The Indians are Gambling on October Fortune

Chris Young, The Canadian Press via AP

The Indians are in an awkward position for a small market team; pinned between short-term opportunity and the interests of a long-term contention. Balancing these interests is nearly impossible and results in criticism from either side of the coin. For a team without a World Series win since 1948, one can understand the calls of a fan base to push the chips all in. The Indians are faced with a complex probabilistic decision which requires them to consider all sorts of risk with information more limited than those analyzing would care to admit.

Consider Francisco Mejia and Triston McKenzie, two Top 30 prospects in all of baseball, and ultimately, two of the Indians very best assets. While Mejia is seemingly big league ready offensively, with Perez and Gomes entrenched in front of him, the Indians appear to have limited his potential impact on the 2018 title run. Of course injuries and production can change that in a hurry. McKenzie, while incredibly advanced for being just 20 years old,  has yet to pitch in Akron and is likely destined for a late season call-up if anything. The Indians are faced with this predicament, two elite prospects with significant trade value without dynamic big league projections for the upcoming season. The season is even more important in the Indians contention window because dynamite relievers Cody Allen and Andrew Miller are not under contract following 2018.

Yet, in 2019 and 2020, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Bradley Zimmer, Edwin Encarnacion, and Mike Clevinger are all under contract for affordable rates, an excellent core for continued contention. Of course, Kluber, and Encarnacion are not particularly young, decline can be expected.  The division does not make the question any simpler. Be it a Minnesota Twins rebuild which is currently in search of pitching, a White Sox rebuild that is miles from realizing success or failure with numerous prospects, a Royals team with no minor league or big league talent, or a Detroit Tigers team searching for a cohesive long-term vision, the division is wide open for sustained dominance.

Writing and sporting analysis has developed into a mode of there being a single right answer but the Indians are facing a situation that may be without a right answer. One approach is to cash in Mejia or McKenzie for increased World Series odds. Projected to win 93 games, the World Series odds will likely shift just 1-3% for 2018 if the Indians cash in for a Josh Donaldson type. The Indians could cash in both for a Christian Yelich type, marrying short and long-term, improving 2018 odds marginally as well as 2019 and 2020.

On the other hand, if the Indians really believe in Mejia at the big league level, his bat would help lengthen the Indians contention window through 2023.

Is it worth selling an increase in playoff odds from 2019-2023 for increased World Series odds in 2018 and 2019? Maybe. The problem is that for the Indians, the World Series odds increase in the short term would be narrow at best anywhere from 1-4%, still sitting between 10-15%.  On the other hand, sitting at 10% odds for 3-5 more years increases the overall probability winning a World Series, though not in any specific year.

Even with a loaded team the Indians odds of winning a World Series are slim; take 2017 as an example. On September 19 the Indians had the best odds in baseball to win the World Series:

On Fangraphs the Indians are at 18.2%, 23.2% on Baseball Prospectus, and 26% on Fivethirtyeight.

Still further, Triston McKenzie poses an even greater consideration. The Indians lone top-flight pitching prospect is a year away at least, carries a thin frame which scouts worry about, and like all pitchers carries large injury risk. McKenzie if not productive until 23 would be contributing at the end of the Carrasco/Kluber rotation, potentially the end of the Indians opportunity to contend. In this sense, McKenzie is more movable for the Indians in return for a multi-year impact bat or reliever. A deal for a multi-year piece is the middle move, between betting on 2018 or later.

However, following an affordable gamble on Yonder Alonso, it  appears the Indians are betting on playoff contention in 2018, 2019 and 2020 being better than going all in on 2018. Perhaps saving this offseason will allow the team to invest in a reliever to stave off the losses of Miller and Allen after 2018, seemingly keeping the Indians window wide open. Perhaps it will not and the Indians will be faced with cobbling together a bullpen alongside a talented infield and elite rotation. Perhaps is a reality in team building because the players, the inputs to titles are always changing. Be it injury, decline, or randomness, the human elements are always changing, and the decisions to be made are constantly changing shape.

The Indians are being patient. The team is admitting the playoffs are largely driven by variance and they can only influence it to a certain extent. Further, they are asserting that this influence comes at a cost, a cost to future contention and World Series odds they are currently unwilling to pay. The costs may changes, the long-term odds may change, and the process may even change. Right now, the Indians are carrying a top-five roster in baseball, and they are gambling that playing for the long-term contention of this roster outweighs a short-term gamble. The question looming is if they will finish off a World Series run. Stay tuned.

  • MartyDaVille

    i agree with what the Tribe is doing in being patient. I wouldn’t want to trade Mejia for a short-term fix or even a medium-term fix. He might rake here for a long time.

    Besides, in the playoffs, pitching is key, and we have it. So let’s not mortgage any future studs just to get some hitting. We should have enough.

