WFNY’s editor-in-chief Scott Sargent challenged the Indians to improve by 13.5 games, as it was the amount by which they trailed the World Series Champion Kansas City Royals as they were shut out of the playoffs for the second consecutive year. They have not won the AL Central division since 2007. Since it is doubtful general manager Mike Chernoff1 will respond directly to his challenge, I have take it upon myself to see what the Indians could legitimately do in order to better compete for the playoffs.
In order to figure out how to get the Indians into the postseason, an assessment of how they have recently done is in order. Here is where the Indians have landed at the end of each regular season under the guidance of Terry Francona:
2013: Made playoffs as Wild Card, lost Wild Card game (1 game out of AL Central)
2014: Missed playoffs by 4 games (5 games out of AL Central)
2015: Missed playoffs by 5.5 games (13.5 games out of AL Central)
Additionally, DidTheTribeWin’s Mike Brandyberry wrote an exceptional and detailed piece going over the recent WAR history of MLB teams. He noted the Indians are a playoff contending team as presently constructed, but they are a fringe team, which means they need a whole lot to go their way during a season to get there (such as in 2013, when they ripped through their September schedule). The entire post is well worth reading as there are many more fine details, but here is his conclusion:
If you believe the Indians are just one player away, then that player needs to be a 3-4 win player that becomes a part of their core and needs to be acquired without damaging the strength of their starting pitching.
For context, the only players on the 2015 Indians with a WAR above 3.0 were Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, and Francisco Lindor. Obtaining such a player is no small undertaking. A different tact would be to obtain several smaller upgrades. In order to properly analyze where the Indians can use an upgrade, each position needs to be looked at individually.
Hitting WAR2 by position
For simplicity, I assigned each player to their main position rather than completely cluttering up the table by breaking them down by innings per position. Players in a red box are no longer on the Indians, while players in a blue box are still under contract or entering arbitration with the Indians for 2016.
As can be seen in the chart, the Indians return most of their position players from 2015 with the main positional holes, based on games played, being at designated hitter and center field. Michael Brantley’s shoulder injury likely will require him to play DH upon his return, so that positional hole moves to left field.
One way the Indians can improve from within will be giving more time to positive contributors such as Jose Ramirez and Lonnie Chisenhall, while relegating negative contributors off the team or to Columbus. Also, it is important to note the players not coming back to the Indians provided a collective -0.5 WAR to the team in 2015, meaning the Indians are a half game better just by letting them leave.
The Indians obviously recognize their need in the outfield as much of the MLB rumors to this point have focused on acquiring outfield help, and the team did acquire Collin Cowgill from the Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday. However, given his splits, Cowgill is likely best suited as a platoon partner for Lonnie Chisenhall in right field.
Starting pitching WAR
The Indians look to bring back all of the significant contributors to the starting pitching staff from 2015 at this point. Carlos Carrasco has been the subject to many trade rumors to improve the lineup, but those remain rumors to this point.
The Indians can improve from within will be receiving a full season of work from pitchers such as Cody Anderson and Josh Tomlin. Before those pitchers solidified the back-end of the rotation, the fifth rotation spot was horrendously manned by Bruce Chen, Shaun Marcum, TJ House, Zach McAllister, and Toru Murata. Only TJ House remains a starting pitcher for the Indians in 2016, and he finds himself behind the top six starters on this list.
Again, the players not returning to the Indians contributed a -0.6 WAR, so the Indians now have improved by a full game overall (including the hitters leaving) just by trimming the fat from the roster.
Relief pitching WAR
Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Zach McAllister, and Jeff Manship were all tendered contracts by the Indians on Wednesday, so they will each enter arbitration (unless the Indians agree to a deal with them beforehand). Each of those players should be back with the team. However, Nick Hagadone was non-tendered, meaning he is a free agent, though Chris Antonetti did confirm the Indians are interested in bringing him back into the fold.
So, the only significant WAR contributor not returning to the bullpen is Ryan Webb. In all, the relief pitchers leaving the team contributed -0.25 WAR, which means their loss should not be felt significantly. The bigger question will be if Jeff Manship’s 2015 season was a sign of things to come or an aberration in his career. Another question is if there are any other relievers who might have a big year (the Indians did sign Joba Chamberlain to a minor league deal, but do not expect much from him).
