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How the Indians can avoid losing 100 games in 2018

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I know it sounds improbable, but hear me out.

Divisional Round - New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians - Game Five Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Sure, the Cleveland Indians won 102 games last year, and sure they’re two years removed from an injury-plagued run to the World Series with most of the same core intact. But ask some Indians fans about the offseason and you’d think they’re preparing to slapfight the Kansas City Royals for the top basement dweller in the American League Central.

Well, concerned Indians fan, I’m here to tell you it can be done. Through miracles and some blind luck, I do believe the Indians — one of the most complete teams in all of baseball — can manage to avoid losing 100 games for the first time in almost 30 years despite what you might be reading on Twitter.

Here are some ways it can be done, with the help of the 2018 ZiPS projections.

Any number of bullpen arms can be serviceable while Andrew Miller dominates an inning every few nights

Losing Bryan Shaw sucks, and it sucks even more if you’re one of those weird fans who actually understands that he was more than his bad outings. In fact, he actually had a few (I’ll go out on a limb and say quite a few) pretty good outings in his five years as Terry Francona’s pale horse. According to FanGraphs’ Steamer projections, Shaw is expected to carry a 3.92 ERA over 65 innings in 2018. Can anyone in the Indians bullpen manage to cover that? Anyone?

Maybe Dan Otero or Nick Goody, who have combined to quietly be great relievers for the Indians over the last two seasons (in Otero’s case) and last season (in Goody’s case), can manage to protect around 70 precious innings of baseball. In the meantime, ZiPS projects Andrew Miller to have a 2.08 ERA in 2018, the best among any pitcher on the Indians staff, followed closely by Cody Allen’s 2.91 ERA and Zach McAllister’s surprising 3.17.

In the same vein as Otero and Goody, the Indians also have their next potential project arm in Alexi Ogando, who ZiPS projects to have a 4.40 ERA over 45.0 innings.

That guy they signed could do something good

In an offseason where it seems like every club is sitting on their hands waiting for someone else to do something, the Indians went out and did something to try and plug the gap left by Carlos Santana. Yonder Alonso is no direct replacement for Santana, of course, but he’s coming off a season where he made a very distinct change in his game by swinging up and hitting more balls in the air. It resulted in a career-high 28 home runs. Not only is that a career high, but it’s a full 19 dingers more than anything he’s ever done before.

Granted, a lot of his 132 wRC+ was set up by an absolutely outstanding first half of the season and he tapered in the second, but he’s one of the more intriguing bats of the relatively weak free agency class and the Indians went out and got him. ZiPS fully buys into his newfound home run power, projecting 24 home runs and a 120 wRC+, the third-highest projection behind Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Ramirez.

The combination of Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor can combine to be anywhere from an average-infield to the best infield in Major League Baseball

Last season, Lindor and Ramirez combined for 12.5 fWAR, the best third base-shortstop combination in the league. Can they do it again? Or can they regress 50 percent or more and still be one of the better left sides of the infield in all of baseball? It’s a hard obstacle for the Indians to overcome, but if they can manage to keep two players with multiple seasons of superstar level talent at above-average levels they might be okay.

ZiPS leans slightly towards the latter, only pegging Lindor for a 118 wRC+ and Jose for a 122 wRC+, but both with more than 20 home runs. Throw in their defense, though, and the former is slated to be worth around 6.0 fWAR, with the latter adding 5 fWAR. The kids are gonna be alright.

The pitching staff can do anything but explode into a million tiny pieces and be fed to Slider in a sick ritual sacrifice

The Indians have at least two Cy Young contenders on their starting pitching staff in Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco; maybe three if you want to get really whimsical and optimistic and pretend Trevor Bauer’s tinkering will lead to a huge breakout in 2018. Even if it doesn’t, the two aces remain atop the Tribe rotation, and ZiPS projects them to be stellar in 2018.

Kluber is given a ho-hum comp of some guy named Greg Maddux in the latest projections, while Carrasco draws comparisons to Doug Drabek. If that isn’t the epitome of a Not Bad 1-2 punch I don’t know what is. Carrasco has steadily been a pitcher with an ERA in the mid- to low-3.00s and 2018 won’t be any difference according to the robots. ZiPS has him at a 3.19 ERA, which would be the second-lowest of his career.

Even getting past those two, ZiPS loves the entire pitching staff. Bauer and Danny Salazar are projected to be worth 3 fWAR each. Though Clevinger’s 1 fWAR projection is a drop from last year’s win total, ZiPS still has him striking out a quarter of his opponents; it’s just not a believer in his ability to avoid walking a ton of batters. Which is fair.

Can the Indians actually win with such a rotation, or are they destined to be fed to the ever-hungry mascot, Slider? It remains to be seen.

Bradley Zimmer can dig deep and find it in himself to run really fast

Bradley Zimmer is fast. One of the fastest in the league to be exact (no matter what shady Twitter polls will try and tell you), and if he can manage to keep pumping those spindly monsters attached to his torso at a quarter of the speed of light I believe the Indians have themselves a shutdown center fielder for the entire season. Do the 25 stolen bases that ZiPS projects him to have help? Probably.

The loss of 30-year-old field outfielder Austin Jackson doesn’t come back to ruin them

Last year, while platooning and only playing in the most advantageous situations possible, 30-year-old Austin Jackson had his best purely offensive season since 2012. The laws of baseball state that any player over 30 is guaranteed to repeat a great outlier season, so it was a little surprising to see the Indians let him walk to the West Coast (and boy are his legs tired) to join the San Francisco Giants. But somehow I think they can live.

If they do lose 100 games, though, you can point directly to them not bringing back a guy who had 318 plate appearances in 2017 as the reason why.

Yan Gomes can hit a ball past the pitcher’s mound once every few weeks

Catcher defensive numbers still aren’t all there yet, but all you need is the good ‘ole eye test and some Twitter memes to know that Yanathan “Don’t Run on Him” Gomes is a great defensive catcher. So great that it’s enough to occasionally mask the fact that he hasn’t been an average offensive player for the better part of three seasons.

Gomes doesn’t need to be a Silver Slugger again, though. Unlike the 2014 Indians, there is plenty of young firepower to go around on this team. If he can manage the pitching staff well and, maybe, just maybe squirt a ball past the pitcher’s mound once every cycle of the moon, the Indians have a shot at avoiding 100 losses. If not, maybe the backup catcher also capable of great defense and an unparalleled level of patience at the plate can take over. Or maybe the top overall catching prospect in baseball poised to sweep the league can get his shot. It’s not much, granted, but it’s something.

Maybe just do what they did last year but not blow it in the playoffs

I’m just spitballing here, but maybe the same core group of players, minus one-and-a-half relievers, a great first baseman, and Austin Jackson can manage to win a few games in the weakest division ever and enter the pure random number generator that is the MLB playoffs.

Nah, that’s crazy. Dolans should sell the team.