Imagine two of your team’s best players had missed the majority of the season. For example, let’s say you’re a Chicago White Sox fan, and Todd Frazier and Jose Quintana had played in limited action. Are the White Sox still a 27-23 team? Analytically, it’s a no, as Qunitana and Frazier have combined to produce a 4.0 WAR. Theoretically, they would be a 23-27 team without those guys.
Brantley, Carrasco Key to Indians Season
Now image you’re a Cleveland Indians fan. The team currently has a 26-21 record, and is in first place in the AL Central. Two of your best players, Michael Brantley (eleven games played) and Carlos Carrasco (22.0 inning pitched), have played sparingly this season. How are the Indians doing it without two of their best players, and what does the future of the team look like once they return? How are Brantley and Carrasco key to the Indians season?
As for how the Indians have been successful this season, without the presences Brantley and Carrasco, we need to go back to this time last season. The Indians sat at 22-25 through forty-seven games, and that was with both Brantley and Carrasco at peak performance. There was one big difference, though: that team was missing Francisco Lindor, who was still a few weeks away from making his debut. The emergence of Lindor completely turned the franchise around. In his 145 career games, Lindor has produced a 6.7 WAR, and his defense helped turn the Indians defense from one of the worst in baseball into one of the best.
Many expected Lindor’s bat to take a step back this season, but so far he’s produced a slash line (BA/OBP/SLG) of .317/.371/.425, as he looks to make his first of many All-Star appearances later this summer. As for the rest of the team, the Indians were able to bring in more veteran depth this season, as they added Mike Napoli, Rajai Davis, Juan Uribe, and Marlon Byrd in the offseason. And while those four have combined to produce replacement level value, it is miles ahead of what the Indians fielded in those positions last season. Mark this one as regression to the norm.
The past few seasons have been marked by slow starts and poor play against AL Central foes, but this season, the switches have been flipped. The Indians have been four games better than last year so far. But their play against the Central division has been one of the biggest reasons for their fast start. The Indians boast the best inter-division record in the MLB, at 14-7 against the AL Central (32-43 in 2015 against the Central). They also have tamed their biggest foe, the Detroit Tigers. Last year, the Indians struggled against Detroit, going 7-11. This season, the Indians are unbeaten in six meetings.
Now, it’s time to look into the future and tie the title of the article into this story. Carlos Carrasco is currently rehabbing in Double-A, and could return this weekend. His return would force the Indians to send Mike Clevinger and Cody Anderson back to Triple-A, or to send one of them down and move Trevor Bauer back to the bullpen. Either way, the Indians have a lot of options. Carrasco’s return would give the Indians three ace-level pitchers in their rotation, along with Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar, in an era where pitching remains supreme.
While many expected the Indians to have a top pitching staff in the AL, few expected the Indians to have a top flight offense. Yet, they stand at second in the AL in runs per game. Michael Brantley still does not a a definitive time table for his return, but should be back in a couple of weeks. A Brantley return gives the Indians a middle of the order bat, and he is one of the few players guaranteed to bat .300 or better.
With teams already starting to sniff around for trades, the Indians may not need to make one, since adding Brantley and Carrasco works in the same way a trade would, except the Indians wouldn’t be giving up anyone to get them. With the Royals being decimated by injuries, the Tigers sending out replacement level pitching, and the White Sox faltering again, the Indians may be the class of the division. All this without two of their best players.