Indians

Toward an Indians Off-Season Strategy

Terry Francona Chris Antonetti

This is the first off-season I can remember in quite a while that doesn’t seem to carry with it a somewhat obvious imperative for the Cleveland Indians front office.  Typically, it feels like we enter the winter with a hole that requires filling.  Last year, for instance, the team had to address right field, as Nick Swisher transferred to a 1B/DH role.  Some years we’ve needed to add some rotational depth (Brett Myers, Derek Lowe).  Other years have required a stopgap third baseman (Jack Hannahan, Mark Reynolds). This is not to say that the front office always fills the gap to our satisfaction, or even that they address it all.  But normally we know the holes that need plugged to improve the team.

This winter has me a bit stumped though.  On the one hand, almost by definition this team needs to improve this offseason from a personnel perspective.  They didn’t make the playoffs last year despite (aberrantly?) good seasons from Brantley, Kluber, Gomes, Carrasco, and Chisenhall.  To count on each of them doing it again and to have bounceback seasons from Swisher, Bourn, Kipnis, Salazar et al seems like a bit of wishful thinking. There’s a cliché about the definition of insanity that belongs in here somewhere.

On the other hand, I don’t really see an obvious move they can make just yet.  Looking around the diamond, what position do you upgrade, and how do you do it?  I’m tempted to say third base, but Lonnie Chisenhall is coming off a season with a 121 wRC+ (the same as Yan Gomes) and a .427 slugging percentage (the same as Carlos Santana) and he made the league minimum.  I’d say maybe right field, but we already have two of those under contract for next season, and that’s not including Swisher.  Oh, right.  Swisher.  This team has no track record of cutting bait with a player they owe that kind of money to, so the DH spot might be locked up.  Where does that leave improving the much-maligned offense?1

What about the pitching? As I’m sure is no surprise, I love our rotation, and I think it’s at least seven deep.  Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, Zach McAllister, TJ House, and Josh Tomlin are all likely better than any veteran back-of-the-rotation guy we can get off the scrap heap in what have been annual cash bonfires for this front office.  In the bullpen Cody Allen seems to be growing into a reasonable backend guy, while some combination of Shaw, Scrabble, Atchison, Adams and Lee leaves me feeling like we have a pretty nice base to build from out there.

So the question comes back to me: how do we improve, if there’s no real position where I can envision something actionable?  Here are the ideas and nuggets that have been kicking around.

  1. Swap bad contracts (i.e. Swisher for someone else’s albatross) There’s something interesting about this strategy, first reported to be a possibility by Ken Rosenthal late last week. The theory goes that the Indians could get out of the two year commitment left on Swisher’s deal by essentially taking on someone else’s bad deal.  The name Ubaldo even came up, which got me thinking about those three good months he had once with Callaway.  Maybe he’d thrive in the bullpen?  Maybe?  The other names I’ve heard in a deal like this are Ryan Howard (what’s the point, really?), BJ Upton (I guess?), and Edwin Jackson.  Again, while all these names are a little interesting, I don’t really get how it fixes the problem of having a bad, overpaid player who’s past his prime.  You’re basically just swapping jerseys.
  2. Move a young starter in a trade. I have to think that beyond Fransisco Lindor (who, by all accounts, the team has no interest in moving) our next biggest asset has to be the seven starters listed above. Each has something appealing to most teams in the league, and depending on the player we might give up, we may be able to send along Swisher’s awful contract with it.  Think about a deal that sends Trevor Bauer and Nick Swisher as a package deal.  The Indians could get some decent return (likely a position player/DH type) along with the financial flexibility to invest in some other upgrade.
  3. Move Lonnie Chisenhall and add an impact 3B. I’ve never known what to do with Lonnie. He has shown, at times, that he belongs in the Major Leagues, and while he’s cheap (can go to arbitration for the first time in 2015), he’s clearly an asset.  But he’s only going to get more expensive, and the only tool that looks like it can really play at this level is his power.  He’s still not walking enough, still has oversized platoon splits, still struggles with the glove.  At what point do you cut bait on a guy like that, especially coming off what may have been a career year?  The Indians may have the pieces to pry Adrian Beltre away from Texas, and if they can get out from under Swisher’s $30 million commitment, they could entertain taking on the one year, $18 million left on Beltre’s deal.
  4. Deal Bryan Shaw. Bryan Shaw has one year of control left with the Indians. Bullpen arms are notoriously unpredictable. The Indians have a great track record of finding overlooked, decent right handed relievers for cheap.  In other words, sell high on Bryan Shaw.  I like what Shaw has done here a lot, but we’ve put some serious miles on his arm these last few years, and if some rich team that can’t cobble together a bullpen (Hi Magic Johnson! Oh hey there Texas Rangers!) wants to give up a more projectable player, I’m all for it.

