Cleveland found itself in an enviable position this offseason. It was not guaranteed to cruise to a fourth straight division title, because no one ever is, but it was close enough. The AL Central looked very clearly like the weakest division in baseball; Cleveland looked, similarly clearly, like its best team.
In this situation, a front office has one central choice to make. It’s a question of logistics, and of philosophy, too—is the team’s relative security a reason to get better, or is it an opportunity to get worse? If a club is a heavy favorite to win its division, you can see the motivation to build up for regular-season dominance and postseason success, or you can see the chance to strip back without any potentially serious consequences.
Cleveland, of course, chose the latter. It did not replace any of its departing free agents. It did not fix the positions that had previously stood out as problem areas. It reportedly entertained the idea of trading the team’s ace, Corey Kluber. And it did it all because it could afford to. Cleveland still entered the season as the favorite to win the AL Central—not as comfortable a favorite as it had been the previous year, not as comfortable a favorite as it could have been, but, nonetheless, a favorite.
Cleveland’s approach came with a thin margin for error, or injury, or other misfortune. Immediately, it had to reckon with this—a rolled ankle for shortstop Francisco Lindor, a serious slump for third baseman José Ramírez. Cleveland’s offense began the season as the worst in baseball and is still the worst in the American League, with a 69 OPS+. Still, this could reasonably be viewed as concerning but not debilitating. Cleveland’s crown jewel had always been its rotation, with everything else built around it. And yet soon this, too, began to show cracks. Kluber didn’t look quite like himself. Carlos Carrasco definitely didn’t look like himself. Mike Clevinger was sidelined with a strained back muscle.
It was bad luck, a lot of bad luck, in a highly concentrated dose. It’s not the sort of thing that a team can readily prevent. But it is the sort of thing a team can prepare for—with depth, with strategy, with roster construction—and Cleveland had left itself especially vulnerable to it. In the first month of the season, the club’s playoff odds dropped from 95% to 85%. Of course, this hardly represents a team in freefall. It does, however, represent a team watching all-but-guaranteed success gradually become otherwise. Minnesota, its main division threat, had been performing better than expected. And Cleveland had been doing the opposite.
This was the situation before Wednesday—before Kluber, in his seventh start of the season, was struck by a comebacker to the mound, fracturing his arm.
There’s no timetable yet for Kluber’s return, but it’s very likely a serious blow to one of baseball’s most consistent starters: 200 innings or more in each of the last five seasons, making him one of only two pitchers to cross the threshold of 1,000 IP from 2014 through 2018. And Kluber’s been remarkable not just for his durability, of course, but his quality, too. Since 2014, he’s ranked in baseball’s top five for ERA, FIP, WAR, and K/BB, among other statistics. He has, in other words, a very good case for having been the best pitcher in the American League. His struggles so far this season were real—problems with walks and home runs that he’d never before shown—but they did not appear insurmountable. Beyond that, though, Cleveland could not afford to lose Kluber in any condition, and now it has.
Kluber’s injury does not signal the end of Cleveland’s season. Ultimately, it might mean very little. However, it does, if nothing else, signal the limitations of a strategy built on the most a team can get away with, rather than the most it can achieve. A Corey Kluber injury was always going to hurt. But it didn’t have to strike this deep.