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Lowered Expectations: Prognosticating the Ins and Outs of the 2019 Cleveland Indians, a Fine Baseball Team 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ERIK DROST:FLICKRCC
  • Photo by Erik Drost:FlickrCC

This is going to be a strange season. Hell, it's already been a strange season and it hasn't started yet.

Never before have expectations been as high for a team whose fan base is so angry. Like last year, the Cleveland Indians are expected to cruise to another American League Central title. (Who doesn't love AL Central Division title flag-raising ceremonies, right?) Should they do it, it will be their fourth in a row, a run of division dominance that hasn't been seen in this town since the 1990s. You remember Cleveland baseball in the '90s, right? The Tribe would run virtually unopposed in the Central, year in and year out, with fans coming out in droves to watch them waltz their way to another postseason.

Sound familiar? It's the same as it is today, only with less excitement, more empty seats and a more frustrated fan base.

Why less excitement? This one's simple: The team isn't as good. Why frustrated? Because the front office seemed to take a pass at improving the team the last two off-seasons, likely because they know they're still the best team in the division. That winning the Central is as much of a sure thing as it was in, say, 1995, isn't a testament to how good this Indians team is. It's a signal that the division is somehow worse than it was two decades ago. And that's saying something. Those '90s Tribe teams were as good as any team that's won a championship in the years since (and better than most) and took pride in just bludgeoning each of their punk-ass division rivals 18 times a year.

It's a strange time for Major League Baseball, where the Indians are rightly or wrongly lopped in with a huge swath of teams in the league who don't seem particularly motivated to spend money to improve the team. The chasm between the competitive teams and the dregs has never been more severe, and the number of divisions that, even before the first pitch of the season is thrown, are seemingly locked up has never been higher.

So, yeah, the Indians are fine. The expectations are the playoffs. But what then? A team built largely to play against itself isn't built to compete against the Astros, Yankees and Red Sox.

Paul Dolan has almost explicitly admitted this in his various spring training interviews, which are filled with aw-shucks, "I'm a common man just like you" moments, like the admission that he flies Southwest. As players like Manny Machado, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper sign long-term contracts in the multiple hundreds of millions, Dolan is out here already warning fans to enjoy Francisco Lindor while they can before he hops into free agency in a few years. Because "the day we [hand out a $300 million contract] is when somebody else is doing $1 billion deals."

It's a familiar refrain 'round these parts, but with the best pitching staff in baseball and two generational talents coming into their prime, fiscal responsibility isn't exactly the conversation Indians fans want to be having. But here we are, at the tail end of a World Series window when the team is cutting payroll and the equipment truck is picking up any former high-school baseball player wandering around truck stops in the heartland of America, en route to and from Arizona, in the hopes of bolstering a roster that makes you choke on your ballpark dog.

So while the Indians of 2019 have the same air of inevitability about them as those of recent years, it's hard to get jazzed.

So let's make it interesting, shall we? Just about every MLB pundit, forecaster and prognosticator is picking the Indians to coast to another A.L. Central title, despite gains made by some of their intra-division rivals (namely, the Minnesota Twins). Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that they're right. The easiest way to spice things up is to lay some money on the type of side bets that keep us watching when an outcome feels inevitable. Here are some prop bets, including completely accurate and not-at-all-made-up odds (we ain't Vegas), that will require you to plumb the depths of your Tribe-loving soul and keep an eye trained on our national pastime while you count the days until you can finally see how Odell Beckham Jr. looks in orange and brown.

The Indians will win the American League Central by over/under 10 games.

Over: EVEN; Under: EVEN

Prediction: Last year, a mostly underwhelming Indians team took the American League's weakest division by 13 games. No other division winner in baseball coasted as easily, or as long, as the Tribe. Since then, the Minnesota Twins and the Chicago White Sox have gotten better while the Indians ... have not. At the best, the Indians enter the season in full-on treading-water mode. At worst, they're headed for a pennant race. After their depressing showing in the division series last year, maybe that's not a bad thing.

The Indians will use over/under 24 relief pitchers in 2019.

Over: EVEN; Under: -120

Prediction: By just about every metric, the Indians' bullpen was awful in 2018. This obviously didn't go unnoticed by the front office as they did what any club with one of the five worst bullpens in the league would do: They let their two best relievers walk, "best" being a relative term for two guys who weren't actually very good, and took no meaningful steps to replace them. Of course, relief pitchers are mercurial beings who can go from terrible to unhittable in the course of one year. Last year, the Indians used 24 pitchers in hopes of finding more of the latter. This year looks to be marginally better, maybe, perhaps. It's a good thing they got their outfield problems settled ...

click to enlarge feature_photobykeithallison-flickrcc.jpg

The Indians will use over/under 24 outfielders in 2019.

Over: +800; Under: -1000

Prediction: Of course they won't use 24 outfielders this year. But it's very possible they might use, say, 12. When the Indians head north, they'll have more questions than answers in the outfield and, with the departure of Michael Brantley, no real anchor. Leonys Martin, who hasn't played in a regular season game since he almost died from a bacterial infection late last season, seems to be the closest thing to a lock as the starting center fielder. After Martin, it's pretty much name salad in the race for left field, right field and fourth outfielder. Will Greg Allen be able to hold down one of the corner spots, or will he need a platoon partner like Tyler Naquin? Does Carlos Gonzalez have anything left in the tank? Can Bradley Zimmer stay healthy for two weeks? Will Jake Bauers emerge as anything other than a guy who you can pencil in at the bottom of the order? Are we all talking about Oscar Mercado by June? Take the under, obviously, but holy shit, things could get ugly.

