The non-waiver trade deadline is approaching, which means you might be looking for more Manny Machado rumors. While we’ll almost certainly be devoting substantial time to Machado soon enough, given that the Orioles look to put up over 100 losses in his walk-season when all is said and done, we’re here to discuss the piping hot mess that is the AL Central. But don’t click away just yet, as we’re still going talk about Machado, thanks to the reports that the Indians are purportedly “in the mix” for him.
We’re well past the halfway point in the season, in games played if not quite in terms of the utter meaninglessness that is the All-Star Game. With 91 games played, Cleveland is unsurprisingly in possession of the division lead, rolling out a 50-41 record that gives them the biggest division lead (+8.5) in all of baseball. They have a +82 run differential (5th in MLB) and they’ve underperformed their Pythagorean record (which is at 54-37). Take a moment to smell the roses. OK, good, because now we have to talk about the teams they’ve been playing most of their games against, and the smell there is decidedly is a bit more like a chili dog someone wedged underneath your seat on Opening Day. Quite possibly in a prior season.
The Royals have the worst run-differential in baseball (-186), but the White Sox aren’t very far behind them in the 28 spot (-133). The “best” non-Cleveland team in the division, Minnesota, has a -21 run differential and a 41-49 record. Cleveland has been absolutely feasting on their division opponents, going 28-13 against them, but recording a much less impressive 22-28 record against non-AL Central teams.
It’s not particularly surprising that the Indians are doing well and the non-Twins teams are not. Only Minnesota came into the season with any reasonable expectation to make the postseason, as the other teams are all at various points in their respective rebuilds. The Indians are the only team carrying a payroll north of league-average, and still rank 16th overall in MLB in total payroll. The AL Central’s overall payroll is, unsurprisingly, the lowest of any of MLB’s divisions. The Royals and White Sox are both on pace to lose over 100, and the Tigers are a rebuild-oriented trade or two away from possibly joining the club.
While we hinted at it at the end of that last paragraph, the craziest part of all of this is that we can perhaps expect some of the other AL Central teams to actually be even worse going forward. With the trade deadline approaching, the Royals, White Sox and Tigers (and perhaps even the Twins) will all be looking for ways to improve in the long term, and that will come at the expense of players who will help them to win games in the here and now. We’ve already talked about the Royals’ dealing Kelvin Herrera in the interest of the farm and they’ve also already sent Jon Jay to Arizona. There will almost certainly be more of these moves coming from Detroit, Chicago and Kansas City.
The Indians are basically a statistical lock to make the postseason at this point, but there are real questions about whether or not the Indians have what it takes to make a deep run in October, with their current arrangements in place. Sure they’ve got arguably the best non-Trout player in baseball right now in Jose Ramirez. Francisco Lindor has somehow gotten even better than he’s already been. Trevor Bauer has somehow turned himself into a Cy Young candidate. But after those players, there are plenty of problems.
By fWAR, here are some of the rankings for position players for the Indians. Catcher: 0.8 fWAR, 16th in MLB. First base: 0.9 fWAR, 16th. Second base: 1.4 fWAR, 14th. Right field: 0.5 fWAR, 20th. Center field: 0.1 fWAR, tied for 25th. Left field: 1.6 fWAR, tied for 15th. That’s a whole bunch of barely-above replacement level returns up and down the lineup for Cleveland. While they don’t have any absolute black holes in there, those are also not the kind of numbers or rankings you would expect to see from your average division leader, and you wouldn’t, were it not for the extremely low quality of competition that Cleveland has faced in most of its games. So what should Cleveland do?
Which leads us to, as promised, the Machado-to-Cleveland rumors. I, for one, will go on the record as saying that this doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense. Given the fact that the Indians already have Francisco Lindor at short and Jose Ramirez at third, the move would just push Ramirez to second, upgrading the Jason Kipnis situation (.223/.314/.366, 87 wRC+) at second and pushing Kipnis to the bench (or perhaps to center field, I guess). If they can get Machado at a steal, then they should absolutely do it, but that seems unlikely given the needs of other teams with both greater prospect capital and greater need for someone at third base or shortstop. Looking at you, Yankees and Dodgers.