The thing is, I don’t think any of this is going to happen, or at least not how I’m envisioning it.  I remember being totally blindsided by the Choo trade that brought Trevor Bauer to Cleveland.  I was so certain they’d be moving Asdrubal or Masterson that winter that I’d never even considered that Choo would be the one to give us good value, and I certainly couldn’t have foreseen the three-way deal required to satisfy everyone involved.

I tend to think that Antonetti knows that he can’t come back to the table with the same team he had last year and expect things to improve.  I also think he’ll be creative, given the circumstances both from a roster and a payroll standpoint; he certainly has the resume for it.

In other words, the only way I’ll be surprised this winter is if we get to March without a big surprise.

  1. Among the 15 AL teams, the Indians actually ranked in the top six in wRC+, wOBA, OBP, slugging, and total offensive runs above replacement. There is some reason to think our position player problem has more to do with crummy defense than crummy hitting, but that’s for another day. []

  • nj0

    CHASE HEADLEY! Not going to happen, but a man can dream. To me, third base is the clear need. For all the reasons you mention (and more), I have zero faith in Chisenhall. Problem is, outside of Headley and Sandoval (neither of which we have a shot at, imo), there really isn’t much on the FA market.

    I think we might see something outside of the box this off-season. Something like the Choo deal. Maybe moving one of our core to add somewhere else. For example, I’d be okay with moving Santana or Kipnis (if the return was right). The loss of Kipnis would be easier to deal with, considering our middle infield talent. But we’d most likely be selling low on him.

  • Mike Reed

    If Zack Duke just got paid $15M for 3 years what do you think Nick Hagadone could land you in a trade? I’ve been a fan of him since the Vic trade but the emergence of Crockett, and Scrabble around for 2 more years,

    might make him worth dangling.

  • mgbode

    Antonetti knows that he can’t come back to the table with the same team he had last year and expect things to improve.

    I don’t think I agree. We have a fairly young team, many players may very well improve. Some even think Swisher will bounce back to 2013 levels at least. I think there is a fair argument that we have more bouncing up to the mean from players than regression due as well.

    Really, the areas of worry are the rotation (always a worry and we only have 1 true stud pitcher and a lot of other possible good pitchers) and the defense (though definitely looked better with Ramirez at SS and Raburn/Swisher nailed to the bench).

  • mgbode

    no to moving Carlos Santana.

  • Steve

    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/where-the-indians-are-baseballs-most-valuable-team/

    More than a few smart people think the Indians are in a good position for 2015 before making any moves.

  • Steve

    Agree with mgbode on Santana, you’re opening a hole to fill another. I can see moving one of the other infielders (my suggestion is to move Kipnis to the OF to accomodate both Ramirez and Lindor).

    And some reports out of NY are that they’re going to do whatever it takes to keep Headley.

  • mgbode

    from that article:

    So in Cleveland, you’ve got a rotation projected to be one of the best in the MLB under contract for a grand total of about three and a half million dollars.

    and

    The Indians project to have one of the best five-man rotations in baseball, and those five will earn a third as much as the next cheapest rotation in the league.

