FORT MYERS, FLA. – One of these years, the Cleveland Indians are not going to win the American League Central.
But as long as one of the most dominant starting rotations in baseball remains intact, the Indians will be the favorites.
From two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber to impressive youngster Shane Bieber, the rotation is a big reason they have won three consecutive division titles and are favored to run that streak to four. Fangraphs projects Cleveland to win 94 games, 12 more than the Twins, the team picked by most to finish second. Baseball Prospectus has the Indians winning 97 games to the Twins’ 82.
The Twins, of course, feel differently. Especially when asked if they are looking to close the gap on the Indians.
“No,” reliever Taylor Rogers said. “It’s to get on the other side of Cleveland.”
The teams meet in the season opener on Thursday at Target Field.
No team in the division had a busier offseason than the Twins — unless you count every phone call the White Sox made to Manny Machado before he decided to sign with San Diego. The Twins added power in designated hitter Nelson Cruz, first baseman C.J. Cron and second baseman Jonathan Schoop, and Martin Perez and Michael Pineda will deepen the rotation.
These additions, along with the emerging core of outfielders Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler, shortstop Jorge Polanco and righthander Jose Berrios, and the Twins like their chances.
“As of right now, they are the reigning division champs,” righthander Jake Odorizzi said of Cleveland. “We have to go out and prove it instead of talking about it. That’s my standpoint on it.”
Despite pulling away for the division title last season, Cleveland’s attendance dropped, which led to an ownership-mandated grip on their pocketbooks. Catcher Yan Gomes was dealt. Michael Brantley, Brian Shaw, Andrew Miller and Yonder Alonso were allowed to leave as free agents. There were rumors that Kluber had to be dealt, but enough payroll pruning was done to spare him.
Cleveland’s projected outfield is Leonys Martin, Tyler Naquin and either Jake Bauers or Greg Allen — a drop-off offensively and defensively. The bullpen’s ERA last season was 4.60 — higher than the Twins’ 4.45 — and the Indians lost one of the top relief arms in the game in Miller.
It’s a team that looks ripe for a takeover — but don’t forget the ability of good pitching to overcome weaknesses elsewhere.
Cleveland’s rotation — with a top four of Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger — was third in baseball with a 3.39 ERA in 2018 and was second at 3.52 in 2017. They were seventh with a .237 opponents’ batting average. They have 1,066 strikeouts in each of the last two seasons, second most last year and first in 2017.
It allows them to bring Bieber, 11-5 with a 4.55 ERA in his debut season, along slowly.
Cleveland has brought veterans into camp like Hanley Ramirez and Carlos Gonzalez, hoping they have something left.
But the fulcrum of the Indians offense centers upon infielders Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, who each accounted for 7.9 WAR last season. Lindor will miss the first few weeks of the season while recovering from a calf injury.
As for the rest of the division, the White Sox are young but could be a threat as soon as next season. Detroit needs a young core worth building around. Kansas City will rely on speed and defense while waiting on their prospects.
Things could get interesting if long-term injury issues affect the Cleveland rotation or their tandem of Ramirez and Lindor. The Twins, who will need some things to break their way as well, appear to be the only division team in position to strike if the Indians falter.
“Yes, we lost some guys,” Lindor said to Cleveland reporters. “But at the end of the day we’ve got to go out there and play. We’ve got to back each other up. I truly believe that in the big leagues, if you play the game the right way, you grind at-bats and you pitch the right way, you’ve got a good chance of being successful.
“It will be fun. It will be a year with a lot of ups and down, like every other year. Hopefully, we can overcome anything that gets in our way.”