This was supposed to be the Indians’ year. Cleveland finished last season with the best Pythagenport record in baseball, and entered this one with a core of young talent that is as impressive as any of the past quarter century. Seven of twelve BP authors picked the Indians to win their division. Vegas sent their benchmark at 91 wins. So what in the hell happened?
The season isn’t over yet, I can hear our readers in Shaker Heights protesting. Remember the Astros!, scream our subscribers in Elyria. But the Indians’ playoff chances are deader than Strom Thurmond. It isn’t that the Indians aren’t likely to play a little bit better: even with a few misfires in the bullpen and the outfield, this is probably a club with 90-win talent. But, our post-season odds report projects that it will require 97 wins to take the Wild Card in a tough-as-nails American League–and the Indians have an awful lot of ground to make up. To reach that 97-win threshold, the Indians would need to play 56-20 ball from here on out, a second-half pace that even the 2002 A’s couldn’t achieve.
That dose of reality in mind, let’s diagnose the Indians by means of the Tuftian analysis that we previously applied to the Cubs and the A’s. How can the Indians make the best use of their next three months of baseball, and the off-season that follows it?
Our rules remain the same as in the previous versions of this exercise, but with one minor exception. Specifically, we’re now using the dashed, “prison bar” lines to indicate any sort of option year in a contract, rather than only a player option year. As you’ll see, the Indians really like team options, and in fact all of the option years included in these charts are team or mutual options.
The Indians don’t have a credible catching prospect anywhere in their system. But that’s small beans when the starter is Victor Martinez, and he’s locked up through 2010. Even if Martinez’ defense deteriorates to the point that he needs to be moved to another position, Kelly Shoppach is relatively young and has many club-controlled years remaining.
Designated hitter and shortstop are similarly taken care of, although my hunch is that a typical Jhonny Peralta season will more closely resemble this season’s performance than 2005. Andy Marte has caught fire after an awful start at Buffalo–a pattern he’s exhibited several times during his minor league career–and there’ s no reason to be playing Aaron Boone ahead of him, unless it’s to hope that Boone catches lightning in a bottle for two weeks in order to boost his trade value. The Indians will need to sign a free agent second baseman this winter, since there are no excess middle infielders in the farm system. Their own free agent, Ron Belliard, would probably be as good a choice as any, although it would make some sense to bring in a defensive specialist given how groundball-heavy the pitching staff is.
Beyond Grady Sizemore, the situation in the outfield is much less settled. While one year of wait-and-see on Jason Michaels is probably warranted, the Indians will need to spend some significant money on a free agent right fielder if they want to reach the playoffs next year. It really is that simple, unless Franklin Gutierrez or Brad Snyder develop much faster than expected. Trot Nixon, who would take a key player away from a potential LCS opponent, would be an especially interesting fit.
There’s an awful lot of yellow on the top half of this pitching chart, which indicates an awful lot of average pitchers locked up for the next several years. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it means that the Indians can save money on a starting pitcher, and spend it instead at positions where they have a more pressing need. But the Indians are going to be giving up a bit of ground to the White Sox and probably the Tigers in the starting pitching department, and they’ll need to make it up elsewhere on the diamond. It’s also possible that Jeremy Sowers breaks through into green territory, but both PECOTA and the scouts profile him more as a low-risk, medium-upside guy.
Is the bullpen one of those places where the Indians should be looking to spend money? That is perhaps the most interesting question facing Mark Shapiro this winter. Bob Wickman will be bid good riddance, and with the regression of people like Fernando Cabrera, there’s no obvious front-line reliever to replace him.
There are really two schools of thought here. The first is that great closers tend to come out of nowhere, whether it’s Jonathan Papelbon or Bobby Jenks or Eric Gagne. Who could be the Indians’ Bobby Jenks? One intriguing possibility is Adam Miller, who has had a pretty good–and completely injury-free–season at Akron. Miller fits the profile of several of the better closer convertees, with only average command, but two real plus pitches. Presumably, moving him to the bullpen could also reduce his injury risk. Having Miller spend August as the closer at Akron or Buffalo would both hedge against his inning pitched total running up too high, and perhaps establish a long-term solution for the Indians at a position of need.
The other school of thought is that, while a good closer is a luxury of sorts, it is perhaps a necessary one. In fact, it is hard to think of championship-caliber clubs over the past decade or two that didn’t have at least a well above-average closer. In part this is a tautological argument: championship-caliber clubs are championship-caliber clubs precisely because they have above-average talent at most positions. But, winning baseball teams also have more leads that need holding on to, and the Indians in particular have a group of starters that are often out of the game by the sixth inning. Hence, there is a lot of upside to the Adam Miller experiment that we’ve proposed–and if it fails, Shapiro should not hesitate to gamble on someone like Octavio Dotel or Scott Williamson, if not a more fully-fledged alternative.
The greatest danger for the Indians is complacency. Even after a disappointing 2006, Shapiro is going to look over a roster that features Sizemore, Hafner, Martinez, Sabathia, Peralta, and Marte locked up for the next 3-6 years, and recognize that his club has the sort of window of opportunity that might only present itself once or twice in a general manager’s career. But, teams like the late nineties Mariners and even the John Hart version of the Indians had similar talent cores, and never converted them into World Championships.
Part of the challenge might be Shaprio seeing past certain stale mantras of the sabermetric orthodoxy. Sabermetrics has taught us that free agent talent at positions like the corner outfield and the bullpen is almost always overpaid, at least on an abstract scale. Hence, it becomes tempting to go with a replacement level alternative like Casey Blake, and pay him a replacement level wage. But, the new wave of sabermetrics teaches us that there are inflection points on a team’s revenue curve, at which it becomes highly productive to add additional talent.
The Indians are at just such an inflection point. The six or seven core players that we described before represent probably an 85-90 win group of talent, with just a little bit of window dressing around them. Shapiro can rest on his laurels and be comfortable that he’ll have a competitive club for the next half-decade–or he can go for the jugular, hit Larry Dolan up for a $20 million increase in the payroll, and bring a World Series to Cleveland. No team in baseball, except perhaps the Mets, has a better head start on a championship. And the Indians are going to need to spend money to take advantage of that head start, because they have few veteran trade chips, and the farm system has been very boom-or-bust, rather than producing a lot of extraneous talent.
There are a couple of complicating factors here. Firstly, the Indians play in a very tough division, and a very tough league. But that is all the more reason to aim higher–while budgeting for 90 wins might do in other circumstances, the Indians probably need to shoot for 95. Secondly, the Indians are not producing a ton of revenue. They ranked 24th in baseball in attendance in 2005, and are 23rd this year, nor are their local TV and radio deals among the more lucrative in the game. But this too calls for a leap of faith. Cleveland fans are evidently a little bit embittered over the John Hart version of the team being broken up. There is no better way to smooth over that sentiment than to make some aggressive investments in the franchise that declare loudly and clearly that the Indians won’t settle for second place.