  • nj0

    Any plan to move Santana would be predicated on the belief/knowledge that Swisher is somewhat healthy and can play some first base at a non-2014 level.

    I’m just pointing out – if we want any serious return on the trade market, we’ll have to give something to get something. Personally, I’m more okay with opening up a hole at 1B, where I think we at least have some internal options, than forcing Chiz play the hot corner for 130+ games.

    Kipnis to RF looks good on paper. Not sure how it’d work in reality.

  • nj0

    The rotation is a worry in the sense that every team has to worry about their rotation staying healthy and not falling off the table. But comparatively? With the rest of the majors? I don’t think it’s a worry.

    3B and RF are the places to upgrade. Then locking down the bench and the bullpen.

  • Steve

    I’m buying a healthy/fairly productive Swisher at about the same level you’re buying Chisenhall.

    I’m willing to give from our newly found collection of OFers to get a piece, even though I’m not sure what it is either.

    Kipnis played OF in college, so I’m more willing to move him there than to move anyone else around. And I think Ramirez is more valuable for us at 2B than 3B. Give Chisenhall the Dorn treatment. I think he can come around to adequate there.

  • nj0

    Which OFs are you talking about?

  • CB Everett

    I’m with you. Kipnis was an OF at ASU, and he plays 2B like a converted stubby OF. He’s got decent speed though and should be serviceable in RF. Move him there now and ping pong Ramirez from SS to 2B, warming SS for Lindor. Aviles can spot start in the interim.

  • mgbode

    I just don’t like the thought of Aviles starting.

  • mgbode

    yeah, that is understood. we just have so many young arms who have not really defined who they are that they are wobblier on that table than many other rotations. still, definitely good signs with our rotation thus far.

  • Steve

    Well, if Brantley and Kipnis are manning the corners for the forseeable future, there’s not much reason to keep around all of Holt, Walters, Ramsey, Frazier, Zimmer, and Naquin.

  • CB Everett

    Don’t worry. It’ll only be a month or so until Lindor:) If you just stick Ramirez at SS, then between Aviles,Walters, and Rayburn they should be able to hold down 2B until Ramirez gets bumped over.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Nope on Headley and the BoSox have Kung Fu Panda in their sights so better luck next time! Even bigger no to moving either Santana or Kipnis. Most likely it would be a lower cost trade involving a fringe player which means you won’t get much back in return.

  • mgbode

    April, May, and June. I cannot go through 3 months of Aviles starting along with our annual Tito-led slow start to the season.

    And, you are just tormenting me now by dropping in a Raburn-at-2B now, right?

    http://giant.gfycat.com/ThinValidKronosaurus.gif

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    If the Indians are smart they let Lindor dictate what happens. No way do you say in November or December that you aren’t bringing this kid up. He’s been in the minors long enough even if he doesn’t hit great but can play defense that’s a win for the horrible defensive Indians.

  • Steve

    If it’s three months, it’s because we don’t want him up here. I don’t see how its more than the couple weeks necessary to get that extra year of service time.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Hagadone isn’t anything special heck I’d throw him in any deal as a sweetner.

  • CB Everett

    Ha. damn, you got me. I was just trying to think of warm bodies who have played 2B.
    And that gif is so Rayburn

  • nj0

    Yeah, hard to not get the extra year of time. I also think his bat very well could use some time in AAA.

  • nj0

    Eh, I guess. Though I wouldn’t include Frazier, Zimmer, and Naquin in with the rest. You keep those guys around cause for the future. I’d be okay with moving them if the return was right, but not because we’ve got a crowded outfield now.

  • mgbode

    No, if we wait until mid-to-end June, then he is not eligible for that 4th arbitration year as a Super-Two player. considering that he could very well be that type of player, it’s a financially prudent move to wait.

