Indians adding to baseball’s imbalance of power – ABC News

Many of the most exciting stories in baseball are tales of the underdog. The Amazin’ Mets of 1969 not only overcame a large Cubs lead in the standings, it was also their first good season ever and one that few saw coming. The 1991 Worst-to-First World Series between the Braves and Twins is still remembered on that basis (and for the Jack Morris/ John Smoltz showdown).

What made 2016 different from the typical season was that there literally were no Cinderella teams. The Chicago Cubs winning their first World Series since 1908 was the big story — the last time they won a World Series, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were alive and Austria had an emperor — but this wasn’t exactly a tale of shocking victory, but of the favorite winning.

To a large degree in 2016, the teams that were expected to be good were good, the teams that were expected to be lousy were lousy, and the teams expected to be in the middle were in the middle. The ZiPS projection system projected 11 teams to finish below .500 in 2016 and all 11 proceeded to do just that. On an overall basis, ZiPS missed the average team by 5.2 wins, the smallest margin for ZiPS ever. And while it would be tempting to say this is because ZiPS was just super amazing in 2016, Vegas also did better than usual, missing in the over/under lines by 5.7 wins a team.

Already, 2017 as a season is shaping up to look a lot like 2016. This was further cemented by the Cleveland Indians‘ signing of  Edwin Encarnacion as their Mike Napoli replacement in the lineup, jumping Cleveland to a six-game AL Central lead in the very preliminary 2017 standings projections. Napoli hit a lot of home runs in 2016, setting a career mark with 34. The problem with that was home runs across the board went way up, and Napoli’s 104 OPS+ in 2016 was actually the second-worst of his career, well off his 120 OPS+ career mark. Encarnacion, on the other hand, is a legitimate offensive force beyond the home runs he hits, and projects to about three wins better than Napoli in 2017, constituting a clear upgrade for the Indians.

Does this move catch the Indians up to the Red Sox? Not quite, but we’re getting there; the Red Sox’s preliminary projection has moved up to 95 wins following the acquisition of  Chris Sale, with the Indians now standing at 91 wins. That’s actually enough to give the Indians a slightly easier shot at a divisional title, though — 63 percent over Boston’s 60 percent likelihood as of Dec. 26, by virtue of playing in a weaker division. Fair or not, Cleveland doesn’t actually have to be as good as Boston does to make a return trip to the World Series.

Coming into the 2016 season, ZiPS gave only one projected division winner a mean projection that was at least five wins better than the next best team — the Cubs over the St. Louis Cardinals. On a preliminary basis, ZiPS projects five division winners at this level for 2017: the Red Sox, Indians, Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers, all first-place teams in 2016. And even though ZiPS projects the Astros as ahead of the Rangers right now, Texas — the missing first-place team from the previous sentence — is also pegged as having a better overall roster than it did last season.

• The Red Sox lost a few relievers but also picked up a significant one in Tyler Thornburg. They also added a relentless pitching machine in Sale, who goes into the season as one of the AL Cy Young favorites.

• Cleveland swaps Encarnacion for Napoli, returning most of the same team that came close to winning the World Series, and gets a full season of Andrew Miller.

• The Rangers lose  Ian Desmond, but they do get a full year of Jonathan Lucroy and fewer reasons to be concerned about Yu Darvish. Also,  Carlos Gomez is still likely to be roughly league-average overall.

• The Nats return all of their significant 2016 contributors except for Wilson Ramos, but have added Derek Norris to take his place. While they’ll likely lose wins in the long term, adding Adam Eaton to their lineup makes them a better team in 2017. And even if Trea Turner regresses somewhat, they get a whole season of him rather than a partial one.

• Right now, the Cubs are projected at 99 wins, which would be the most wins ZiPS has ever projected as a mean for a team coming into a season (going back to 2003), besting the 2005 St. Louis Cardinals at 98 projected wins.

Remember those 11 teams projected to finish below .500 in 2016? Not only did they all accomplish that feat last season, all 11 are projected right now as more likely than not to do it again.

You might think you read a lot about teams tanking in 2016, but get ready to read about this phenomenon even more in 2017. Why? Because it actually works. One of the changes we’ve seen in recent years is the increasing convergence of general outlook from baseball’s front offices. We are now well into the Evidence Era of baseball management. And when faced with the same facts, most teams in baseball have come to the conclusion that very few clubs with long-term success got that way by treading water.

Mediocrity is baseball’s most dangerous trap. For bad teams, the goal of rebuilding but still putting a mildly competitive team on the field usually just delays the hard decisions that would help push the franchise toward sunnier days. As team after team has shown, winning 78 games instead of 68 games doesn’t even keep fans in the seats.

One unanswered question is: What does this mean for the long-term competitive balance of baseball? The boom-or-bust cycle isn’t some unexpected side effect of some short-term rule change, but the natural consequence of teams acting in their own best interests. There are plenty of draconian measures that could change the basic structure of how teams compete, such as minimum salaries or a draft lottery, but you also have to remember some of those aforementioned unexpected side effects can come into play with large-scale changes. For example, the tank-and-rebuild strategy is how lower-revenue teams such as the Rays and Pirates have competed in recent years. By dealing with tanking, it’s going to be very hard to not simply magnify the financial advantages that teams like the Yankees and Dodgers enjoy.

And for good teams, the change in playoff structure that began in 2012 also makes being a “regular” good team much less enticing. Home-field advantage is far weaker in baseball compared to other sports, so getting to the playoffs via the wild-card spot rather than by winning the division was a very minor penalty. But now that you have that extra coin flip of a play-in game to the “real” playoffs, the marginal value of the 98th win compared to that 93rd win doesn’t look so disappointing.

Eventually, some of the teams currently tanking will upset the current order of things as their long-term planning bears fruit and some of the great teams eventually see the consequences of their emphasis on the now. But 2017 doesn’t look to be that year. So if you were a big fan of the 2016 season, strap in, because here comes another one.

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