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2019 opponent preview: The Cleveland Indians are heavy favorites in the AL Central again

Cleveland will almost certainly win their fourth division title in a row, but are they good enough to win in the playoffs?

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

“The playoffs are a crapshoot.”

This phrase is often repeated by baseball fans — and only baseball fans, for some reason — when discussing the oddities seen in October’s condensed schedule. We have repeated it often here, both to explain why a stupid 83-win Wild Card contender can beat a more talented club in the World Series (not that we’re bitter, or anything) as well as why we shouldn’t be concerned about a team’s playoff failures, even if they occur several years running.

But given the arms race that has taken place in the American League over the past few years, I think the Cleveland Indians should adjust course. The Tribe seemingly adopted the “just get there” philosophy this past offseason, shedding a number of players off their 2018 roster in order to get a bit younger and cheaper for 2019. With such a wide gap between themselves and the rest of the AL Central, they have the wiggle room to do so. Hell, they were ready to trade Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer in hopes of picking up more cost-controlled talent.

It makes sense, to a certain extent. Every team’s window is finite, but if one has the room, making a win-later trade could potentially keep a club relevant for longer without jeopardizing one’s chances of making it back to the postseason. The Indians are living proof; even after losing several key contributors off of last year’s squad, they still have a 90.4 percent chance of making it back to the postseason, according to Baseball Prospectus. Their projected chances of winning the World Series sit at 14 percent, second-highest among MLB teams, if only because they are virtual shoo-ins to win another AL Central title.

Are they really equipped to handle what happens beyond that, though? The Tribe won 91 games last year and put up a sparkling run differential in the process, but a lot of that came at the expense of the rest of their pitiful division. The Indians were below .500 against non-AL Central teams, and outscored 22-6 in a three-game ALDS sweep. They enter 2019 with roughly $15 million chopped off their payroll from the season before, money that very easily could have gone towards upgrades in the lineup, bullpen, or at least to re-sign Michael Brantley. They could, and probably should, be spending even more money to snap baseball’s longest current World Series drought.

Or maybe things will work out for them. We’ve seen worse teams march through October to win it all — those stupid Cardinals come to mind again — and Cleveland’s odds of getting there are better than most heading into this season.

Team at a glance

2018 record: 91-71 | 2018 pythag: 98-64 | 2019 farm system rank: 16
Manager: Terry Francona (7th year)
First series vs. Tigers: April 9-11
Key additions: 1B Carlos Santana, 1B/OF Jake Bauers, C Kevin Plawecki, OF Jordan Luplow, IF Max Moroff
Key subtractions: RHP Cody Allen, LHP Andrew Miller, OF Michael Brantley, OF Melky Cabrera, DH Edwin Encarnacion, 1B Yonder Alonso, C Yan Gomes

Just how much did the Indians lose this offseason?

My first draft of the “key subtractions” list above was over twice as long as what actually made the cut you are reading right now. Only the position players listed as starters on Baseball Reference were named, but several others could have been included.

The raw numbers are staggering. Of the 6,274 plate appearances logged by Indians position players last season, 3,377 came from players who will not be with the Tribe in 2019. That’s over 50 percent! Nearly half of their 216 home runs are gone as well, including all 32 dingers and 107 RBI logged by Edwin Encarnacion. Just about everyone in their outfield has been replaced, along with their starting catcher and first baseman. And we haven’t even gotten to the bullpen yet.

But in terms of actual value, what was lost here? Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez produced more rWAR by themselves (a combined 15.8) than all of the departed position players (10.7). Second baseman Jason Kipnis is around, and the replacements — Carlos Santana at first base (or DH), Leonys Martin in center, Jake Bauers somewhere — might be better than who played those spots last year. And, lest we forget, this rotation is a five-headed monster capable of carrying a club to the postseason all by itself.

Still, that sheer volume is a lot for one team to replace in a single offseason. Players need to gel in the clubhouse, even those who have been there before (Santana). Depth is crucial as well, and Cleveland doesn’t have as much of it as they did in 2018. The Indians helped fill some of their holes with signings and trades this offseason, but a projected starting outfield of Martin, Jordan Luplow, and Tyler Naquin? I... don’t know about that one, guys.

Will it matter?

