Let's limit our horizons for a minute and look at a small part of what makes a World Series champion, the actual players. Of course, largely important are luck, injuries, competition and other factors, but for the moment, let's put all those aside just to compare next year's Indians roster with some of the most successful teams of the past. We'll be using what are essentially the six best seasons in team history, based on end results, 1920, 1948, 1954, 1995, 1997 and 2007. Of those years, the Indians won the World Series in the first two, lost it in the next three and lost in the ALCS in 2007.
Breaking down the regular players, we will look at each team position by position including ace, the rest of the starting rotation, back end of the of the bullpen, middle infield, corner infield, catcher, slugger and lead-off hitter. Not considered are essentially the worst outfielder, the bench or those pitchers who are used as spot starters and in a mop up role in the bullpen. In general these are essentially replacement level players and are constantly changed throughout a season so they are not worth evaluating. Since the stats for 2014 are still unknown, a three year weighted average will be used to compare all players, showing what the former players were exected to do in their great season, not what they actually did. This may take awhile, so get comfortable.
Ace & Rotation
Compared to every other position evaluated for the 2014 season, these are by far the worst. First, compared to some of the aces of the past, specifically Stan Coveleski (1920), Bob Feller (1948) and Early Wynn (1954), who are all Hall of Famers, Justin Masterson just doesn't stack up. Using the projection, he is expected to have an ERA of 3.93, more than 0.20 higher than any other ace evaluated. The next two worst aces were both Charles Nagy in 1995 and 1997. While the game has changed to become more offensive, there are still pitchers with sub-3.00 ERAs, but they don't play for the Indians. We have already seen what happened when the Indians went into a World Series with an ace on the level of Nagy and it wasn't pretty.
The rest of the rotation (only considering two through four because in the play-offs the fifth pitcher isn't used), fares similarly in comparison. The Indians have had some deadly rotations in the past, including the 1920 staff of Jim Bagby, Sr, Ray Caldwell and Guy Morton and the 1995 staff of Dennis Martinez, Orel Hershiser and Mark Clark. This is possibly the single most important part of the team, because without a strong middle of the rotation, it is almost impossible to get to the play-offs in the first place. This year, Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar and Zach McAllister are slated to be the starters and the biggest problem is age.
Only two rookies have been used in this place in the years analyzed, Gene Bearden in 1948 and Bartolo Colon in 1997, and Salazar is set to be the third. Kluber will be entering just his third full season and McAllister just his fourth, a far cry from the 1954 rotation that starred veteran Bobs Lemon and Feller, who were both destined for the Hall of Fame.
A significantly less important part of the pitching staff, filled mostly with rookie starters in the first three years analyzed, the relief staff has evolved to become and integral part of the game. Unlike the starters, six rookies have made their debut seasons as one of the top three relievers on a World Series caliber team. In this case, the 2014 squad actually has more experience than most with Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Vinnie Pestano expected to be the most used out of the bullpen. Comparing WAR, only the 1997 relief corps was better, with superstar closer Jose Mesa and set-up men Eric Plunk and Mike Jackson. This should be a plus going into next season, but won't be enough to actually win games, just keep them won.
Catcher is probably the biggest positive for the 2014 when compared to the other seasons and that only includes Carlos Santana and not his better than average back-up, Yan Gomes. Santana is expected to hit more home runs and walk more than any other catcher evaluated while playing in more games and slugging more than anyone but Victor Martinez in 2007. While Santana may not catch everyday, he will play everyday, so his offensive contribution will be there one way or another.
Some of the greatest hitters in Indians history were corner infielders and they coincided with the great seasons evaluated. Al Rosen won the MVP the year before the World Series appearance in 1954 and Jim Thome was analyzed twice, as a third baseman in 1995 and a first baseman in 1997. Next season does not look like one of those years. With Nick Swisher at first and Lonnie Chisenhall at third, the Indians will have less power at the corners than almost any other season. The expected .250 average is also the worst among years considered. Luckily, both hitters had sub-par years in 2013, so they should be expected to be at least slightly improved in 2014, but the Indians offense will have to succeed in spite of the corner infield spots instead of because of them.