Jason Kipnis will return close enough to the best version of himself to get people to shut the fuck up.

Yes: -200; No: +175

Prediction: We love Kip, here at the Scene. We love his Instagram account. We love his annual year-end shoe toss. That's what made it so difficult to watch his struggles over the past two seasons. But we're banking on a Kip-aissance in 2019. We're banking on Kip-aissance becoming a word. We're banking on a Kip-aissance T-shirt. The team needs him to return to form as much as he does: This season he'll be playing for his next contract, which more than likely will come from someone other than the Indians. We only get to be Kipnisses for one more summer and we're all in. Has he ever let us down before?

Tyler Naquin will be the Indians' best outfielder in 2019. The Indians will still go to the playoffs.

Yes: -400; No: +330

Prediction: Fight us.

Veteran free agents Carlos Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez will appear in over/under 170 games, combined.

Over: -130; Under: +110

Prediction: The Indians have a pretty good track record of picking up useful players from baseball's Island of Misfit Toys. This year they managed to nab two former All-Stars who, stop me if you've heard this before, may or may not have anything left in the tank. If Gonzalez and Ramirez do combine to play north of 170 games this season, the Indians are probably in better shape than we thought.

There will be more Block 'C' hats than Chief Wahoo hats at Progressive Field this year.

Yes: EVEN; No: EVEN

Prediction: If you felt one way before the Indians retired Chief Wahoo, you probably feel the same way today. The debate will rage on. Team Wahoo will flaunt the chief loud and proud. Team Anything-But-Wahoo-But-the-Block-'C'-Is-Still-Kinda-Lame will continue to silently judge them until somewhere in the middle of their fourth beer, when they unwisely lift their self-imposed gag order.

Attendance for the second home game of the season will be over/under 10,000.

Over: +500; Under: -800

Prediction: The good news is that early forecasts for the Wednesday, April 3, afternoon game predict temperatures in the low 50s with no rain. The bad news is that literally nobody goes to Game 2. Ever. Great seats, as will likely be the case for most of the season, are still available.

The Indians won't sell out a single regular-season game after Opening Day.

Yes: -175; No: +155

Prediction: If it does happen, it will be the Friday, June 7, combination Sugardale Dollar Dog/fireworks night game against the Yankees. Also, this will be the single worst night at Progressive Field this season.

The Indians will average over/under 25,000 per game this season.

Over: +600; Under: -750

Prediction: The Indians averaged just under 23,000 last year. In 2017 — the season that followed a World Series appearance — they averaged a hair over 25,000. It was the only time when they finished north of 25,000 since 2008. Now, let's think about this for a minute: Historically, save for a few glorious seasons in the 1990s, April and May attendance at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario has been abysmal. There's no reason to assume that changes this year. What has changed is that there's palpable excitement surrounding the Cleveland Browns for the first time in two decades. And with training camp starting in July, that should be terrifying for the Tribe front office.

Trevor Bauer will hold a press conference to apologize for something he tweeted by July.

Yes: +500; No: -450

Prediction: It's not that Trevor Bauer won't say something that he should apologize for, it's that he's going to be loath to apologize. Factor in the safe bet that at some point the team will kindly and privately ask Bauer to stay the fuck off social media, and it's unlikely that the mercurial, opinionated pitcher will be saying sorry to anyone anytime soon. On the other hand, it's entirely possible that near the end of the season Trevor tells beat reporters that Cy Young voters shouldn't care about (insert whatever asinine conspiracy theory he defended on Twitter) and focus on his on-field performance when evaluating the award.

By the All Star Break, there will be a strong argument that Corey Kluber is the third-best pitcher in the rotation.

Yes: -200; No: +350

Prediction: Barring injury, Trevor Bauer will quickly and for the duration of the season lay claim to the top spot in the rotation. That much doesn't exactly qualify as a shocking forecast. The question is whether Carlos Carrasco can not only continue to be the Cookie we know and love but show why the Indians inked him to an offseason contract extenstion. Kluber will likely be quietly great, but there are a couple of reasons to think less so than in previous years. The team could and should take historical evidence of late-season fatigue and injuries into consideration in his usage, meaning more five- and six-inning outings, and one can't help but wonder what an entire off season of trade rumors does to him as he's watched almost all of his pals leave the clubhouse.

The Indians will actually make a legitimate trade-deadline move to improve the team.

Yes: EVEN; No: EVEN

Prediction: They're going to do something. They could, in a world in which they're safely atop the Central with no worries about the Twins nipping at their heels, take another look at moving Kluber or Bauer given their starting rotation depth and absolute lack of depth almost everywhere else. (The same could be said if things fall to shit and they go into sell-off mode but definitely billed as anything other than that.)

Danny Salazar will throw a single pitch in a regular season game for the Indians this year.

Yes: -250; NO: +400

Prediction: For the sake of the $4.5 million the team is spending on him this year, instead of spending it literally anywhere else after injury-riddled seasons from the right-hander, you hope so.

The Indians will host more than one home playoff game this year.

Yes: EVEN; No: EVEN

Prediction: It's probable that the Indians won't have the best or second-best record among the division winners. Just don't get swept, one could argue, and you'll see at least two home games and the resultant influx of cash into a team that is going to be desperate for it after what will likely be a below-average attendance season. Of course, we know how last year went, and if the bats go silent again, Tribe fans could easily walk into Progressive Field just once this post-season, and honestly, there's little reason to believe it'll be any more than that.

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