Probably not, at least in the regular season. As mentioned, the Indians still have Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, the best one-two punch among position players in the majors last season. Both are still in their mid-20s, and under team control through at least the 2021 season (Ramirez has team options for 2022 and 2023). Assuming they stay healthy, that’s a hell of a floor to be able to fall back on if the supporting cast falters.

The starting rotation is loaded as well, with Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer back in the fold after an offseason of rumors that they would end up elsewhere. While Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole were the best starter duo in the bigs, Cleveland still saw three-fifths of their starting rotation eclipse the 5.0 fWAR mark. Mike Clevinger’s 4.3 fWAR put him 14th in all of baseball, yet fourth on his own team. Even Shane Bieber managed more WAR than most of Boston’s rotation (and many others, I suppose) in just 114 23 innings. As a team, Cleveland’s rotation logged more innings, produced more wins, and struck out more batters for every walk than any other MLB club.

Naturally, that rotation helps mask any flaws they may have. The offense isn’t scoring many runs? Corey Kluber is capable of tossing a shutout in any given start. The bullpen is a bit shaky? The Indians’ rotation averaged over six innings per start last year. A starter gets injured? Adam Plutko was dominant in Triple-A ball last year, and they might just be able to throw out Danny Salazar, depending on how his shoulder recovery goes.

Down on the farm

Despite dealing away several talented prospects over the past few years as they have hunted for a title, the Indians still have a fairly deep and talented farm system. Baseball America ranked them a notch below the Tigers in 2019, while ESPN’s Keith Law has them on the cusp of the top 10. For a contender, this is a nice way to live.

There’s a “but,” though. The Tribe have a lot of talented young players in their pipeline, but most of them are still several years away from the majors. The lone exception is Triston McKenzie, the club’s top prospect and a future mid-rotation starter. McKenzie doesn’t have the same velocity that Cleveland’s current starters do, instead sitting in the low 90s with what one might call a “crafty lefty” arsenal. He’s right-handed, though, and still found a way to put up a 2.68 ERA in Double-A as a 20-year-old last season. He’s unconventional, but talented enough to reach the majors this year or next. Yu Chang and Bobby Bradley are a couple of depth players in the high minors, but neither projects as a future starter.

Lower down the ladder, there is plenty of talent to be found. Nolan Jones is the team’s No. 2 prospect on a couple of lists, while righthander Luis Oviedo checked in second on Baseball Prospectus’ list. Their 2018 draft was a strong class as well, with catcher Bo Naylor and righthander Ethan Hankins at the front of the line. Outfielder George Valera is a consensus top-five prospect in their system as well, and infielder Tyler Freeman landed fifth on Let’s Go Tribe’s prospect rankings.

Player to watch: Leonys Martin

Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are amazing, but if there’s a player that could really help buoy the Indians in 2019, it’s Martin. He only played in six games for Cleveland last year before a mysterious illness ended his season, but is back in 2019 for his final season before free agency. The 31-year-old Cuban was one of Detroit’s most productive players last year, amassing 2.3 fWAR before he was dealt in July. Martin doesn’t have the most consistent track record, though, and his offensive performance even waned in Detroit before he was traded last summer. He only managed a .321 on-base percentage in the end, far from ideal for a team’s leadoff hitter.

Luckily, Martin doesn’t necessarily need to be that player to have a productive year in Cleveland. He is still a plus defender in center field, and will likely hit lower down in Cleveland’s batting order. The Tribe are certainly hoping he replicates last year’s 103 wRC+ over a full season, but a slight drop-off isn’t the end of the world.

Projections aren’t so optimistic, though. Both Steamer and ZiPS have him pegged for a mid-80s wRC+, and neither thinks he will log more than 114 games played — fair or not, something he has not done since 2016.

Projected record: 92-70

They need to play the games, of course, but it would be a monumental shock if the Indians do not win their fourth consecutive division title this year. Their roster is the AL Central’s best by a mile — it might be better than a divisional All-Star team — and their star-laden core is back after a wildly productive 2018 season. Both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs project the Indians to win the division by at least 10 games, and both expect Cleveland to improve upon last year’s 91-71 record. The Indians underperformed their pythagorean expected record by seven games last year, which means the gulf between them and everyone else is even wider than it looked in 2018.

But is that enough? We Tigers fans know firsthand that winning division titles can grow a little stale after a while if it is not followed by playoff success, and Cleveland was a clear step (or two) below their AL competition in 2018. Can they overcome an uninspiring offseason and finally win a championship? Or will their efforts fall short yet again?