  • Steve

    Frazier and Zimmer are the guys I’d look to move first as they can bring back the most return while providing the least present value.

    A Frazier-Salazar package could bring quite the return.

  • Steve

    It’s financially prudent, but probably not baseball prudent. There’s a big gap between paying for a Super-2 year and a FA year. I think the front office will fork over the former to get a couple months of Lindor but not the latter for a couple weeks.

  • nj0

    Not disagreeing about the return. Just don’t want to trade a 19-year-old top-40 prospect like Frazier. Zimmer I could part with.

  • Steve

    What if it’s for Donaldson?

  • nj0

    Also, my point was just that Frazier/Zimmer are different caliber of talent than Holt, Walters, and company. The latter are AAAA, project types who need to sink-or-swim in the present. The former are years away.

  • nj0

    Yes.

  • mgbode

    only in the NBA do the players get to dictate terms

  • Mike Reed

    A lefty who throws mid 90s, was above average in every category, and under club control for 4 more seasons probably has some trade value.

  • Mike Reed

    In a world where you need to pay Zack Duke $15M

  • Steve

    Right, I think they’re quite different too. But I think with Brantley and Kipnis, you’re locked up long enough to move a big prospect, and you still have the depth in the system.

    I think Salazar and Frazier gets you in the ballpark for Donaldson. That cleans up a lot of defensive issues, and that’s the RH pop that the casual fan wants. Turn Swisher into Jimenez or Jackson or sign some veteran pitcher to fill the rotation, and move Chisenhall to DH/backup corner IF.

    I’m thinking go big or stay put and see how this roster develops. Sure, signing another Atchison and an upgrade on Raburn won’t hurt, but I don’t think this roster needs a small move. Hunt for the big one, missing out and going with this roster again isn’t a bad plan B.

  • nj0

    Go big or stay put is a strategy I agree with completely. If you can do something big (and getting Donaldson would be big), do it. If you can’t, then circle the wagons, try to hit on some bargain bin minor-league deals, and just pray that guys develop/rebound so we can compete.

    Honestly, while I’d like to see things shaken up, I won’t be heart broken if we enter 2015 with basically the same roster (though I really want to have a plan B for third base, especially if Urshela’s injury is severe).

  • Steve

    I do wonder how much Urshela was expected/hoped to be part of the 2015 plan. I don’t think there was any way he was up before mid-season, which means you’d have to have find a fairly long-term solution if not Chisenhall. But a guy like Headley or Beltre would keep Urshela down for multiple years, not just a few months. In other words, I don’t think he was much a part of the 2015 plan, as good as he did look last season.

  • nj0

    I’d rather have Swisher than Jimenez. Unless the Orioles eat a bunch of money. And I don’t see why they would.

  • Steve

    I’m wavering on it, but if we’re moving a pitcher for a hitter in another deal, I’d like to balance the equation. With the bigger deal there, there’s no room for Swisher, and we could use a pitcher.

  • nj0

    Agree on mid-season. I liked having the option of having somebody who hopefully would at least be replacement level in case Chiz completely crapped out (or went down to injury).

    I’ve really come to appreciate replacement level talent in the minor league system. It’s nice to have some bodies who may not win you games but won’t lose you any.

  • nj0

    True. I’m afraid of the headaches Ubaldo would cause me, but I could stomach him as a necessary evil. I think there’s reason to hope he could be a viable starting option. Back in 2013, there was a Fangraphs article detailing the mechanical changes Jimenez made during his stint of success. I wonder how his 2014 mechanics compare to those.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Dictate as in his play but thanks for your input it’s always appreciated!

  • Jason Hurley

    I’ve been wondering for years if they could throw together a package to grab a guy like Jose Bautista from Toronto. He’s under contract for 2 more years, doesn’t make ungodly money, and we would lokely have to get rid of Bourn or Swisher for it to work. I’m not sure who we’d have to throw in to make it work. I don’t know – it would solve a lot of problems.