder Alonso replacing Carlos Santana, losing Austin Jackson, and missing Bryan Shaw‘s durability in the bullpen. And if they can’t get Danny Salazar right for 125 innings or so, that will remove lots of upside. Then again, PECOTA projects the Indians to allow the fewest runs in the league—135 fewer than any other team in the division and 182 fewer than the average of the other four teams—despite conservative workload projections for Corey Kluber and the other high-end arms. That’s just silly.
This staff is going to absolutely carve up the Kansas City, Detroit, and Chicago lineups, and in general three AL Central teams basically not trying this season should inflate the Indians’ win total. If the Twins can’t approach 90 wins, the Indians can coast to the finish line. They can manage workloads, focus on keeping everyone healthy, use the regular season as a tryout for high-leverage bullpen arms to go alongside Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, and maybe add another bat like Jay Bruce for the stretch run. Not only are the Indians huge favorites to make the playoffs, it sets up in a way that could give them some ancillary benefits, too.
Trueblood: Right. There are many areas of potential vulnerability, like Alonso (who regressed even as last season went on) and Michael Brantley (who might not be ready by Opening Day, with that lingering foot injury), not to mention Salazar. It’s just that this team is so deep, and so modular, that they’ll be able to quickly, effectively cover whatever holes open up. If Brantley looks likely to miss much time in left field, Jason Kipnis will move out there, Jose Ramirez will slide to second base, and third base will open up for either Yandy Diaz or Giovanny Urshela. If Salazar is unable to get himself ready by Opening Day, that just makes it easier for Cleveland to keep Ryan Merritt (out of options, but not without utility) as an extra long man in relief. Edwin Encarnacion might continue to deal with injuries, as he moves well into his mid-30s, but Bobby Bradley showed up to camp in better shape and ready to make the most of his considerable hit tool, so he’s waiting in the wings. The sheer volume of good options and flexible pieces, all under the direction of maybe the best manager in baseball, is scary.
Gleeman: I like Diaz a lot. He seems 500 plate appearances away from being recognized as a solid OBP guy with some positional flexibility, yet as you mentioned, he’s pure depth. And a guy like Tyler Naquin isn’t even in the picture despite crushing Triple-A (and the majors, the first time around). PECOTA might even be short-changing their offense a bit, in part due to what you just talked about, and in part because it doesn’t view Ramirez as a clear-cut star due to his mediocre pre-breakout track record. Of course, they’re projected for the third-most runs in the league, so maybe not.
Are there any Indians breakout candidates you like? Or [Chandler Bing voice]: Could they get any scarier? Bradley Zimmer stands out as one for me, defensively and offensively. An up-the-middle core of Francisco Lindor (24), Ramirez (25), and Zimmer (25) is potentially amazing, although certainly Ramirez is plenty great at third base for now.
Trueblood: If Mike Clevinger’s 83 DRA- and 2.1 WARP in 121 innings wasn’t his breakout, then I’ll take him as a candidate to do so this year. Zimmer’s tools are off the charts, man. I’m a sucker for a top-shelf hit tool, though, so give me Francisco Mejia. I recently wrote about some reasons to doubt that he has a future behind the plate, but if the need arises, he’ll be there this year. Even if it doesn’t, he could force his way into the lineup at third base by the break. I believe that much in his bat.
Gleeman: Mejia is intriguing, and it almost seems unfair that the Indians have one of the best prospects in baseball waiting in the wings at catcher and/or third base. There are all sorts of possibilities with Mejia if he’s a midseason call-up and can hold his own right away. He could upgrade catcher offensively, or he could play third base, with Ramirez going to second base and Jason Kipnis shifting back to the outfield. That’s potentially cover for another Michael Brantley injury, too.
It looks like Clevinger will begin the season in Salazar’s spot in the rotation, with Josh Tomlin as the no. 5 starter. Is it grasping at straws to suggest the rotation depth could dry up pretty quickly unless Salazar makes it back soon? I guess most teams would be happy with Tomlin as their last starter, so probably. I do think there’s slightly less “oh my god, do they never run out of good arms?!” potential than last year, when the Indians had guys with 2.00 ERAs in low-leverage roles.
Trueblood: That much is true. Losing Shaw eats into their depth, and they leaked a little pitching talent over the last year. They seem to recognize it, too: they have 10 non-roster pitchers signed just this winter in camp.
I suspect we’ll see them convert some of this dizzying positional depth to increased pitching depth, as we approach Opening Day. Both Urshela and Erik Gonzalez are out of options. With Melvin Upton and Rajai Davis in camp, it seems virtually certain that Greg Allen, Tyler Naquin, and Abraham Almonte are all ticketed for Triple-A Columbus. Yu-Cheng Chang and Diaz make both of those infielders redundant, and the logjam for the outfielders isn’t going to break terribly soon. They could swap two of those five guys for a pretty good depth arm or two, be better balanced, and still face very little risk of being exposed.
Gleeman: I was surprised to see how much PECOTA likes Bauer this season, because in my head at least he had kind of plateaued as a mid-rotation guy with 4.00-something ERAs. His career ERA is 4.36 and he’s never posted an ERA below 4.18, but he’s projected for a 3.73 ERA this season. That would make up for some lesser overall pitching depth, certainly.
I feel like we should spend a moment talking about the greatness of Francisco Lindor, who has established himself as one of the true superstars of the game at age 24. I’m very curious to see the shape of his 2018 season. I’m certain he’ll be tremendously valuable, as usual, but I’m not certain what it’ll look like. Last year he smacked 33 homers while maintaining an identical strikeout rate, and raised his batting average from .252 in the first half to .298 in the second half. If he’s figured out how to be a 30-homer slugger and hit .300 … well, he’d be an MVP-caliber player. (I’d have just written “he’d be the MVP” except Mike Trout still exists.)
Trueblood: No matter what, he’s great. Great baserunner and basestealer. Great feel for the barrel. I think you have to make some kind of tradeoff to add as much power as he added in 2017. Many guys do it by swinging harder or on a steeper plane, or just swinging more often, which tends to inflate strikeout rates and/or lower walk rates. Lindor did it the other way, I think, which is to just get bigger and stronger. What that cost him was a bit of his defensive magic: all three major defensive metrics say he went from elite to merely above average with the glove at shortstop last year. I buy into the offensive improvement, though, so yeah, he’s a legitimate MVP vote-getter.
I mentioned at the outset that I expect the Tribe to have to fight to maintain control of the division, because they’ve lost their advantage in the front office. I’ll walk that back just a bit, by saying this: Lindor, Kluber, and Ramirez aren’t just a good core. They’re capital-S Special. Kluber had the highest put away percentage in baseball on three different pitches last season. He and Ramirez are on such team-friendly extensions. As long as they have these three, the Indians will be really tough to beat, not only for the rest of the AL Central, but come October.
Gleeman: Bovada has the Indians’ over/under at 94.5 wins, which is extremely high, in a normal season at least. I tend to think it’s smart to just bet the under on any total that high, because 95 wins are a lot of wins, but a) I have a hard time viewing this as less than a 90-win team even if things don’t go particularly well, and b) I think the lack of competition in the AL Central will give them a solid boost.
Trueblood: Agreed. I don’t foresee another 102 wins, but 95 is a pretty safe bet.