Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections foresee the Cleveland Indians taking the AL Central crown with a 91-win campaign, the best record in the American League. That's quite a jump for a franchise coming off an 81-win season whose biggest offseason acquisition was arguably Mike Napoli.
For small and mid-market teams, free agency is a luxury largely reserved for special circumstances. For these clubs, acquiring young, cost-controlled players - whether that be via trades, the draft, or international free agency - is the market they are forced to deal in. So, it's not surprising that the Indians remained on the sidelines for this winter's crop of big-money free agents. Besides two egregiously ill-fated deals worth a combined $104 million handed out to Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn prior to the 2014 season, Cleveland has sunk eight figures in just one free agent signing over the past 15 years: Kerry Wood.
The Indians don't build through free agency. The famed Cleveland powerhouse clubs of the 1990's did use free agency (i.e. Roberto Alomar, Orel Hershiser, etc.) as a means of supplementing their exceptional homegrown core, but more recent competitive iterations of the franchise have used trades as their primary avenue of roster construction. Cleveland's success in the mid-aughts was fueled by some excellent homegrown players such as C.C. Sabathia, Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, and (the former) Fausto Carmona. But under the leadership duo of Mark Shapiro (who recently departed for Toronto) and Chris Antonetti, the club pulled off a series of masterful trades, netting core contributors such as Travis Hafner, Shin-Soo Choo, Cliff Lee, and Grady Sizemore (the latter two of whom were acquired in the infamous Bartolo Colon trade).
While those Indians clubs were bolstered by significant deals, a large majority of the current Cleveland core was brought in from outside the organization, as well. This has been somewhat due to necessity. For just over a decade, beginning after the selection of Sabathia in 1998, and concluding prior to the pivotal Francisco Lindor pick in 2011, the Indians held 20 first round or supplemental first round draft picks. And they whiffed on a vast majority. Of those 20, only Jeremy Guthrie (2002) and possibly Lonnie Chissenhall (2008) could be deemed as successes (note: this doesn't include Jason Kipnis, who was a second round pick in 2009). That seems to have turned around in recent years, led by the marvelous selection of Lindor, and including picks that (so far) appear to be headed towards fruition, such as Tyler Naquin, Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, and Bradley Zimmer.
What the Indians have accomplished in building their current core through trades is nothing short of magnificent. Few organizations in any era can boast a track record similar to Cleveland's of late. Going back to 2008, the Indians landed both Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana in deadline deals for Sabathia and Casey Blake, respectively. One year later, Carlos Carrasco came over in the blockbuster that sent Lee to Philadelphia. The following July, Corey Kluber was acquired in a three-way trade that sent Jake Westbrook to St. Louis and Ryan Ludwick to San Diego. In December of 2012, Cleveland dealt Shin-Soo Choo (himself acquired in a one-sided 2006 trade with the Mariners) to the Reds in a three-team deal that also included the Diamondbacks, netting them Trevor Bauer and Bryan Shaw. That same offseason, the Indians' braintrust pulled off the heist of exchanging Esmil Rogers for Yan Gomes (and Mike Aviles). And those are just the more notable deals. Getting Zach McAllister for Austin Kearns, Rob Kaminsky for Brandon Moss, Mike Clevenger for Vinnie Pestano, and Chris Perez for Mark DeRosa are examples of other successful trades of recent memory.
Now, some credit must be given to the Indians' player development staff, who presumably helped turn some of these acquired players, such as Carrasco, Gomes, Brantley, and Kluber, into bonafide major league assets. But it speaks to the abilities of the Indians' front office to target players that could be molded into legitimate contributors.
Essentially, the Indians of recent memory have been built largely through trades. But a strange thing occurred this offseason: the Indians didn't make a trade.
Well, that's not entirely true. Cleveland did add Dan Otero, Collin Cowgill, and Kirby Yates, though those transactions involved only cash considerations heading to the other team. However, the club never made a significant swap, despite a frenzy of offseason reports suggesting Cleveland would look to deal one of its prized starting pitchers for offensive aid. This could still very well happen (the Rangers have reported interest and line up well), though with Opening Day having passed, the odds of anything notable happening before summer would seem slim.
It's not difficult to see why Cleveland is reluctant to part with its young core of arms. Kluber and Carrasco are locked up on incredibly team-friendly deals, and Danny Salazar won't reach arbitration until next offseason. That trio combined for 13.3 WAR in 2015, and given their combination of talent and bargain contracts, they may represent the most valuable triad of pitchers outside of the Mets' triumvirate of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard (the White Sox's trio of Sale, Quintana, and Rodon should also be included in the conversation).
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Elite, cost-controlled starting pitchers are exceedingly rare, and despite being among the riskiest commodities in baseball, it's hard to let go of their tantalizing upside. A dominant rotation is a pathway to postseason success. Just ask last year's Mets, whom Grant Brisbee recently compared to this year's Indians, citing a similar lackluster offense and idle offseason. Brisbee crowns Cleveland an "if-everything-goes-right powerhouse", and like those Mets, they could make use of potential impact hitters, such as Jay Bruce or Carlos Gonzalez, that are likely to be available mid-season.
So, it's reasonable to conclude that Cleveland sees some incentive to stick with their current offense given reinforcements should be readily available if needed. Ranking ninth in the majors in wRC+ last season, it's not as if the Indians are an atrocious offense, though they're clearly not an elite one. They may reason that their various minor reinforcements, and a full year of Lindor, are enough to keep this offense from regressing below last year's level, which, combined with their pitching staff, may be enough to push them into the postseason. Projection systems certainly see it.
Cleveland very well should have made it last year, with an 84-win pythagorean record, somewhat dragged down by a dreadful early-season defense (that made their pitchers FIP-darlings), indicative of a fringe wild-card candidate. This year, that defense shouldn't be nearly as bad (it was historically bad for a period), and it already improved drastically over the course of last season. Much of last season's improvement came from the call-ups of Lindor and Giovanny Urshela, as well as Lonnie Chisenhall's move from third base to right field, which went exceptionally well. This year, Lindor will be back for a full year, Urshela has been replaced by Juan Uribe, a fine defender in his own right, and Chisenhall, while currently hurt, will be more experienced at his new position. The club is also now without defensive liabilities Brandon Moss, David Murphy, and Nick Swisher, and Santana should be mostly limited to DH. Add in Yan Gomes' return from injury and Tyler Naquin's presence in center field while Michael Brantley recovers, and this year's defensive unit has the potential to be quite stellar.
The Indians were a trendy World Series pick entering last season, and following a disappointing year, they don't have the same luster coming into this year. However, the 2016 Indians appear primed to be a better team on the backs of a drastically improved defense, a hopefully stable offense, and the salivating upside of that rotation. The roster has been seemingly well-assembled, and it's intriguing to note the savvy way Cleveland has been able to acquire talent.