Here’s my prediction: the Indians will win the Central Division in 2014. I say that not because I expect the Indians to break the bank for free agents, although they should be able to find better values than Brett Myers and Mark Reynolds. I am not banking on bounce-back seasons from anyone who has struggled this year. Asdrubel Cabrera seems more likely to be gone than to stay. Michael Bourn is too reliant on his speed to be expected to age well. That would leave Nick Swisher, who should be better, but I can’t say I expect him to return to the level he played at with the Yankees.
I base my prediction on this: assume next year goes exactly like this year, except change two things: first, assume that the Tigers win sixty per cent of Max Scherzer’s starts instead of eighty. That changes their record from 82-61 to 77-66. That doesn’t mean Scherzer isn’t a great pitcher; sixty per cent is still great, but eighty per cent is such an outlier that some regression is almost inevitable. Keep this in mind: in games not started by Scherzer, the Tigers are 60-55. Suddenly not so daunting, is it?
Now the second step: take the fourteen games started by Brett Myers, Trevor Bauer, and Carlos Carrasco and give those starts to Danny Salazar. This is not an assumption, it’s inevitable. The Indians were 4-10 in those fourteen starts; it seems reasonable to assume that replacing three guys with a combined ERA of over seven with a guy whose ERA is 3.00 would result in at least a .500 record in those games. That would give the Indians a record of 79-63, or 2 ½ games ahead of the Tigers.
Now I’m not going to sit here and say that a little finagling with the numbers guarantees a division title. But ask yourself this: which team has the most potential for improvement, based on the same guys coming back?
Most of the difference between the two teams offensively over the past two years has been the otherworldly play of Miguel Cabrera. Suppose Cabrera is simply great next year, more in line with his career norms instead of the freak he has been this year. That alone would cost the Tigers 20-30 runs.
Is there anywhere else in the lineup the can hope to improve to compensate for that?
Name a player with the physique of Prince Fielder who had a down year approaching age thirty and rebounded to his previous norms. Go ahead and research, I’ll wait. Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter will be 35 and 38 years old, respectively, at the beginning of next season; they may match this year’s numbers but they aren’t going to get better. Jhonny Peralta was having a career year before he got suspended and is now a free agent. At best the loss of offense at shortstop will be balanced by improved defense if Jose Iglesias takes over. (Side note: suppose the Indians trade Asdrubel Cabrera and decide they need a stopgap until Lindor is ready. Peralta will probably take a one-year deal and hope to prove he can be productive without juicing. This is where you cue Samuel Jackson saying “HELL NO”). Maybe you can expect Alex Avila to get back to his 2011 levels, but that doesn’t really move the needle on the overall offense, and his 2011 seems more like the fluke year than this year does. The only chance for a major upgrade for the Tigers is if Nick Castellanos steps in and becomes a stud player right off the bat.
Here’s the real issue: with Verlander and Fielder already tied down with huge contracts, and Cabrera and Scherzer looking for theirs, the Tiger could have a hundred million dollars in yearly salary tied up in four guys. Even if Mike Ilitch wants to keep subsidizing the Tigers with the profits of the Red Wings, it’s still Detroit, so the revenue stream is not limitless. If you don’t think the Tigers are feeling slightly pinched, ask yourself this: in a year when they were better positioned than ever to go for it and with what should have been an enormous sense of urgency, what did the Tigers add at the trade deadline? Jose Veras and Jose Iglesias.
Iglesias was a necessity because they knew Peralta was gone, and Veras is a journeyman. In a situation where an impact player would have made the Tigers prohibitive favorites to win the American League pennant, they stood pat. Did they just not see anyone who could help, or were they constrained by their mammoth payroll obligations? If the Tigers have indeed spent themselves into a state where they lack flexibility to address key weaknesses, they may be a couple of years from looking like this year’s Phillies.
So, the opening is there if the Indians can grab it. It’s not a lock, though.
The first step would be to play at a more consistent level against the Tigers and other top teams then they have this year, but let’s just say they can do that. Guys like Swisher and Chisenhall will need to step up and actually play the way we expect them to, although I would expect Chisenhall to be on a short leash again next year, with some sort of veteran insurance in place in case he falters.
The final composition of the bullpen is somewhat uncertain because of the contract status of several players, but there’s enough good arms left to have a solid pen, especially if Carlos Carrasco continues to develop in that role. (Note to self: research blog on career parallels between Carlos Carrasco and Jose Mesa).
The most important decisions will surround the rotation. Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir can both be free agents, and it’s hard to see both returning, given the payroll constraints and the other options available. Which one would provide better value is a total roll of the dice, but getting it right will be key, because the chances of one or both of those guys imploding next year are not small.
The Indians also face a decision with Justin Masterson, who can be a free agent in 2015 and can demand a large raise next year. If they don’t see him signing a long-term deal, or if they don’t view him being worth “ace” money (at least fifteen million a year for at least four years, possibly a good deal more if he has another year like this year), they will at least consider dealing him. I would only do so if they can get someone who can step into the rotation immediately; otherwise the hole that Masterson leaves will severely hinder their chances of contending.