The end of July is fast approaching, which means the Indians and Chris Antonetti are once again embroiled in boatloads of trade speculation. We’ve gone through years where we were clearly “sellers” (2008 and 2009) and years in which we ostensibly found ourselves “buying” (2011). There’ve been relative hits and misses along the way, but regardless of the strategy that a given season has dictated, it’s become fairly clear that our front office views the July 31st trade deadline as a prime opportunity to impart its vision and direction on the franchise.
Perhaps more than any team in baseball, ours has been shaped by trades. Consider this: Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, Ubaldo Jimenez, Zach McAllister, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Chris Perez, Joe Smith, Asdrubal Cabera, Mike Aviles, Michael Brantley, Drew Stubbs, Carlos Santana and Yan Gomes were all acquired on the trade market. That’s five competent-ish starting pitchers, a closer, a setup man, two above average catchers, an All-Star shortstop, two serviceable everyday corner outfielders and a quality utility guy. I’m not going to check this, but I’d be surprised if you could find another Big League roster so littered with trade acquisitions. 1
But this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, and as the rumors start to heat up, once again we’re left worrying about what my get traded away or getting excited by what might be coming our way. Rather than getting overly specific—I just don’t have the time or energy to track down every rumor—let’s talk in broad strokes here. As I see it, there appear to be something like four strategies that are currently available to the Indians’ braintrust. Bear with me as I get some thoughts down on each.
Acquire a premiere starting pitcher, likely requiring a significant trade chip in return. I believe I made this point before the season started, but it might bear repeating: it’s quite possible that the Tigers have four starting pitchers who are better than the Indians nominal ace.2 Let us for the moment assume that it’s somewhat unlikely for one of the wild cards to come out of the AL Central; it seems rather bringing-a-knife-to-a-gun-fight to leave this intra-divisional disparity unaddressed, no? It’s quite likely that, given the current standings, we’re going to have to beat Detroit to make the playoffs. Is this the rotation to do that? There’s certainly adequate depth in the system, along with a few nice surprises. But you don’t see a lot of teams make the playoffs without an ace—someone who strikes out at least a guy an inning, consistently limits walks, and posts an ERA below 3.50.3 Shouldn’t we try to get one of those then?
The problem with this strategy has nothing to do with need: the Indians—along with pretty much every team in baseball—would like to acquire a great starting pitcher. The problem lies in the details. First, are we even sure there is a great starter available this year? The Cubs’ Matt Garza, despite his fairly recent success, feels far more like a 2 than a 1 to me—career ERA+ just 9% better than league average, 7.6 K/9 against 3.0 BB/9 with a very average HR-allowed rate (1.0 HR/9). Same goes for Jake Peavy, who was once quite clearly an ace, but now seems a shell of his former self with a 4.30 ERA, some recurring arm issues, and new-found penchant for allowing home runs. Cliff Lee is probably still a true ace, but he’s owed a gajillion dollars until he’s roughly a thousand years old4, and oh yeah, he has a no-trade clause with twenty teams on it.
I guess I’m just not sure that the right pitcher is out there, and even if he were, it would probably take either Fransisco Lindor or Danny Salazar to pry him away. For a team whose lifeblood is necessarily young players, you have to be extra sure that when you trade prospects for a current MLB player that you win the deal. And for a team who is still living with the scars of the Ubaldo Jimenez acquisition, you could argue that some additional caution might be warranted. Just imagine if Pomeranz and White turned out to be good!
Play at the margins and improve the bullpen. Outside of a few particular scenarios (I’ll discuss one below), whenever a team acquires Major League talent at the trade deadline they do it in exchange for minor league players. This is because teams that are “selling” Major Leaguers are out of the Divisional races—likely because they stink at playing baseball. The manner in which they hope to improve at playing baseball is to replenish their farm systems with young talent. They do this by selling off their few major league assets (“few” because they stink at baseball, remember?) for as many young lottery tickets as they can.
I outline this rather obvious and jejune system only to make the point that even a small major league improvement will likely cost a prospect—low-leveled though he may be. No team wants to give away their left-handed specialist for nothing5, and lots of teams with a shot to make the playoffs want to acquire these types bullpen improvements. The supply and demand requires that the sellers will be well-compensated.
