Our sixth and final baseball review makes it clear the Cleveland Indians are the best bet in baseball this year for one simple reason – all that matters in baseball is winning your division. Finishing with a better record to host the wildcard game or divisional playoff series is meaningless.
The wild card game is a coin flip (visitors actually have won more since 2012) and the team hosting Games 3 and 4 of the Divisional Championship series because they have the worse record have won more series than the favorites.
As shown in our in-depth review of the pitching, fielding, and hitting of each AL East team, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox both have almost exactly a 50-50 shot of beating each other out for the division – or plunging into a playoff game. Teams in four other divisions need to overcome at least TWO other strong teams based on the rankings we presented in past previews (see our reviews of the 4 AL West teams, 3 NL West teams, 3 NL East teams, and 3 NL Central teams with strong enough talent to be a playoff team if healthy).
And then there are the Cleveland Indians – who entered July 4 with a double-digit lead over everyone else in the AL Central while no other team in baseball enjoyed even a 3-game lead in their divisional race.
Our simulated games through Statis-Pro baseball (free version here) indicate the Chicago White Sox have a higher ceiling than their record indicates. However, once we weigh pitching and batting stats by the team’s home ballpark, review which fielders on each team were nominated for a gold glove either of the past two seasons, and evaluate and make cards for all new players, it was clear even when the Indians were below .500 that no one in the AL Central could stay close to them for an entire season.
With the other four AL Central teams rate below average based on a scale of 10.0 scale for batting, 5.0 for starting pitching, 3.0 for relief pitching and 2.0 for fielding, the Indians are the only team virtually assured of skipping the wild card game and waltzing into Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, Houston or New York only needing to split two games to take the home field advantage back to Progressive Field for Games 3 and 4. Even if they failed to improve from their slow start with a .560 winning percentage and the Red Sox finished the season at their current ridiculous .667 winning percentage and the Astros also matched the .667 record so Cleveland had to play a team with a .667 winning percentage (one of the 10 best teams in history), the Indians would have a 40 percent chance of winning each game (see probability table here).
However, since May 25 the Indians are 23-12 – a better record than the Red Sox – and they are on base to get the divisional winner with the second best record because the wild card winner will face the top team in the league. Further, because they can focus trade acquisitions purely on who can help them win in the playoffs, they will have close to a 50-50 chance in two playoff series – the same as the four AL teams with much better records who first have to beat out each other to avoid the wild-card game.
The Indians do need a couple of pieces, but they are the only team looking at almost a sure thing this regular season as we stack them up against their division:
Cleveland Indians (13.7 of 20) – We expected four truly elite teams to come out of the American League and that is just what has happened – the surprise was Cleveland was not among them as Seattle is the surprise addition to the Yankees, Red Sox and Astros (all with 55 or more wins so far compared to the Indians 47 wins). However, those four teams all need to worry about being stuck in a one-game wild card against the others, making Cleveland as likely as the others to return to the World Series two years after falling just shorts against the Cubs.
Batting (6.0 of 10) – The addition of Melky Cabrera from the White Sox and Yonder Alonso added two more great bats to a line-up that is almost as deep as the Yankees, Astros, and Nationals – though so far Alonso is the only of the two hitting well. The Rajai Davis pickup gave the coveted lightning speed for when the stolen base of advancing an extra base on a hit is needed in a clutch playoff game (stole 12 of 15 as a reserve).
Starters (4.5 of 5) – The rotation starting with the often untouchable Corey Kluber needed no additions and includes a bounce back from Trevor Bauer after a down 2017.
Relievers (2.0 of 3) – It didn’t appear the best bullpen in baseball needed additions either, but therein lies the need as the top five who were all DOMINANT last year have ERAs ranging from 3.90 to 7.27 when we ran the ratings a couple of weeks ago.
Fielding (1.2 of 2) – They have the top fielding in the division with Gold Glove nominees Francisco Lindor (shortstop), Jose Ramirez (third base but can play second) and catcher Yan Gomes – giving them 1.2 of 2 fielding points.
The Indians should win the division, so the only keys are potentially adding one or two great bats to the bottom of the line-up and surprisingly needing to add a bullpen that we still rank high on potential but has struggled terribly all season. The Indians may have been complacent after being so good – while the Red Sox and Yankees made major acquisitions to try to dethrone the Astros. However, three big moves close to home would certainly put them back on par with the top teams in baseball.
