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.