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Apr 6, 2017
Apr 6, 2017

Are bettors underestimating the Cleveland Indians?

Assessing the Indians performance in 2016

Evaluating the Indians' improved roster

Why were they so successful at the playoffs?

Are bettors underestimating the Cleveland Indians?

Credit: Getty Images

In 2016, the Cleveland Indians came within an extra-inning loss of winning the World Series. Below, we look at how the market is underestimating the Clevelanders’ chances of taking the next step in 2017 and why Terry Francona’s men could warrant a value bet in the 2017 World Series winner markets. Read on to find out.

Who the Indians were

People didn’t quite see Cleveland coming in 2016, but the signs were there. The Indians earning a playoff spot was close to a certainty, playing in a division full of teams dedicated to rebuilds or destined for decline due to age.

Despite a lingering injury to star outfielder Michael Brantley, Cleveland seized on its opportunity, swinging one of the biggest deals of the year by acquiring then-Yankee reliever Andrew Miller. They were set for a playoff run.

Not everything developed as the team would have liked. Built around a three-headed starting pitching monster, Cleveland’s hopes were dealt a serious blow when Danny Salazar’s season ended in early September.

Things got even worse when a line drive off his hand ended Carlos Carrasco’s season. Backed into a corner, Manager Terry Francona was forced to employ desperation tactics in the playoffs, relying on his bullpen for a yeoman’s share of the workload.

In the first two rounds, Miller, closer Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw earned free Cleveland beer for life with their combined performances. Cleveland shut down the mighty Boston offence and then did the same to Toronto, earning a World Series birth and propelling the team to a 3-1 lead. Within one game of the championship, the innings finally caught up, the bullpen proving vulnerable.

The eventual champions, the Chicago Cubs, seized the opportunity by winning the final three games. In doing so, that team ended its 108-year run of World Series futility. Now, it’s the Indians that own the sport’s longest championship drought, dating back to 1948. Will that end in 2017?

An improved roster

As good as Cleveland was a year ago, the team is better now. First baseman Mike Napoli is gone, upgraded upon by Edwin Encarnacion, the best designated hitter in baseball. Santana and Carrasco are once again healthy and Brantley has returned to the field to replace departed World Series hero Rajai Davis. 

Should injury require it or opportunity for improvement present itself, look for President Chris Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff to be proactive in protecting the team’s World Series hopes.

The bullpen has added another dominant piece, with lefty Boone Logan (who held lefties to a .139/.222/.255 BA/OBP/SLG last year in Colorado) taking over as lefty specialist to free Miller for broader duties. Miller being around for the full season, with Francona’s established willingness to optimise his usage, is a huge boon. 

While Jason Kipnis is an early season injury concern, his keystone partner Francisco Lindor blossomed into a full-blown star in 2016, with room for his power numbers to improve as his body matures. Same goes for third baseman Jose Ramirez, while its catching tandem can’t help but improve offensively. Cleveland can expect some regression from centerfielder Tyler Naquin and perhaps first baseman Carlos Santana, but is otherwise well-situated up and down the lineup.

An easy path through the regular season

As easy as the AL Central pickings were in 2016, 2017 should be a cakewalk. Minnesota and Chicago are in full-blown rebuilds. Kansas City started to prepare for its inevitable post-season tear down by trading away Wade Davis and Jarrod Dyson.

That leaves the Tigers - a team that finished better than run-model expectations suggested it would by going 86-75 - tried and failed to do a fire sale during the offseason and has seen an old roster get a year older in the duration. Anything but a Cleveland divisional win would be a massive upset.

It should also be noted that Cleveland has shown a willingness to spend prospect capital to make this competitive window count. The Miller trade cost Cleveland elite prospects Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield and the Indians still have more in reserve. Should injury require it or opportunity for improvement present itself, look for President Chris Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff to be proactive in protecting/promoting the team’s World Series hopes.

An improved playoff formula

If you place Cleveland’s chances at the division crown at 80%, that would place the team’s odds of a World Series victory at 10% if all post-wildcard game playoff entrants are equal. That last assumption though, would be unfair to Cleveland.

If you place Cleveland’s chances at the division crown at 80%, that would place the team’s odds of a World Series victory at 10% if all post-wildcard game playoff entrants are equal.

As 2016 showed, Cleveland was particularly well-suited to the playoff game. The increased days off and higher-leverage situations were particularly well-suited to Francona’s bullpen-heavy approach and the promise of a relaxing winter offered the opportunity for increased usage. Ultimately, Francona’s usage, while successful, saw Miller finally become susceptible. There are three reasons to expect that won’t happen this year.

First, there’s trial and error. Backed into a corner a year ago, Francona had to learn on the fly and saw firsthand when his big bullpen horses finally ran out of steam. Second, the rotation is back to full health.

With Santana and Carrasco and Salazar out, Cleveland was forced to rely on lesser starters, sometimes getting just a few innings from them before resorting to a “bullpen game” strategy. Santana and Carrasco should not only go deeper into playoff games than their 2016 counterparts, but also do so at a higher quality of delivery.

Third, the addition of diof Logan lengthens the elite capacities of the pen. Ultimately, as well-suited for a playoff run as Cleveland was a year ago, they are better suited in 2017.  

Cleveland is ready. With its 2016 experience in hand, with a well-suited roster to the rigours of the playoff system, with an easy path to get there and a stated recognition of the importance of this competitive window, the team might be significantly more likely to win the World Series than bettors currently think.

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