They could stay in state to acquire Reds’ second baseman Scooter Gennett, and stay in the division to go after slugger Mike Moustakas to shore up the bottom of the line-up, but with red-hot reliever Kelvin Herrera heading from the Royals to the Nationals recently, they have one less opportunity for insurance in the bullpen. A healthy Indians team was likely the best in baseball in 2017, but after the Astros acquired Gerrit Cole to create a rotation that is so far even better than the Indians’ top four, the Yankees pulled in incredible talent from their own system and trades, and the Red Sox added JD Martinez.
Minnesota Twins (9.7) – The Twins still have enough to hold off everyone except the Indians in the division, but unfortunately, that offers a very low chance of returning to the playoffs.
Batters (3.9 of 10) – The line-up is decent but not great, with the only notable addition coming from Tampa Bay’s Morrison – who is a great power hitter though for a low average.
Starters (3.4 of 5) – The Twins did a nice job of rounding out their starting rotation with Odorizzi from Tampa Bay and Lynn from St. Louis.
Relievers (1.5 of 3) – Getting Met Addison Reed elevated the Twins to an average bullpen.
Fielding (0.8 of 2) – In addition to being two of the top bats, center fielder Byron Buxton and second baseman Brian Dozier are gold glove nominees to give the Twins a 0.8 of 2 fielding rating.
Chicago White Sox (8.5 of 20) – The record is not as good as the ratings we give for potential, but they need starting pitchers and fielders to develop.
Batters (4.5 of 10) – I believed the addition to Daniel Palka and getting Wellington Castillo from Baltimore provided the two power hitters to add to Garcia and Abreu to give them an above average top half of the line-up, and I do believe if they found more at-bats to reward their excellent OPS of about .770 each this year the team would improve.
Starters (1.7 of 5) – The starting rotation appears to be a weak link.
Relievers (2.3 of 3) – The pen appeared to be much stronger with the addition of Joakim Soria from Kansas City and Luis Avilan from the Dodgers and the addition of Jace Fry – and the three have combined for an ERA just under 3.00.
Fielding (0.0 of 2) – Adam Eaton is the only recent White Sox nominee for a Gold Glove, and he is now with the Nationals so they receive a 0.0 of 2 fielding points.
Detroit Tigers (8.5) – I must admit I am shocked the Tigers flirted with .500 as long as they did. The team just really looked weak after letting JD Martinez and Justin Upton go in addition to Justin Verlander, so kudos for these additions making them competitive.
Batters (3.5 of 10) – Acquisition Jeimer Candelario from the Cubs put up numbers that made him look like a nice lead off pick-up and he has more than lived up to it as one of the top hitters on the team in a pitchers’ ballpark – and that made for a nice one through five line-up but the rest of the lineup is weak.
Starters (2.6 of 5) – Picking up former Astros Mike Fiers and Francisco Liriano helped steady a rotation that was looking really bad after letting Justin Verlander go last year. With most stars gone, the one other bargaining chip Detroit might have is to let Liriano go to a contender who needs a lefty out of the pen, as he looks strong this year after playing a nice role for the Astros after a terrible start last year.
Relievers (1.4 of 3) – Joe Jimenez looks like a nice addition to the pen to give some innings beyond closer Shane Green.
Fielding (0.8 of 2) – In fielding, shortstop Jose Iglesias and catcher James McCann were gold glove nominees for a 0.8 of 2 as a team.
Kansas City Royals (3.2 of 10) – The worst team in baseball could get even worse before the trade deadline – just a few years after the World Series.
Batters (2.4 of 10) – While the Royals can score some at top of the order with fantastic hitters Whit Merrifield and Mike Moustakas, they lost a lot and only added power-hitting Lucas Duda and beyond that. The line-up is very weak.
Starters (0.0 of 5) – The pitchers are below average both in the starting rotation and the bullpen, so they may follow the Tigers’ lead from last year and unload the rest of the talent this month including potentially an in-state trade to the Indians.
Relievers (0.0 of 3) – See above.
Fielding (0.8 of 2) – While the Royals lost Gold Glove nominees Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain, they do still have left fielder Alex Gordon and catcher Salvador Perez to get 0.8 of 2 fielding points for their strongest department.
In summary, this division seems fairly certain to send the Indians to the playoffs where home field is almost irrelevant and the team could certainly knock off any of the super teams this year – but an extra couple of bats would help and a relief pitcher or two if arms do not appear fully recovered and approaching their dominance of the past few years.