Disclaimer: The Cleveland professional baseball team is probably the odds-on favorite to win the American League Central in 2018, what with Detroit, Chicago and potentially Kansas City rebuilding and Minnesota largely standing pat so far this winter.
It may be that Cleveland is again in the running as a contender for the division crown in 2019.
However, the franchise—which is a year removed from coming a game within a World Series crown—may find it difficult getting back to the top of the mountain top in the not-too-distant future.
Purely from a division-standpoint, the White Sox’ burgeoning young core might be ready to make some noise in 2019.
If the Tigers can make some savvy moves and jumpstart their youth movement, they might not be far behind with a crop of young talent currently operating at the Double-A level.
To Cleveland’s credit, the team does have a number of young players under long-term control. These include the 27-year-old starting pitcher Mike Clevinger, 25-year-old Jose Ramirez, 25-year-old outfielder Bradley Zimmer, 24-year-old shortstop Francisco Lindor and 22-year-old catcher Francisco Meija.
That core should keep Cleveland competitive in the future, but it will be up to the franchise to surround them with quality pieces as time goes by.
As it stands, just who those quality pieces will be in the future remains to be seen.
The American League Central franchise is a veteran-heavy group, and has already incurred some losses on the free-agent market this winter.
First baseman Carlos Santana and relievers Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith have signed elsewhere. Other free agents who played for Cleveland last season include Austin Jackson (1.8 fWAR) and Jay Bruce (0.7 fWAR in 169 plate appearances).
Finding suitable replacements will be key.
The team has already signed Yonder Alonso to replace Santana.
While Alonso could very well continue the form he showed as an All-Star with Oakland (.375 wOBA, 137 wRC+ and a .260 ISO) he could also revert back to the player who as recently as 2016 posted a .299 wOBA, an 87 wRC+ and a .114 ISO.
For his career, the first baseman owns a .324 wOBA, a 107 wRC+ and a .139 ISO.
If Alonso fails to pan out, it would create another need for Cleveland.
Over the next two years, those needs could multiply.
Miller and Allen have been key parts of Cleveland’s run of success over the past few seasons, forming arguably the best back end-of-the-bullpen pairing in the league.
Since the start of the 2016 season, in which Miller was dealt to Cleveland mid-season, the duo rank second and 24th among relievers in fWAR, as well as first and 22nd in strand rate.
Both pitchers also rank in the top 25 in swinging strike percentage, SIERA and WHIP.
Brantley and Chisenhall
While both players have been limited by injuries in the past, they remain two of the team’s best outfield options when healthy.
From 2014 to 2017, Brantley and Chisenhall have combined for a 17.4 fWAR, with the former notching an 11.1 stat and the latter checking in with a 6.3 metric.
By comparison, the next closest Cleveland outfielder during that span in terms of fWAR is Tyler Naquin with a 2.3 fWAR.
It’s also worth nothing that outside of Brantley and Chisenhall, nine different outfielders have logged 300 or more at-bats in a Cleveland uniform since the start of 2014 in an outfield mix that has at times resembled a revolving door.
While there’s certainly a precedent for sustained success, you can’t stave off father time forever. Regression will eventually happen.
While it’s entirely possible that some of Cleveland’s veterans may very well remain effective, it isn’t a guarantee that all of them well.
Kluber and Carrasco in particular don’t show any signs of slowing down anytime soon, and players like Kipnis and Brantley are still in their respective primes, but the fact remains that Cleveland’s veteran core isn’t getting any younger.
The farm system
This would be all and well if Cleveland can continue to churn out young talent from the minors to replenish the Major League roster.
Players like Lindor, Ramirez, Zimmer and now potentially Meija have been integrated into the team in recent years.
However, as of now, the franchise is extremely thin in the farm system.
Outside of Meija and 20-year-old, Advanced-A pitcher Triston McKenzie, there is little in impact talent.
Bleacher Report recently ranked Cleveland’s farm system, including Meija and McKenzie, as the 23rd-best in the league.
One has to wonder where they check in without the highly-regarded duo.
Pitching, pitching and more pitching
For as good as Cleveland’s position players have been in years past, the franchise has mainly found success with a dynamic rotation spearheaded by Kluber, Carrasco, Clevinger and others.
Since Kluber broke out in 2013, Cleveland starters sit second in the league in fWAR, finishing just behind the Nationals’ 85.5 metric with an 84.6 metric.
Over the same span, the same group is first in strikeout percentage, second in SIERA, fourth in WHIP and seventh in innings pitched.
Long-term, it will be difficult to sustain that kind of value and production rotation.
Meanwhile, in their rankings of the top 18 Cleveland prospects prior to the start of last season, FanGraphs’ list featured just five hurlers.
While Cleveland has a number of position-player prospects like first baseman Bobby Bradley, shortstops Yu-Cheng Chang and Willi Castro and outfielders Greg Allen, Quentin Holmes and Will Benson, who could all be solid big league players, the league is becoming more and more pitching-reliant.
The franchise may well churn out some decent hitters in the future, but their potential inability to replenish the rotation—and to a lesser extent the bullpen—could spell trouble down the line.