Channeling Cleveland

I’ve had the 2013 Clevelanders on my mind for quite some time, and PECOTA season has only emboldened my thoughts of Clevo’s improbable leap from 68 wins (on a 64 win run-dfferential) in 2012 to 94 wins and a 2013 Wild Card play-in on the strength of 90 Pythagorean wins. The Cleveland Nine are a fun comparison for Milwaukee fans, not simply because both municipalities are shrinking rust belt cities standing as mere ghosts of Twentieth Century industrialism, and not simply because both cities host baseball clubs that typically must stretch every last dollar. Cleveland exists in this bizarre sort of universe that might be shared with the Tampa Bay Rays, perhaps as the Rich Man’s Rays, not really winning now and not really rebuilding; it’s not even clear if they’re counterbuilding. Jack Moore reminded me of this while pointing out wondrous non-linear paths to contention. We might enter a new ideal into the vocabulary, calling Cleveland a #neverbuilding pioneer. Cleveland does not build, Cleveland survives, nothing but loyalty and audacity. So too, their ballclub.

Anyhow, in 2012 Cleveland was baaaaad. GM Chris Antonetti was working his second full season on the job, having taken over for the recently promoted President Mark Shapiro. What’s interesting, though, is that the club was bad at the beginning of a potential contending cycle, with a group of players that were not really prospects but not necessarily established MLB players yet. Here I’m thinking of Jason Kipnis (then 25), Michael Brantley (25), Ezequiel Carrera (25), Jeanmar Gomez (24), Zach McAllister (24 — okay, he was a rookie), and Lonnie Baseball (23). 26-year old Carlos Santana was practically an established veteran, and 29-year old Shin-Soo Choo was positively ancient by comparison. 26-year old Corey Kluber wouldn’t be in the plans until August. The rotation found its leaders in Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez, two prime-age sinkerball righties still trying to find their respective identities (or, mechanics and command). Although I take that back; I saw Justin Masterson pitch at Progressive Field during his incredible no-off-speed stretch during the 2011 season, and it’s fair to say that amazing feat clearly established Masterson as a hard true-sinker lifer.

What leaps off the page is that fact that the Cleveland farm system was not necessarily renowned as a phenomenal depth of elite talent, and there was not necessarily a star on the big league roster either. Entering 2011, BP ranked the system within the Top 10 due to “few stars, crazy depth,” but by 2012 the system was in the bottom third of the league: “Maybe the most fascinating system in the game as they are loaded with toolsy Latin American kids who have yet to play a full-season. Explosive potential, but also the risk of it all turning into nothing” (headed by Francisco Lindor). Even some of the players that we’ve come to know as stars or everyday regulars (such as Michael Brantley or Corey Kluber) were not regarded as such as prospects; Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana might be the closest fit to that mold, and Lonnie Baseball arguably missed his prospect “hype” by that measure. So, the point here is not necessarily that Cleveland had a bad system, but perhaps a system that was “just deep” or “just volatile” and not necessarily on the verge of producing a gang of bona fide stars.

In almost every way, the 2012 Cleveland Nine were finding their respective footing. It’s fun to look back at this, because we know that Lonnie Baseball endured long enough to hit a dope postseason homer a handful of years later, or that Jason Kipnis indeed morphed into a strong bat, Michael Brantley entered the PTBNL Hall of Fame, and Corey Kluber would morph from organizational depth to pure ace. I swear, I’ve checked five times already, Kluber did not enter the BP Top 20 in the Cleveland system prior to 2011 or 2012, despite a ceiling that had 25.0 WARP in there somewhere.

Each of these players would become crucial components of the 2013 improvement:

  • Kluber was suddenly worth 4.0 WARP in his first full season.
  • Ubaldo Jimenez turned 6.29 DRA into 2.84 DRA to threaten 5.0 WARP. Justin Masterson bested him by going 2.34 DRA.
  • Zach McAllister went in the opposite direction, improving his runs prevention despite a 5.48 DRA.
  • The less-established bats turned in modest improvements, and where they did not improve they did not really, truly bomb.
  • Rookie Danny Salazar and newcomer Yan Gomes absolutely stormed the scene (6.5 aggregate WARP!).
  • The bullpen itself was not great at the back end, but featured some guys named Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen that were building up their resumes to eventually star in a Pennant Winning Lockdown Pen.

When you can’t afford to spend your way out of (or through) a rebuild like the Cubs (or Dodgers), this type of ballclub is the next best thing. Cleveland rode a fluctuating farm system, trusting their own guys when external observers did not necessarily see surefire prospects, or even trusting their own guys when top system prospects turned into middle-of-the-road regulars. Better yet, this was a club without a top rated pedigree that improved as a unit of players that were relatively unestablished and ready to forge an identity. Neverbuilding, nothing but loyalty and audacity.

For what it’s worth, PECOTA had Cleveland slated to go 80-82 and finish second in the 2013 American League Central (BP got the second place correct!). It should not be surprising that I’m going to point out that the 2017 Brewers’ PECOTA rank of 76 wins is not terribly different from a middling 80 win expectation, nor are the expectations for these Brewers: Ryan Braun is the only star. There are a group of mediocre right-handed pitchers that need to make a name for themselves in 2017 (although Wily Peralta already flashed signs that he was ready to do so at the end of 2016). The top of the rotation is a whole bunch of nothing, what between a CSAA-genius like Zach Davies and Best-Splitter-In-Baseball Junior Guerra. Even the position players kind of look unassuming, with some luster-wearing-off sluggers like Domingo Santana, a glove-first shortstop, and this aggressive set of burners like Jonathan Villar, Hernan Perez, and Keon Broxton (to name a few).

Not unlike the 2013 Cleveland Nine, though, these guys are playing for their careers. They are playing to fight for roles, or to establish a brand of play at the game’s highest level. This is the very best type of team to watch, and I say that knowing full well a 76-win PECOTA could turn into 71 wins on the field with this group. That would not necessarily be a terrible outcome depending upon the development strides made on the club.

But in the age of the “tank,” where fans clamor to give their money to owners ready to field terrible teams for several years while sitting on piles of revenue, it’s good to remember that sometimes a 68-win club is a 94-win club; you just weren’t seeing it the right way that first time around. In the non-linear reality of player development and hunting for careers, there is no stopping a gang of nobodies with speed to burn everyone in their paths. If that aggression forges the right path, perhaps Jon Lester’s yips will get to make a playoff start against Villar and the gang that nobody but Cleveland saw coming.

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