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The Indians Are Contenders. But Could They Get Away With A Little Tanking?

It will come as no surprise to anyone following baseball that, when we ran an early preseason version of our 2019 MLB projections, the Cleveland Indians came out as heavy favorites to win the American League Central.

Cleveland has won the Central in each of the past three years, by a comfortable margin of 12.7 games on average. Part of this is not the product of Cleveland’s talent but rather the lack thereof among the rest of the teams in the division. In fact, the rest of the division has done so little to try to close the gap that the Indians were openly shopping some of their veteran stars this winter, in part to cut costs, while still intending to win the division. Although some of the bigger rumored deals haven’t actually happened, this type of “have-your-tank-and-beat-them-too” mindset could be an innovative model for top teams trying to retool on the fly in a division laden with rebuilding clubs.

Ordinarily, ace pitcher Corey Kluber is the last player a team would want to part with, having ranked second the majors — behind Washington’s Max Scherzer — in pitching wins above replacement (WAR) over the past five seasons. He’s also under contract for 2019, with team options in both 2020 and 2021. But the Indians would owe Kluber $52.7 million across all of those seasons, assuming both options are picked up. With Cleveland’s seasonal payrolls ballooning from $59 million the year before its streak of division titles began to $143 million last season, Indians brass reportedly put Kluber on the trade block in an effort to slash spending.

Kluber wasn’t alone. The team was also rumored to be shopping around Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Yan Gomes, Jason Kipnis, Edwin Encarnacion and Yonder Alonso, all of whom combined with Kluber to produce nearly half (23.0) of the Indians’ 50.4 total WAR last season. Eventually Cleveland was able to offload Alonso, Encarnacion and Gomes (to the White Sox, Mariners and Nationals, respectively), while Carrasco signed an extension. All of those machinations helped free up enough money for the Indians that a Kluber trade no longer sounds likely, at least for the time being. But Kluber and Kipnis still have club options coming up after the season worth $34 million in total, and Bauer has another arbitration year remaining after 2019 (and he won his arbitration cases in each of the past two winters).

In other words, the Indians will still be a team to watch on the trade market — even if nothing else about their team fits the profile of a traditional “seller.”

Typically, teams load up on talent when trying to win a World Series (duh), and they shop their high-priced veterans only when their window to contend is closing. The World Series is so difficult to win — the best team in a given season has only about a 15 percent chance — and the pull of regression is so strong that when a team has a chance to go for a title in the here and now, it makes sense to acquire Cy Young-caliber pitchers, not dangle them in trades.

Kluber, Bauer and Carrasco were all part of a starting corps that ranked first in the majors in WAR last season, edging out even the obscenely stacked Houston Astros rotation that some were calling the greatest of all time. With needs in the bullpen and outfield, and a relatively thin market of free-agent arms available, the Indians weren’t crazy for at least exploring trade offers for Kluber, a pitcher who will turn 33 this season.

But another aspect of what the Indians were doing is an interesting bit of needle-threading made possible by their unusually entrenched position atop the division. Including our preliminary look at 2019, (which is unlikely to change even if, say, Bryce Harper were to sign with the White Sox), this will be the fourth consecutive year that Cleveland is favored to win its division, according to our Elo ratings.

Will it be another year of smooth sailing in Cleveland?

FiveThirtyEight’s preliminary Elo ratings and forecast for the 2019 AL Central race

Avg. Simulated Season Chance to …
Team Elo Rating Wins Losses Run Diff. Make Playoffs Win Division Win World Series
Indians 1554 95 67 +133 78% 68% 9%
Twins 1506 84 78 +24 36 21 2
Royals 1455 71 91 -94 7 4 <1
White Sox 1456 71 91 -95 7 4 <1
Tigers 1447 69 93 -114 5 3 <1

Based on 100,000 simulations of the 2019 MLB season.

Sources: Baseball prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport, Caesar’s Palace

Going back to the dawn of divisional play in 1969, only 14 teams have been favored to win a division in at least four consecutive seasons (led by the Yankees, who were favored in the AL East an incredible 10 straight seasons from 1995 to 2004). And the Indians’ preseason Elo margin in those four seasons — 44.6 points better than the next-best team, on average — is the highest of any team in any four-season streak as division favorites:

(Interestingly, the second- and third-most lopsided streaks as division favorite are also active in 2019, featuring the Astros in the AL West and the Dodgers in the NL West.1 That’s probably no coincidence, since MLB has gotten very top-heavy in recent seasons, making it easier for heavy favorites to emerge.)

The Indians have been very comfortable division favorites

Largest average margins between second-ranked teams in the division and teams with streaks of at least four straight seasons as a division favorite according to FiveThirtyEight’s preseason Elo ratings, 1969-2019

Team Years Division Average Elo Lead Eventual Streak Length
Cleveland Indians 2016-19 AL Central +44.6 4 yrs
Houston Astros 2016-19 AL West 40.0 4
Los Angeles Dodgers 2016-19 NL West 35.3 4
Atlanta Braves 1996-99 NL East 31.0 5
Cleveland Indians 1996-99 AL Central 30.4 7
New York Yankees 1999-02 AL East 29.2 10
New York Yankees 1997-00 AL East 27.6 10
New York Yankees 1998-01 AL East 27.4 10
Oakland Athletics 1972-75 AL West 27.1 6
Cleveland Indians 1997-00 AL Central 26.6 7

Overlapping parts of the same larger streak as favorite are included as separate entries.

How did the Indians end up with so few challengers? Cleveland happened upon its divisional stranglehold by filling a void that formed after the Kansas City Royals’ mini-dynasty ended after 2015. It was a great case of a team ascending at exactly the right time and place.

The Royals’ core eroded following back-to-back World Series appearances, with the team bidding farewell to many of the key players from those rosters, and a rebuilding project soon commenced in K.C. At the same time, the Detroit Tigers’ own run of contention with Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and company was winding down. Detroit had won the division four straight seasons from 2011 to 2014, but an 86-win second-place finish in 2016 was its last gasp before starting a rebuild of its own. And the Chicago White Sox are very far removed from their mid-2000s championship heyday, with no season cracking .500 since 2012.

The Minnesota Twins appeared poised to rise up and confront the Indians after winning 85 games in 2017 with a young core of position-player talent (led by center fielder Byron Buxton) and an improving 23-year-old ace in Jose Berrios. But Minnesota backslid to a 78-84 record last season, and our projections give them only a 21 percent probability of overtaking Cleveland this year. Projected front-runners can still run into unexpected threats — just ask the 2018 Dodgers (who barely scraped past the Rockies) or 2018 Astros (who barely scraped past the A’s) — but it would take a big upset for Cleveland to lose its perch atop the Central.

Not that the Indians didn’t flirt with making that upset easier by shopping all those big names this winter. It was an uncommon approach that tried to simultaneously build for the future (not entirely unlike the underlings of the division) while keeping enough talent to win in the here and now. To even entertain the notion, it requires the kind of historically unique cushion Cleveland has enjoyed the past several seasons. Although it would take lots of guts to execute — severely reducing a team’s margin for error in the event of an injury or letdown performance — we might see more of this kind of mentality as tanking becomes more prevalent across MLB.

Footnotes

  1. Simulations were run prior to Friday’s news that Los Angeles ace Clayton Kershaw is resting his arm indefinitely.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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