The Cleveland Indians have many obstacles to overcome if they are ever going to end the current 70 year title drought. They are competing with the behemoths of baseball on financial and analytical fronts that are near impossible to overcome from the constraints of a small market especially in the era of super-teams. Miscalculations such as not investing in power arms as modern baseball shifts to an ultra-velocity driven game are difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. Ballplayers experiencing normal injury and decline become weights around the franchise payroll.
One advantage the Indians have had is being grouped with similar small-to-mid market teams in the AL Central. There is no New York or Boston or Houston or Los Angeles in the division. Chicago is the only big city to reside there; yet, the White Sox are quite the lesser on financial girth when compared to their Northside brethren.
Somehow the biggest advantage the Tribe has is being spun as yet another obstacle. As if knowing the division might not have another team contend for the postseason blinds the front office from the knowledge that the Astros, Yankees, and Red Sox still lurk in the American League once they get there.
The results of the 2018 season allowed some to spin such a narrative. The Indians did go 49-27 against the AL Central,1 while compiling a 42-44 record against everyone else. Add in an ALDS sweep and the multitude of philosophical competitive nature articles write themselves.
However, regular season results have little to do with October as the Indians own results also bore out. The Tribe won three-of-seven against the Houston Astros before that ALDS sweep, and the season series with the eventual World Series champions Boston Red Sox was won, 4-3.
October baseball is often thought of as being a series of random events. There is some truth to such in that the small sample sizes can make unlikely outcomes a reality. A timely home run, a poor bounce, or an extraordinary defensive play can tilt the balance towards the team on the receiving end of the good fortune. One must remember though that luck is earned more than it is given. Teams with four elite starters can afford giving up the timely home run, lock-down bullpens can help forgive an early deficit from a bad bounce, and a deep lineup can score runs in the lower third if the higher order hitters have hits taken away from them by the defense.
Consider the postseason more as error bar baseball rather than random. The amount of talent and lack or glaring deficiencies from each team has helps determine the variability of game results. How likely an uncertainty in events is to have an affect on the outcome of a game or series. Thinking of October through this prism allows the focus to be on how precise a prediction of victory (or loss) might be and where the ceiling and floor might be for each team that has entered; rather than an assumption every possibility has an equal weight.
The division did allow the Indians front office to take a more patient approach to fixing the bullpen, center field, and the lineup. More urgent measures might have been taken to acquire solutions had there existed a team expected to compete with the Tribe, which would have increased the win total from 91. However, the talent return would have not likely been better than Brad Hand, Adam Cimber, Leonys Martin, and Josh Donaldson. The front office was playing to better situate the team for October. It did not work out,2 but the moves were strategic.
The division outlook for 2019 is not wholly different though there could be a surprise team such as the 2018 Atlanta Braves were in the NL East. With Paul Molitor ousted and Joe Mauer retiring, the Twins have entered a new era with embraced analytics in play and development. The White Sox continue to hint they might spend big in free agency to supplement their bevvy of young talent with some high-level veterans. The Tigers and Royals… should continue to help accumulate some easy wins for Cleveland.
If the same story for the AL Central plays out in 2019, just remember the Indians issues in 2018 were their star players not performing at peak levels, a poor bullpen, and a relative lack of depth. Having another team challenge in the division is not going to fix those problems though perhaps a trade of Kluber could.