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The Indians picked a good year to be worse

With the total lack of competition in the AL Central, the Indians can afford to slack. That doesn’t mean they don’t need to improve for the postseason, though.

Cleveland Indians v Detroit Tigers Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

The last three seasons has been the Indians watching their competition in the AL Central slowly slip away. In 2016, the year in which they made it all the way to game seven of the World Series, they tussled with the Tigers until August, ultimately claiming the division:

In 2017, as not only the Royals and White Sox were in their rebuilds, so were the Tigers, dismantling their team, including the famous shipping of Justin Verlander to the Astros. The Indians’ divisional odds never dropped below 79.7%, and that was on April 14th. They cruised to a division odd, the longest modern winning streak, and a whopping 108 Pythagorean wins. Losing the final three games to the Yankees in the ALDS was a stinging blow, but the team should have been proud of such a talented team on paper.

This year, it’s much of the same. Sure, the Twins are still competition in the sense that they will contend for a wild card spot again, but the Indians once again have no serious competition for the division; their lowest divisional odds were 89.2%.

There’s been talk in general of the lack of competitiveness in the American League, as only six teams possess double-digit playoff odds. Of those, only two are not guaranteed a wild card spot at the minimum.

The thing is, though... the Indians are actually considerably worse. After their 102-win/108-Pythagorean win season last season, their projected win total of “just” 91 wins should be of alarm. Imagine if any other contending dropped by a projected 11 wins from one year to the next? That’s a playoff-contender-to-even-record drop, so it’s worth investigating even if, as I’ve noted, it has almost no impact on playoff odds.

The biggest reason for this precipitous drop is actually of most concern to their playoff hopes: pitching depth. What made last year’s team so potent was the army of relievers and firemen that Terry Francona could deploy at a moment’s notice:

Not only was Corey Kluber having a seven-plus win season with an utterly unreal second-half, the likes of Josh Tomlin, Mike Clevinger, Bryan Shaw, and Andrew Miller allowed Francona to patch up any game if it was close. Now, this year’s projections look like a little thinner:

Miller is still in the process of a minor league rehab assignment for a knee injury, so his time this year has already been diminished. But as you can see, there just aren’t as many viable pitching options in general. If these projections hold, then Miller will be the only Indians reliever with an ERA below 3.50. That doesn’t mean the rotation hasn’t been great, which it is, but the depth beyond that is almost non-existent.

On the position player side it’s actually a very similar makeup to last season. Although the biggest blow was letting Carlos Santana walk in free agency (and he’s been hitting at a 116 wRC+ clip with the Phillies), it’s still very top-heavy: two six-plus-win players in Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, and then everyone else. Only Michael Brantley is projected to have more than two wins other than those two, and only five total players above a single win.

If you’re sitting in the Indians’ front office, the road map looks clear. Acquire a position player and/or reliever at the deadline, or sit on your laurels and hope this is enough. Because the flip side of this is in such a stars-and-scrubs lineup, small market teams are never more than a free agent departure or major injury away from disaster, something a more well-stocked farm system is primed to handle.

Sure, they’re sitting on the precipice between super-team and sliding backwards, but they picked a good time for this: no other team in the AL Central is even two to five years from seriously competing. That will let the Indians sort through their warts, and try their luck in the postseason yet again.