What does any of this mean for the Indians? Well, for one, a desire to improve one’s bullpen is a pretty common theme among playoff-contenders, so if we’re trying to acquire a known commodity, we might have to win a bidding war by parting with someone you’ve actually heard of (Ronny Rodriguez, maybe? CC Lee?). Second, simply by playing in this market, you’re acknowledging that you have failed to turn what are largely fungible assets into an effective bullpen. Personally, I’m not a big fan of giving up much of value for middle relievers if only because I think you can find effective-ish middle-relievers growing on trees in the Florida panhandle. It’s this line of thinking, on the other hand, that implodes otherwise decent seasons by handing the ball too often to the likes of Masa Kobayashi, Tom Mastny, and Tomo Ohka, so what do I know?
Regardless, this scenario is just a smaller-scale version of the first: you give up something young and high-risk for something older and slightly less high-risk. You trade a good deal of potential future value for current stability.
CHALLENGE TRADE!! It has been argued that the traditional challenge trade—wherein two teams trade comparable Big League assets—no longer exists in Major League Baseball. The argument goes that there’s just too high a likelihood that one (or both) of the GMs will come off looking stupid if, for example, there was a swap of Mike Trout for Bryce Harper.6 The upside—that you’d win the trade conclusively—is so massively overshadowed by the potential downside of losing the trade decisively that no GM has the stones to do these sorts of moves any more. Fair enough.
What I’m thinking of isn’t exactly a challenge trade though—it’s just a move to leverage a big asset against organizational needs. But to do this one we’re going to have to get a bit specific.
What if I told you that there was a baseball team that grew young starting pitching prospects with the ease and frequency that my front yard produces dandelions? This team can barely promote one starting prospect to the Big Leagues before another is nipping at his heels. Their pitching pipeline is like waves landing on the ocean: as soon as one lands another crashes ashore behind it.
But for whatever reason, this team who is so proficient at developing young hurlers has a glaring hole at short stop. They currently employ David Eckstein’s unfortunate nephew7 who’s batting .233/.278(!)/.293(!!) good for a 59 OPS+. This young man has an OPS that ranks him 159th out of 161 qualified players in MLB.
The Indians, on the other hand, have one of the better Major League short stops in the game, a fairly suitable and ready-to-play Big League replacement were their starter to be traded, and a pipeline of middle infielders that looks strong well into the next decade. In other words, the Indians could trade from a position of relative strength to shore up a position of relative lack while their trading partner could potentially do the same. Maybe not a challenge trade, but a swapping of MLB assets to fill out the holes on two different systems.
Of course by now you’ve pieced together that this mystery team is the St. Louis Cardinals, and you’d have to be deaf and blind not to have heard the rumors in the last year of talks involving sending Asdrubal Cabrera to St. Louis in return for young pitching. 8
I think that, on the surface, the idea has some merit. For one, we’re going to have to come to terms sooner or later with the notion that Asdrubal is exceptionally unlikely to stay in Cleveland after his current contract expires at the end of the 2014 season. The Yankees will be looking for a Jeter-replacement. The Cardinals have had no consistently good short stop since Edgar Renteria. The Red Sox and Angels may want get involved too. And there’s always the possibility of suspension looming over Jhonny Peralta in Detroit. Any one of those teams could make the Indians irrelevant in the free agent bidding process, and if the Indians let it come to that, they’ll lose Asdrubal with only a compensatory draft pick to show for it. That said, his value is obviously not going to get higher than it is right now: any acquiring team is going to be acquiring his contract along with him, which means that he’s more valuable today than he will be tomorrow than he will be in six months or a year. The clock is ticking, and the longer the Indians wait to move Asdrubal, the less they’re likely to get in return. On top of that, St. Louis likely wouldn’t be afraid of his expiring contract: they have the means to immediately offer Asdrubal an appealing extension and, in turn, acquire the long-term solution at short stop they’ve been without for a decade. The Indians could roll with a Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal combo out of the pen this season, with an eye on converting both to starters down the road. This could be a win-win-win, as Michael Scott would say.
The problems here are obvious as well: how would it look to the city, the fanbase, and especially the clubhouse to trade away an everyday player of Cabrera’s caliber during what can ostensibly be called a “playoff push”? Granted, the Front Office kind of already did that when they traded Choo away this winter, but that was before the Swisher and Bourn acquisitions—before we got our hopes up with all that fancy October talk. On top of the potential PR problems, you’d certainly have to have a willing trade partner here. I think the value of prospects has come down a bit in recent years (especially pitching prospects) but a sample of one—my brother—said he’d be against trading either Rosenthal or Martinez for Cabrera, and here I am thinking he might net both.