That doesn’t even cover the fact that a team like Cleveland is less likely to take advantage of Machado’s time with them to sign him to a long-term contract, given their financial situation. It also doesn’t cover the fact that, because of their financial situation, they’re more likely to feel the pains of trading away the necessary prospects to land Machado than their big-market counterparts. If the asking price for a couple months and a postseason of a player starts with a rookie pitcher with a 3.47 ERA and a 3.24 FIP and solid peripherals (8.92 K/9, 1.49 BB/9 and 0.99 HR/9), it might not be a good idea for the future of the franchise.
The Indians have been linked to Machado because, well, every team that’s truly contending right now has probably been checking in on Machado. He’s available and he’s really, really good. But he’s clearly not the only route that Cleveland could take and probably not the route they should take. There are more incremental upgrades GM Mike Chernoff could look for in terms of his position players, and he probably shouldn’t limit it to the lineup.
The Indians have an easier route to improving their situation, and it’s addressing their Achilles’ heel this season. Even if it seems strange after two straight seasons of Cleveland having one being one of the best group of relievers in baseball, their bullpen is very bad this year. They collectively have a 5.39 ERA, the worst mark in baseball. Their FIP might be a bit better, at 4.83, but that’s still the 29th worst. Their collective fWAR (-0.9) is tied with the Mets for the next-to-last spot. By various win probability statistics, they’ve been awful as well. By WPA (-1.43), they’re 24th in MLB and, by RE24 (-28.65), they’re 29th. While it might not help that manager Terry Francona can’t even call for the relievers he’s intending to, the Indians’ bullpen has been spectacularly bad.
Cody Allen has upped his walks (4.66 BB/9) to a level not seen since 2012, and is running out a 4.66 ERA, even if he’s still managed to save 18 games and set a franchise record. Andrew Miller has only pitched 14.1 innings so far, thanks to knee and hamstring issues, but he hasn’t been the “Andrew Miller” we had come to know and love as of late anyway. An increase in walks (to 6.38 BB/9) was part of it, but so was an unsustainable .400 BABIP. Miller might return healthy after the All Star break, but he also might not, and there’s not much in the way of depth.
Apart from Oliver Perez (0.77 ERA, 1.59 FIP, 9.26 K/9, 1.54 BB/9, 0.00 HR/9), it’s slim pickings, and even Perez is rolling out a .179 BABIP and an 85.7 LOB%, neither of which are likely to continue. There is certainly some hope that some of the current bullpen could improve, if only because they have pitched so poorly, but you probably shouldn’t expect to take a best-of-five or best-of-seven from the Astros, Yankees and Red Sox of the world with the bullpen looking like it does now.
So, the good news is that we’ve identified a problem that is easily addressable (and it’s not as if the Indians aren’t aware of it). The bad news is that upgrades are going to coss that sweet, sweet prospect cash. One of the more intriguing options, the Orioles’ Darren O’Day is off the board thanks to a season-ending hamstring injury. But there are a number of other relievers of varying levels of controllability and cost that the Indians could look into. If the Indians are looking to give up some pieces of import they could certainly call up the Reds (Raisel Iglesias, Amir Garrett and Jared Hughes) or the Marlins (Kyle Barraclough and Adam Conley). If they’re going to give up young promising players, they should probably make sure they get more team control than they’ll be getting with Machado.
The AL Central is not just bad, but potentially historically bad and the Indians are going to win out easily. The Indians currently have the best chance of any team in MLB to win their division at both Fangraphs (98.6%) and Baseball Prospectus (98.9%). If you’ve read this far, it won’t surprise you that they have the easiest schedule in all of MLB for the remainder of the season. All of that before the other teams in their division look to cut some of their productive players loose. They’ll have the luxury of giving players plenty of rest down the stretch and, once rosters expand, giving younger players longer leashes in the interest of seeing what they can contribute in October. Them’s the benefits of playing in a division with potentially three 100-loss teams.
But they are probably going to want to figure out a way to improve on their record against higher-quality opposition sometime in the next few weeks, whether it’s something silly like trading for Machado or something slightly more sensible like upgrading the bullpen. October baseball is fickle and allows for small sample sizes to dominate the day, but that doesn’t mean that the Indians should just stand pat. The Indians will almost certainly make the postseason, but, once they do, they won’t get to play any of their games against the steaming pile of poop on your doorstep that is the AL Central.