  • Chris

    McKenzie to me is CC Sabathia in 2000. He’s got great stuff and is ranked highly (Sabathia was Baseball America’s #57 overall in 2000), but he’ll be coming into his prime at the time when a remarkable core is leaving theirs or leaving the team (potentially). Sure, the Indians window could last into his first year or two, and they could make another run as he hits his prime (like the ’07 Indians), but nothing is guaranteed except that the team McKenzie plays for in his prime will not be the one playing in Cleveland next year. With the risk of any pitching prospect, as you noted, I don’t see the upside in keeping him at this point if the return could provide even a short-term boost (e.g., Donaldson).

  • woofersus

    First, I don’t think that the “all-in for year XX” concept really makes that much sense in the offseason. There are too many variables. It’s about looking at how you intend to build your team in general, and what happens in July is more about the current season. I think it makes all the sense in the world to hedge and see if there is an obvious move to make at the deadline.

    Also, I think the Indians are a little penned in by the positions where they have prospects coming up. Having good prospects is a good problem to have, but if you look at the roster in general and ask how would they signficantly improve, you have to look at the catcher position. Given their best prospect is a catcher and he’s close but not quite ready, what do you do? I don’t think you trade Mejia for another catcher – Mejia’s value is then wasted by the incremental upgrade and likely increased cost. After that, are we looking to the outfield when Zimmer is just getting started, Allen is waiting in the wings, we still have the Guyenhall platoon in right, and Michael Brantley, if healthy, a high quality hitter who is blocked from moving to DH because of Encarnacion, who is also a high quality hitter? And even Naquin, who we don’t want to see in Center ever again if we can help it, is still logjammed in AAA and really hit the ball well after he came back from injury last season. I guess you could think about 3rd base, but with Kipnis’ contract not that movable we’re sure to have an infield logjam while Yandy Diaz shows all the promise in the world at the plate. It’s just hard to find a significant upgrade right now without wasting some internal value, even if you’re willing to part with McKenzie. They would have to find a trade that involved current major league talent for it to happen, most likely.

    Finally, I think they learned a lesson in the Shapiro era that intentionally targeting certain years to ramp up for competitiveness and always cycling back down to regroup immediately afterward is a recipe for terrible attendance and shrinking budgets. (see Marlins, Miami) It’s easy to SAY all that matters is a world series title, but that’s not how people vote with their ticket dollars, and the casual fan barely knows the contention window is open until the playoffs start and the Indians are in them. I think patience and a focus on keeping the young, affordable talent train moving from station to station is the best way to run a small-market franchise.

  • CBiscuit

    I’d jettison a package around Mejia today for Christian Yelich. Stud in his prime at a reasonable rate for the next 3 more years, and the Marlins are selling relatively cheap still.

  • Steve

    Yelich will cost Mejia, Mckenzie, and another good piece.

  • Bulldogs_3

    I heard rumors that Salazar was on the trading block… McKenzie may get the call sooner than expected.

    I think we can all agree the Indians are in great shape to win the division this season (and, with their farm system, realistically through 2021+). They have the right pieces. They need to get hot in October.

  • Mike Hattery

    Definitely share your concern. Think his peak probably comes post this rosters window but I have been known to be completely wrong.

  • Steve

    “I think they learned a lesson in the Shapiro era that intentionally targeting certain years to ramp up for competitiveness and always cycling back down to regroup immediately afterward is a recipe for terrible attendance and shrinking budgets.”

    But the problem is that might be the best way to get back up to contention, as we have seen recently.

  • CBiscuit


  • woofersus

    I disagree. I don’t think that approach worked the majority of the time, and I think the market is adjusting. Instead of trying to create a confluence of available spending money and a batch of players hitting their primes every 3-5 years, the smart money now is on sustained influx of young talent, creating value by strategically signing your best young players to extensions, and spending when those confluences create themselves via player development and drafting. You’re not as frequently “all-in” but you’re much more frequently in contention, assuming you have a functional player development program.

    Some changes have encouraged this, like the QO and compensatory draft picks, as well as the changes in how the international signings work. But also, we’ve seen that the gap between the haves and have-nots isn’t as big on the field as it is on paper, and the trendline on the expanding wealth gap didn’t continue to infinity. (again, partially thanks to CBA adjustments but also because there’s a point of diminishing returns on blowing hundreds of millions on low-value contracts – these teams are businesses, after all) And of course, post yankee dominance, we can better recognize that having all the big names and spending the most money doesn’t guarantee anything. The talent pool is currently deep enough that the small market teams can find good value if they pick and choose carefully.

    Casual fans need to recognize names on the backs of jerseys to stay invested. The yo-yo method alienates these people and kills the budget, making it hard to actually jump on opportunites. As we’ve seen, there can be a delay between a return to contention and the return of the fans. If your window is 1-2 years every 4-5 and those other 3-4 years are awful, you’ll never build up the season ticket base.

  • Steve

    We see that delay here. Not so much in other towns.

    And that approach failed most of the time because someone got impatient, like the Padres might with Hosmer. When teams don’t half-ass it, it usually works.

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  • Saggy

    pitching is key – but they didn’t have it last October, even though they had it.

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