Regardless of the details, this move can only happen if both front offices are confident they can sell it to their respective fanbases as a “buy” move (as opposed to selling off assets). I’d be willing to be convinced of it, especially because my eye is always on the future, but we’ve been down this road before, and I’m more than aware that mine is not the typical fandom.
But even this move, a potential win-win-win, might not be the way to go because….
We can always do nothing. I know this is viewed as the overly cautious and pusillanimous course of action, but I still can’t get around the fact that no matter who this team might add for three months, it’s fairly unlikely that one addition will be the difference between making and missing the playoffs (or winning and losing the World Series for that matter). If Nick Swisher can get his shoulder healthy and hit 30 home runs and Corey Kluber can keep striking out a guy an inning while limiting his walks and Jason Kipnis keeps looking like an MVP we’ll have a good shot. If our bullpen keeps imploding and Mark Reynolds keeps whiffing and Vinnie Pestano hits the DL with a UCL tear then nobody is going to make this team good enough to be relevant in the playoff discussion.
Sometimes I’m a broken record with this stuff, but I’ll say it one more time: this team is going to succeed or fail based largely upon the players who are already here. Sure, there’s the slight chance that a newly acquired player will come up in a big moment and win a game that we’d otherwise have lost and there’s an even slighter chance that this single win ends up being the difference between the playoffs and October golf, but would you bet even a mid-level prospect on such a slim chance? I’m not totally sure I would, and for the record I haven’t fully decided if that makes me a coward or not.
Just by writing this piece I can feel myself leaning more and more toward the last two scenarios. I worry, of course, that in eschewing first two strategies—the more traditional “buyer” moves—that I’m effectively overvaluing my team’s prospects. I constantly have to remind myself that there are no sure things, not even can’t-miss, 20 year old, once-in-a-decade short stop prospects. A bird in the hand is (1) kinda gross and (2) worth more than all the middle infield prospects you can shake a stick at.
Even with all that self-awareness, I still lean toward sticking with what we’ve got and watching the season play out. Maybe they won’t ever catch the Tigers—to be sure it would take some incredibly good fortune to do so. Maybe they come up short, outgunned and outpitched—altogether outclassed. Maybe the worst-case scenario happens and they miss the last wild card spot by one lousy game, when a minor addition would’ve made all the difference.
But I like watching this team play, and for the first time in years, they feel relevant and worth the ungodly number of hours they’ve gotten from me. Not only do I want to see if they can make an honest go at this division, but I don’t want to pilfer an already mediocre farm system and effectively jeopardize my way to feel this way again in the next few years. I think I’m ok pushing my chips in with these guys. They’ll be a fun bunch to root for over the next few months, but it’ll also be nice to have the Lindors and Salazars of the world to keep us dreaming of the future.
- Of course, let’s pause to remember why the Indians have had to rely so heavily on the trade market: their drafting and (to a lesser extent) their international scouting have produced sub-par results. You might suggest that this problem has been solved, and we’re on the right track with Brad Grant’s regime. Forgive my skepticism: in his five or so years at the helm, armed with copious high draft picks, he’s produced exactly one good player (Kipnis) and one legitimate prospect (Lindor). I understand these things take time, but I’m going to withhold the beatification for another few years if that’s ok with you. [↩]
- If you’re keeping track at home, that would be Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez, and Fister, all of whom compare favorably (in some respects, at least) to Justin Masterson. [↩]
- You could argue that last year’s Baltimore Orioles did just that–win without an ace. I would respond that (a) Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen were probably better than you’re giving them credit for; (b) if you don’t think they had an ace, they at least had four #2 starters; and (c) that team was incredibly lucky. They had an unsustainable record in close games (as this season is bearing out) without which they wouldn’t have sniffed the post-season. Great story? Yes. But a clear and repeatable model for success? ‘Fraid not. [↩]
- actual numbers about $77.5 million for the next two and half seasons [↩]
- unless you’re the Marlins and your left-handed specialist makes more than $9 per hour [↩]
- My God how awesome would this trade be though? ESPN would asplode. [↩]
- NOTE: Pete Kozma may not, in fact, be related to David Eckstein in any way other than their relative (s)crappiness quotient [↩]
- For the record, this is an idea I’ve floated several times, and I still think it’s a viable one. I say this despite the fact that I root for both teams and am therefore often left wondering if I’m capable of any sense of objectivity here. [↩]