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Indians’ AL Central hopes relied on a margin of error that was never there

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The Indians were relying on a large margin of error to carry them to another AL Central title — it clearly wasn’t there

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Cleveland Indians Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

This is what the Cleveland Indians paid for.

At least one of Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff will likely have to be out of the organization before we know exactly what orders were handed down from their bosses prior to the winter of 2018-19. What ensued from then on was probably the best the pair could do under the circumstances.

They dealt from perceived positions of strength in order to lessen their load in the present, while gathering more controllable talent for the future. Reshuffling the decks, hoping they weren’t deck chairs on the Titanic.

If money truly bought World Series titles, the Indians would not bother to play the game. Depending on who you ask, they already do not try, but the proof of the process was already in the proverbial pudding.

With the evolving of the Information Age in baseball, the playing fields in the game were leveled to a degree. But he with the most resources will always have a way to create ripples.

What money does buy in 2019 is margin for error. For the Indians, that margin shrunk on both sides in the last calendar year.

A conversation can be had about the Minnesota Twins’ part in that. Led by a former arm of the Antonetti-Chernoff firm, and his appointed analytics-driven manager, the division champion-elect have seen a near-20 game swing while the lame duck and their old-school manager may actually replicate their 2018 mark. A classic conundrum in which tangible results from Rocco Baldelli are measured against the largely “not-on-paper” influence of Terry Francona.

If you use the Indians’ ill fortunes to justify the skill of their future-Hall of Fame manager, knock yourself out. A number of teams do not employ 14.9 WAR on their entire pitching staffs, let alone lose 400 innings of the three men who produced it due to injuries and Leukemia.

Whether you view Baldelli’s emergence and influence as the reason the 90-win Indians do not win the division, or Francona’s seemingly outdated tactics as the reason they didn’t reach their potential, it is still difficult to nail down a top-5 list of negative circumstances.

The trouble with the argument against Francona is that his team still may reach the post-season. All of the Tribe’s bunting has only lost them about half a game, according to the Academy of Bunting Sciences, so you can’t just make up a five-game deficit there.

The idea that the deficit between the Indians and Twins is still so small may be the actual issue. While the entire fan-base is nitpicking their favorite reason that their team has scuffled, the team has faced a seemingly unprecedented run of bad luck in 2019.

Some of that bad luck has been recovered along the way. The trio of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger were projected to earn somewhere between 11 to 12.5 WAR, while injury and illness have limited them to 5.2 as of Thursday. Luckily, Aaron Civale has out-performed his full-season projection by one to two wins, not to mention Shane Bieber’s one-to-three win breakout.

Pitching was a known commodity, and though the front office knew they had some margin for error thanks to an elite staff, no one could predict how much.

It was obvious that the Indians needed help in the lineup after the departure of Michael Brantley, but after no trade of Kluber or Trevor Bauer materialized in the off-season, they sat with their deficit until Bauer was dealt at the deadline.

Offensively, Carlos Santana and Roberto Pérez have outperformed what was expected from them. Jordan Luplow and Oscar Mercado have been relative bright spots in limited time. As six of the top eight position players in the team by WAR, the quartet has generated 7.8 wins above their ZiPS projections.

Contrarily, José Ramírez is set to miss his ZiPS projection by about 3.6 wins, and even Francisco Lindor is not on pace to hit his 6.9 projection (currently at 4.4).

Comparing projected WAR to actual WAR marks is no way to accurately interpret success, as much as it is to say that output can be pretty volatile either way. Although, generally one would trade a few marginal improvements from role-players to offset massive drop-offs from their stars.

This is where those pesky dollars come back.

For the two American League powerhouses, those extra bucks have provided security. For the Houston Astros, it was the difference of rerouting money from their gluttony of pitching into a modest contract for Brantley, as opposed to promoting a Greg Allen or Mercado and hoping they stick.

For the New York Yankees, it was the difference between replacing Giancarlo Stanton with Edwin Encarnacíon, and Didi Gregorious with DJ LeMahieu as opposed to replacing them both with Mike Freeman.

It is easy to look at the Indians as currently constructed and say that simply having Michael Brantley could have won them the division despite all their downfalls. That much is at least feasible, considering they still carried those expectations without him.

Without he (Brantley is the only free agent loss that works in this thought experiment) or any other notable free agent addition, not many teams would have been able to withstand the storm of ailments and regressions that the Indians did in 2019. Throw in a complete, almost unsustainable resurgence of a divisional rival, and they may never had stood a chance.

Except they did, and they still do.

Indians fans were sold their club’s margin for error as a reason for optimism and comfort, providing the cushion for a retooling. Instead, the actual margin of error was miscalculated slightly, and now they’re on the outside looking in.