Oh, how our sample sizes have grown. It seems like only yesterday the Mariners were going to set a record for the most wins ever. Alas, our sample sizes have entered adolescence, and we can start to have meaningful conversations about the standings. And since our teenaged standings are bringing home their report cards, it’s probably time for some stern talking-tos, directed specifically at those teams who have disappointed mightily.
Despite playing in a division where they could have clearly run away with it had they made even a modicum of an attempt to improve this offseason, Cleveland has been a complete mess, arguably the biggest disappointment in baseball. They might be over .500, but that’s damning with faint praise, considering that they play in the weakest division in all of baseball. While the Nationals have been disappointing in their own right (and they are almost certainly going to be the subject of their own article soon if they don’t turn things around), they at least seemed to have a plan this past offseason, albeit one that hasn’t worked out, and they are playing in a much, much tougher division than the AL Central, so I present unto the Indians: the 2019 Early Runnings Disappointment Award.
On the pitching front, they were expected to coast through the season with not just the strongest rotation in their division, but one of the best in baseball, and they’ve certainly had their share of issues there. They lost Mike Clevinger to a back injury after just a couple of (very promising) starts, and it’s not sure when he’ll return. A couple of weeks ago they lost Corey Kluber for an as yet undetermined period after an arm fracture on a comebacker. Kluber had a 5.80 ERA, but his 3.95 FIP and career-high .370 BABIP gave reason to think that there was some early-season flukiness at work.
But while they’ve lost a couple of key pieces, the Indians’ starters still rank second in the AL by fWAR (4.5) and the pitching staff as a whole comes in second as well (6.1 fWAR). So, even though they’ve suffered some setbacks, they’ve been just fine in the pitching department. No, the real problem for Cleveland has been on the other side of the ball, as Cleveland’s offense has been having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season.
The Indians’ offense does not rank very well in the American League, as they are last by fWAR (-0.2), wRC+ (70), SLG (.343), tied for last by AVG (.219) and 14th in HRs (36). That’s bad on its face, but when you consider that they’re being bested by such teams as the Tigers, Orioles, Blue Jays, White Sox and Royals, all of whom had basically no intent to contend this year, just how dire the situation is become apparent.
The Indians’ plan on offense was basically basically Francisco Lindor, José Ramírez and thoughts and prayers. They opted to let Michael Brantley depart for Houston this offseason, where he’s currently hitting .333/.378/.585 with 10 HRs, a 160 wRC+ and 1.8 fWAR. He would be the best player on the Indians, hands down, and the Indians couldn’t even be bothered to extend a qualifying offer to him last year, allowing him to become on Astro on a two-year $32 million deal.
But they still had Lindor and Ramírez, or so their thinking went. Lindor got off to a terrible start (.243/.237/.486, 80 wRC+ in March and April), but he at least he appears to have turned things around (.341/.404/.500, 134 wRC+). The same can’t be said for Ramírez, who’s hitting .193/.291/.293 for a 57 wRC+ (tied for the 4th worst in the AL) and -0.1 fWAR (tied for the 8th worst in the AL), although I suppose we could say that he has improved a little bit in May (49 wRC+ before, 75 wRC+ after). While the total disappearance of an 8.0 WAR, MVP-level player (like Ramírez was last year) would damage most teams’ ambitions, the Indians were in a particularly bad spot to cope with it.
The Indians’ outfield is hitting .229/.297/.351 for a 72 wRC+ and has been worth -0.2 fWAR, the third worst mark in the AL. Leonys Martin, the player brought in to ostensibly “replace” Brantley, has been the most valuable player out there (0.4 fWAR), and he’s hitting .221/.307/.390 (86 wRC+). Jake Bauers, acquired in the trade with the Rays and Mariners that brought in Carlos Santana (one of the few bright-ish spots on the Indians’ with a 107 wRC+ and 0.5 fWAR) and shipped out Edwin Encarnacion (who has a 133 wRC+ and 0.9 fWAR in Seattle), has hit just .234/.314/.347 (77 wRC+). Carlos Gonzalez was brought in on a minor league deal and he’s hit .221/.272/.302 (52 wRC+) The Indians went cheap in the outfield and they’ve been getting what they paid for.
There’s still time for at least some of their hitters to turn things around, of course, but, aside from Lindor and Ramírez, it might be unreasonable to expect that much. Plus, the damage may have already been done in the standings. Cleveland started the season with a 94.6% chance to make the postseason, per Fangraphs, and they’ve now dropped to 61.1%, while the Twins have gone from 35.8% chance to 80.0% and are currently the heavy favorite (63.9%) to win the division. While the Indians couldn’t have foreseen so many things going right for the Twins so far this season (which we’re going to save for another article, methinks), the Indians put themselves in a position where they didn’t have any room for error, and there’s been more than one.
We just covered how the Yankees have survived some pretty heavy (to put it lightly) losses to their roster, and they did it by doing what the Indians did not do: preparing for the possibility that something bad might happen. The Yankees have a lot more money to spend, yes, but the Indians’ desire to not do anything to their roster this offseason except save money is seriously hurting their chances at not only making another deep postseason run with their current core, but possibly even making a postseason run at all.
The Indians didn’t fare well in my analysis of their offseason, ending up in a three-way tie for the worst mark of the offseason with a D+. The Pirates are doing surprisingly well at 20-18, but they have a -41 run differential that suggests that they’re might be more of a 15-win team, which makes them the worst team in the NL Central by expected win-loss record by a large margin and doesn’t portend well for the rest of the season. The Orioles have, as expected, been extremely bad, but at least they’ve found a way to be bad in an interesting way.
But those teams’ failing to succeed isn’t going to surprise anyone. The Indians, on the other hand, have parlayed what should have been an easy division win into, well, something else. The Indians are far from out of the running, but their offense has been entirely offensive to watch. There were plenty of ways to prevent this situation from happening, they just would have been too expensive.