Also, while bullpens can vary more wildly year-to-year due to the small sample size component of their role, the Indians bullpen was quite good overall in 2015. The Indians bullpen was among the MLB leaders in many categories including ERA (5th), FIP (2nd), K% (10th), K:BB% (8th), and HR/9 (5th), all with a .299 BABIP — meaning there was not a large element of luck to those numbers. And for those that might think the group consisted of soft-tossers, the bullpen also had the fifth highest fastball velocity.
WAR per position compared to MLB averages
The chart above gives a better feel for where the Indians might best look to improve upon as it compares the Indians WAR with the MLB average WAR per position. If the difference is in red, then the Indians were at a 2015 deficit. If the difference is in green, then the Indians were better than average there. Starting pitcher WAR was divided by five to give a better indication of the WAR the Indians received from each rotation spot.
Positions where WAR is most likely to fall
LF: As noted earlier, Brantley’s shoulder surgery likely relegates him to DH for at least the first half of the season (to avoid further injury). Also, it might be folly to assume Brantley can achieve his 2015 WAR in a season where he is coming back from major injury. The Indians cannot afford to ignore this glaring need.
RP: The Indians relief corps had another outstanding season in 2015. Perhaps they can sustain their success, but Jeff Manship in particular is a candidate for regression as he had a year way outside the bounds of normal for his career.
Positions where WAR is most likely to rise
C: Yan Gomes played through a cornucopia of injuries in 2015, and Roberto Perez is now an established backup catcher who contributes positively in his time behind the plate. If Gomes can regain his 2014 Silver Slugger prowess, then the Indians will be thrilled; they can at least expect some rebound from him.
RF: The Chisenhall/Cowgill platoon, or ChisCow (pronounced CHIZ-Cow), is likely to be at least MLB average on the strength of their defensive contributions and split abilities. In fact, there is potential for more, but it is safer to merely assume a rise to average.
SS: Lindor for a full season. 70 more games of the Francisco Kid. Or Truffles if you prefer. Are you smiling yet?
Positions where WAR is needing outside assistance the most
LF: Already noted.
3B: Love the prospect of Giovanny Urshela long-term, but for 2016 he is more likely to be a detriment. While the glove is near-golden, the Indians cannot afford to be four wins below MLB average at the hot corner again.
CF: Do the Indians believe in Abraham Almonte? In a quite limited display, Almonte provided a ton of value, but most had thought his role was best served as a fourth OF (at best) before that stretch. The Indians should not get caught up without a reliable alternative in place.
Free agent potential solutions
Here are some free agent lists with contract predictions (h/t to WFNY’s Jacob Rosen)
David Freese: Obtaining the soon-to-be 33-year-old third baseman would be a bit risky, as it would take a multiyear contract in the neighborhood of three years for $30 million or two years for $24 million to pry him away from the Los Angeles Angels.3 However, he would be the most prudent addition the Indians could possibly make this offseason, especially given that the Angels did not tag him with the dreaded Qualifying Offer (meaning the Indians would not have to forfeit a first-round draft pick to sign him).
The Indians would likely expect a WAR between 1.5 and 3.0 from the veteran. However, due to the negative value from third base in 2015, such a WAR would actually benefit the Indians by 2.5 to 4 wins. Remember DTTW’s Mike Brandyberry suggesting the Indians needed to add a 3-4 win player? Well, $12 million per year on the open free agent market might be all the Indians need to spend to acquire such a player.
Freese also adds some old-fashioned World Series-winning clutch history intangibles for good measure, which you just know will please Tito.
Asdrubal Cabrera: Cabrera has said in the past4 that he would rather move to second base than take a corner infield spot. So this move is not likely. However, the idea is intriguing, he would be a good fit, and the Indians need to exhaust all options. And, an Asdrubal reunion could fit within the Indians budget as he is likely to get under $10 million per season.
Gerardo Parra / Austin Jackson: Both players would likely be in the Asdrubal Cabrera economic bracket (somewhere just under $10 million per year for two or three years), so they are obtainable. Parra is the better hitter with Jackson being the better fielder. Either player would be an upgrade for the Indians in the outfield.
Rajai Davis: If most of the Indians offseason funds go toward a third baseman, then Davis is not a bad fallback option for center field. Davis shared center field duties with Tyler Collins for the Tigers in 2015 and batted leadoff at times. He is 35 years old, but his ability to defensively handle center field while having a longer history than Almonte at the plate might make him an intriguing cheap temporary solution for around $5-6 million in 2016.
Jason Heyward: Just kidding. The best Indians fans can hope for with Heyward is that the Angels spend so much on him that they allow Freese to sign with another team.
Alex Rios: Not a fan of his play, but the 35-year-old will come cheap for the 2016 season and the Indians might just be desperate enough to gamble on him.
