The Cleveland Indians went into the 2018 season firmly confident that they would run away with the Central Division. In the end, they did this thanks to a stellar pitching staff, great infield defense and a good enough offense to get survive, although they didn’t dominate to the level originally expected. Winning the division by 13 games, but finished behind all five other play-off participants in the American League (just one game ahead of the third best AL East team) and saw an early exit in the post-season.
Despite obvious weak points in the roster (particularly the bullpen and outfield), the Indians didn’t make significant moves during the 2017-2018 off-season to improve the roster and continued to stay the course rather than build up during the 2018 season. The biggest move, the addition of Leonys Martin, ultimately failed for reasons beyond the front office’s control, but the simple fact is that Martin would not have been enough for the Indians to contend with the likes of the Red Sox, Astros and Yankees.
It certainly feels like deja vu all over again for the Indians as the bullpen is even worse minus Cody Allen and Andrew Miller and the outfield is in an even more desperate state as starters Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer all hit the free agent market and Bradley Zimmer is out for the first half after his 2018 surgery. There have been slight improvements (particularly Jake Bauers and Carlos Santana), but overall the Indians have stuck with the strategy of bringing in as many mediocre players as possible and hoping one of them breaks out.
Despite this, the Indians are heading into 2019 the heavy favorites again in the AL Central. They are projected by fangraphs to win 93 games with the Twins listed as the second best AL team at 83. In the end, the amount of randomness in a five game series means that any team that wins their division has a decent chance of getting to the ALCS, but the Indians have tested their luck in the past and been found ringless. In addition, while they have won three straight Central Division titles and are essentially the only team that isn’t rebuilding in the division, heading into the season thinking the division is in the bag would be a huge mistake.
We have seen plenty of teams compete before their expected timeline including the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros. Looking back to the fangraphs projections for 2019, the Royals, White Sox and Tigers are expected to be three of the worst five teams in baseball with only the Orioles and Marlins worse. However, it’s impossible to predict the future no matter how much data one has and the White Sox in particular look poised to emerge more quickly than expected.
Unlike the Tigers, who tried to hang on too long, the Twins, who seem to have made some major mistakes in the rebuild process and the Royals, who tried to reload, rather than rebuild, Chicago had an incredible off-season after 2016 that saw them completely turn around their minor league system with trades of Chris Sale, Adam Eaton and Jose Quintana.
A few years later, the returns of those trades in addition to the Sox own drafting, international signings and development have turned the franchise into an intriguing dark horse. Yes, the White Sox were near the bottom of the barrel in both runs scored and prevented in 2018, but there is no reason that will inevitably continue.
To start, the Sox rotation was particularly awful in 2018, but with a young, high ceiling core of Dylan Covey, Lucas Giolito, Carlos Rodon and Michael Kopech, it is not far fetched to see them turning things around significantly in 2019 as they mature together. Similarly, Yoan Moncada has yet to show why he was considered the #2 prospect in all of baseball heading into 2017 and will be playing in his second full season. Of course, they will also be returning great defensive short stop Tim Anderson and the always powerful Jose Abreu.
Finally, the scariest part of the Sox could still be hidden beneath the surface. Having watched the Glendale Desert Dogs extensively last fall, I can attest to the incredible talents of Luis Alexander Basabe and Luis Robert in the field, on the bases and with the bat. Both could debut in 2019 in addition to #3 prospect in all of baseball heading into 2019 (according to Baseball America and MLB Pipeline), Eloy Jimenez. These three alone could turn the outfield that ranked last in baseball in 2018 with a -1.2 fWAR and turn them into one of the best both offensively and defensively.
This is not to say the White Sox will win the division (Vegas has the odds at 40:1, the most likely non-Cleveland team to win the Central) or even necessarily challenge the Indians in 2019, but it’s certainly possible. The Twins could also be a surprise contender if the prospects that have seemingly failed made adjustments and come out playing like originally expected. The simple fact is, until a team has actually clinched a division, the division should not be considered wrapped up.
Of course, all of this is beyond the point that the current Indians can’t expect to compete seriously with the Red Sox, Yankees and Astros. They could walk their way to another 10+ game division win, but they will absolutely need to improve considerably if they want another shot at the World Series. This could be internal, by testing out young players like Yu Chang, Bobby Bradley and Connor Marabell or it could be externally through the remaining free agent market or trades, but something has to be done. Hoping a few players who were rejected by the Pirates, Rays and others turn their careers around is simply not enough to get the Tribe to the next level.