Being able to deploy multiple safety mechanisms while operating an automobile is a requirement to ensure safe passage for all who travel. If the car should achieve too great of a speed, then there are brakes to slow the acceleration and velocity. If the brakes should fail, then there is an emergency brake. The redundancy is not an accidental occurrence as manufacturers of automobiles cannot be so brash to believe they can build a machine equipped to handle all adversity that it might face on the roads, immune to user error, nor that any of the internal units can go without failure. The responsible path is to assume the vehicle must be built capable of responding to anything that might go awry.
The Cleveland Indians front office constructed impressive main components of what would become the 2019 Tribe roster. Two players capable of becoming the American League MVP in Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. Four pitchers– Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger– who rightfully could be considered for the AL Cy Young Award with a fifth– Shane Bieber– who was projected (and is proving) to be more a top-half rotation starter than the last man called upon.1
A common saying is to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Of course, preparing for the worst is near impossible as there is only so much that can be done should Kluber and Clevinger miss multiple months due to injury, Lindor gone a months himself, and Ramirez continuing his struggles staying above Michael Martinez’s career batting line with Jason Kipnis falling below it.2 However, the team could have been well better prepared.
The team was not wholly irresponsible in acquiring depth options. The Yan Gomes trade netted Daniel Johnson, Andruw Monasterio, and Jefry Rodriguez. The latter of those players was expected to be a long-term bullpen piece by many, but the Tribe deployed him as a starter in Columbus. The move proved prescient when a sixth starter was needed upon Clevinger literally throwing out his back. Rodriguez gave up just three combined runs in an out shy of 13 innings pitched over his first two starts (2.12 ERA, 3.69 FIP).
Roberto Perez and Kevin Plawecki have also filled in admirably for the departed All-Star catcher. Gomes has a .267/.337/.387 (95 wRC+) line for the Washington Nationals, while the Indians backstops have put up .219/.315/.396 (89 wRC+) combined. Once factoring in the defensive proficiency both Perez and Plawecki have demonstrated, the small gap is bridged.
The front office should also be applauded for cobbling together a respectable bullpen with only one premier piece (Brad Hand, 1.15 ERA, 1.22 FIP). The utilization of limited-scope relievers has mostly been good3 and helped the Tribe achieve a Top 6 MLB standing in ERA (3.29), FIP (3.86), and fWAR (1.3) despite only being No. 20 in strikeout rate (23.5%) and No. 15 in strikeout:walk ratio (14.7%). The team doesn’t seem to be receiving overly good fortune in batted balls (.287) or strand rate (79.8%), so the results could be indicative of continued success.
The other depth options have been less enticing.
The infield has not been capable of sustaining slow starts and injuries to Lindor, Ramirez, and Kipnis. Eric Stamets still has the most starts at shorstop despite being able to cobble together a mere two hits over 48 plate appearances, while striking out in precisely half of them. The 27 year old Ohio native was a sub-replacement hitter (-40 wRC+) before being demoted back to Triple-A Columbus. Brad Miller (.250/.325/.417) hit well enough relative to the other options, but his inability to play the left side of the infield led to his designation for assignment.4 Max Moroff (.125/.176/.250) was finally sent back to Columbus this weekend. Mike Freeman (.214/.333/.214) remains an infield bench option for manager Terry Francona in the sense he is an option best to remain on the bench.
The outfield experiment of relying on fringe free agents and hoping for the breakout of multiple young players has gone poorly. Leonys Martin (.209/.300/.383) has fallen back after a hot start. Jake Bauers (.245/.321/.372) has shown glimpses of the proficiency that caused the team to trade for him but without the consistency that can be relied upon. Right field has been a veritable black hole to the offense unless a left-handed starter is on the mound, which is the only type of pitcher Jordan Luplow (.273/.407/.364) can rake against. Carlos Gonzalez(.211/.274/.316), Tyler Naquin(.267/.295/.373), and Greg Allen(.105/.167/.158) have all taken turns attempting to give the Tribe even something approaching a league average bat… and failed to this point.
The dearth of worthy players for the above positions has left an even more glaring from the position with the only needed prowess to be that with the bat. Designated-hitter has been mostly ignored. Sure, Hanley Ramirez (.184/.298/.327) was signed with the hopes for some magic to be extruded from the once-talented player, but his quick removal from the roster was not unexpected. The 2019 Cleveland Indians are dead last in the American League in output from the position. The 73 wRC+ received is not only 27% less than an average MLB bat, but it is 14% worse than the second last team at the position (Baltimore Orioles, 87 wRC+). The numbers get even worse from there as all but three other American League teams have above average hitters there.
The search for a seventh starter is still underway with the results to be determined. The return of Cody Anderson– last seen in MLB in 2016 before succumbing to Tommy-John surgery– was another pitcher who most see a future in relief, as his five innings for the Tribe had been. But, after Kluber could not avoid a 102 mile per hour line drive directed to his forearm, it was decided Anderson would receive the first opportunity to be the caretaker for Kluber’s spot.5 One start has many hoping the Tribe tries someone else.6 The issue is the options in Columbus are less than exciting as WFNY’s Mitchell Krall laid out. The Tribe’s best pitching prospects are either low in the system (Luis Oviedo, Ethan Hankins, Lenny Torres) or injured (Triston McKenzie). Danny Salazar has also been shut down again.
The season would be easier to navigate had the front office made more moves to help protect the team against such pitfalls. Finding even a league average bat to designate to hit seems imperative for a contending ballclub. Rumors of a Kluber trade were enticing given the abundance of MLB-ready talent that was said to be possible on the return side. Using the $4.5 million spent on Salazar instead on an outfield option such as Adam Jones or a better infield depth option such as Jose Iglesias would have helped immmensely.
All is not lost. Carlos Santana, the bullpen, and the rotation coupled with some timely defense and hitting have helped the Indians stay above .500; fourth-best record in the AL. The top-end talent on the roster still contains the type of players capable of changing the outcome of a postseason series. The issue is everything has not gone to plan. A potentially historically great rotation has seen 40% of the starters succumb to injuries. Two of the best position players in baseball have not provided their usual excellence. Others have fallen short of even nominal expectations. And, the Minnesota Twins do not appear to be handing the division to the Tribe.
The Indians tapped on the brakes to find they have gone out and the emergency brake was never installed. The postseason is not out of reach, but it will take a bit more skill navigating the upcoming turns than expected to reach the finish line.
Twins' playoff odds are 72%, per @BaseballPro.
AL Central odds:
1% White Sox
Indians were heavy division favorites (81%) on Opening Day. One month later, it's basically a toss-up.https://t.co/gLNBvhpj44
— Aaron Gleeman (@AaronGleeman) May 6, 2019