Alexei Ramirez: Would Alexei Ramirez be willing to move to second base (and maybe share some time with J-Ram?) while Kipnis moves to left field?
These are the outside-the-box things a small market club with a limited budget has to weigh. Also, Jason Kipnis’ second-half production fell off yet again in 2015, largely due to injury. Putting him in LF could lead to less wear and tear over a full season. Another, though lesser, option would be to give Jose Ramirez the second base job and move Kipnis to left field.
Mike Napoli/Pedro Alvarez/Chris Carter: Adding a player who should be a full-time DH is difficult especially considering Chris Johnson is already a platoon DH on the roster. The extra complication is that it blocks Michael Brantley (and any other player who might need some rest) from using the DH spot.
Trade target potential solutions
Most of the valid infield and outfield targets have already been analyzed by Jacob and myself. Please see full details on those posts.
Here are a couple extra notes on the more interesting targets:
Todd Frazier: Relative to Freese, Frazier is a better hitter, better defender, and he is two years younger, making a decline in numbers less likely. However, Frazier would also require assets being sent to the Cincinnati Reds in compensation, and they have indicated they want MLB-ready players. Gaining 4-5 WAR of Frazier while losing 2-3 WAR of Danny Salazar (for example) is a similar net gain of Freese for 2016, but it also weakens the depth of the rotation and hurts the long-term controlled WAR of the team.
Marcell Ozuna: A potential power right-handed bat that potentially can play in center field. Sounds enticing. But the word potential is in there twice for a reason. Ozuna is a high-ceiling prospect, but has had public clashes with the Marlins owner and erratic play. If the Marlins come off their demand of a high-level starting pitcher (i.e. Salazar) and accept a lower-level player (i.e. Cody Anderson and a decent prospect), then the Indians should jump at it. Otherwise, just watch it play out from a distance.
Accounting for WAR
Summing the WAR up from the above charts yields a 20 WAR for position players, 15 WAR for starters, and 5 WAR for relievers. Overall, the 40 WAR is a decent number, as the basic premise is to add it to 48 wins (replacement level wins) meaning the Indians should have won 88 games in 2015. Of course, the Indians only actually won 81 wins, meaning they under-performed by seven games. There are possible reasons (horrendous early defense, black-hole fifth starter until July, streaky hitters), but the safest route is to improve by as many wins as possible in order to set the team up for a true playoff run in 2016.
Now, it is possible to merely create best-case predictions for all of the players on the team to demonstrate an upper-end goal. But it is more interesting to give conservative predictions such as those below. Another reason to give conservative estimates is if the players do exceed expectations, then their numbers can cover up deficiencies elsewhere that might not be accounted for in the simple table.
Catcher: Gomes doesn’t have to get back to his 4.0 WAR. Half his previous value is enough to give the Indians a bump.
Shortstop: Factoring in a potential sophomore slump gives Lindor the same value over a full season as he had in a partial one his rookie year.
Right Field: ChisCow are merely MLB average, but it is a big bump from what the Indians had last year.
Left Field: Under this scenario, the Indians did not address left field, and having Brantley’s numbers fall a bit is taken under consideration.
Relief Pitching: There are no signs other than Manship the bullpen will take a step backward, but Vinnie Pestano can tell anyone bullpen numbers can change quickly.
David Freese: As noted above, a MLB average third baseman added gets an extra bump in value. The Indians would have to sign him.
Rajai Davis: Sharing center field with Abraham Almonte gives the Indians some peace of mind while Bradley Zimmer prepares to take over in 2017. The Indians would have to sign him.
Outlined above is the Indians merely signing two players for $15-20 million in 2016 dollars. Obviously, the team would be better served adding an additional outfielder, and Marcell Ozuna would be a prime candidate to add even more value if he could be pried from Miami for Cody Anderson and Rob Kaminsky (for example).
However, the Indians improve by 6.5 wins with the two moves of adding David Freese and Rajai Davis, or similar players through trades. There is risk, but the Indians can ill afford to sit idly by as the other teams competing for contention around them improve.
- I know, not quite used to it yet. Chris Antonetti is the president of baseball operations and Mark Shapiro is hiring a bunch of ex-Indians from around baseball in Toronto. [↩]
- jWAR = (bWAR + fWAR) / 2 [↩]
- Per CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, Freese and the Angels are making progress on a new deal. [↩]
- During the 2015 offseason before Tampa offered him a starting shortstop job. [↩]