If Santana was considered the first baseman, with Swisher at DH and Gomes catching, the situation would look a little better, but the Indians still don't have a player who can hit more than 30 home runs, something the two players already listed, Vic Wertz (1954) and Matt Williams (1997) could have produced in any good season.
The Indians last World Series win featured one of the best offensive middle infields of all time anywhere with two Hall of Famers, Lou Boudreau and Joe Gordon playing up the middle. While most of the positions listed are primarily important offensively, short stop and second base are more important defensively. The Indians have posted plenty of successful defensive pairs as well, including Ray Chapman (succeeded by Joe Sewell) and Bill Wambsganss in 1920 and Omar Vizquel with Carlos Baerga in 1995.
In 2014, the Indians have Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis slated to play up the middle. This duo ranks somewhere between Jhonny Peralta and Josh Barfield (2007) and Gordon and Boudreau. In general, both are average defensively and above average offensively, with Kipnis being better than Cabrera on both accounts. Of course, there is no guarantee to Cabrera even being on the Indians once the season begins or after the trading deadline. It is possible he could be replaced by Francisco Lindor mid-season like Chapman was with Sewell (although hopefully Cabrera will not have to die for this to happen). Lindor is vastly superior defensively already than Cabrera, but may never have his offensive prowess. Either way, this pair is more than good enough for consideration.
Lead-Off Hitter & Slugger
Rather than look at the entire outfield and designated hitter, we will just take the top two of those four players. In general, the team's best power hitter and best speed player were considered, but since the 2014 team does not have a power hitter, two speed players were used. The early World Series contenders didn't have very good speed players (after Tris Speaker in 1920), and won despite of it. Interestingly enough, the best lead-off hitter of those compared was Grady Sizemore in 2007. Michael Bourn then ranks somewhere between Marquis Grissom (1997) and Kenny Lofton (1995). While he is aging, he still plays above average defense and can steal a base or two. In short, the Indians could do much worse in center field.
As said, there are no power hitters on the 2014 Indians. Of the players considered, none have been expected to hit less than ten home runs since 1948 (which is an unfair consideration because nobody knew what a rookie Larry Doby would produce), but Michael Brantley is expected to hit just eight next season. Doby powered the Indians offense in both 1948 and 1954 and Albert Belle did the same thing in 1995. Even in 2007, the Indians had Travis Hafner who was expected to hit 37 home runs and slug .628.
The weakness in the corner infield has already been mentioned, but the Indians have dealt with that in the past. No modern (since the 1940's) Indians team has ever won without a certified power hitter in left field or at DH. This may be a coincidence due to the limited experiences, but there may be something to it as well. The Indians had no great power hitters from Rosen through the 1990's when the had Belle, Manny Ramirez and Thome. They also didn't win more than 85 games from 1960 through 1994. While there are plenty of other circumstances, having a player who can blast 40 or more home runs a year doesn't guarantee a play-off birth, but it certainly doesn't hurt and can go a long way into bringing a team there.
Overall, based on the player comparisons, the 2014 Indians are not that far off from the great teams in the past. Kipnis, Cabrera, Santana, Bourn and the bullpen are all above average even when considered against the greatest Indians teams of all time. The problem areas should be no surprise. It is why, in 2012, the Indians signed Brett Myers, Scott Kazmir and Daisuke Matsuzaka in an attempt to find the next Orel Hershiser or Dennis Martinez. It is why they signed Mark Reynolds and Nick Swisher in an attempt to get a year or two of 30+ home runs. None of those moves have worked out to this point, but Chris Antonetti will keep trying to build a contender on a budget.
The best part of the current team is that the main pieces will be together through 2016. While Salazar is just a rookie now, by the end of this run, he could be considered an ace. Not even on the map yet, Lindor could be the defensive star the Indians need at short stop and Jesus Aguilar could be the next 40+ home run slugger. This means that while the current roster doesn't stack up great against the winners of the past, if we run this analysis for the 2015 season, things will almost certainly look even better. With such a large window open as far as players are concerned, it will give the Indians plenty of time to work out the other variables (luck, competition, etc) and finally get back to the World Series. After all, that should be the Indians only goal until they do.