On a warm summer night in late July, the Cleveland Indians’ front office, led by Team President Chris Antonetti and General Manager Mike Chernoff, stood in their Progressive Field offices and pondered doing something insane by normal Indians’ standards: They made a major play to win a World Series, and it almost worked.
Four months later, on a cold, blustery day in late November, less than three weeks after the Indians nearly won the very series Antonetti and Chernoff were shooting for, Tribe fans familiar with lackluster Indians’ offseasons of the past are wondering if another big move could be in the works. Could the Indians add a dynamic player that could have that unique mix of on-the-field impact and multiple-year control?
Not only can they, but if the right player is available, they will.
Cleveland fans have heard this all before, and a trip to the World Series isn’t going to blind them to the small market, hot-stove drippings that the city has become so accustomed to. Year after year, the Indians both avoid signing major free agents, and rarely have the assets to pull off any sort of major trade. But this isn’t your common, every day Indians we’re talking about here.
Look no further than the previously mentioned front office maneuvering last July. Loaded with a first place baseball team and a minor league system stockpiled with prospects at every level, the Indians called their home-run shot, pointing to a November World Series date by almost completing two major deals for the Yankees Andrew Miller and the Brewers Jonathan Lucroy. This wasn’t small market maneuvering or tinkering. This was a front office that was building to a point they could make a splash, then went full cannonball.
The Miller deal was consummated, improving the bullpen to supplement one of the best starting rotations in baseball. The Lucroy deal wasn’t. And while Lucroy’s Cleveland-spurning decision didn’t make him any friends in town, it’s that same verdict that ultimately gives Antonetti and Chernoff the type of weighted resources that could allow the team to make a major move this offseason.
Remember, the Indians offered eight major prospects in the deals for Miller and Lucroy, and still have four of them, plus a system that’s still deep.
While there was a clear hole at catcher at the deadline thanks to a Yan Gomes injury in Mid-July, it’s currently filled. With Roberto Perez shaking off the rust of his early season broken thumb, and with Yan Gomes returning, at best, the Indians will likely try and find another Chris Gimenez, or…well…Chris Gimenez…to add depth at backstop.
That leaves the Indians with holes in the outfield, potentially at first base and DH, with the loss of Mike Napoli, and perhaps middle relief. But with Carlos Santana playing out his final year in Cleveland, the hole at first likely isn’t their top priority. Equally, with Andrew Miller, Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw making a combined $20 million in 2017, my guess is they aren’t planning on sinking big money into the other slots in their bullpen. They could also potentially look for a third baseman so that manager Terry Francona can maneuver Jose Ramirez as an uber-utility player, but again, it doesn’t feel like a priority.
If the Indians are going to spend big, it’s more than likely going to be the outfield. Their current outfield consists of Michael Brantley, Abraham Almonte, Brandon Guyer, Tyler Naquin and Lonnie Chisenhall, with prospects like Bradley Zimmer, Yandy Diaz and Greg Allen waiting in the wings at Columbus and Akron. It’s a giant mix of injury concerns, defensive holes, platoons, limited ceilings and youth. While the Indians were able to make it to the series with this patchwork group, it’s hard to imagine Antonetti passing on a deal that could alter the team both offensively, and defensively, as he tried to do with the Lucroy deal. Sure, Michael Brantley’s return certainly solidifies the offense on paper, but the uncertainty of that shoulder, combined with a roster of question marks behind him opens the door for the potential of a big move.
While many front offices have targeted center field as a need, the Indians continue their CIA-like silence. It’s likely they have a list of names that intrigue them, but as always, that list, as well as positions, remain a secret that can only be discovered via a Hillary Clinton-like email scandal, followed by some sort of MLB Trade Rumors version of Wikileaks.
But if the Indians gave up a package of top prospects in outfielder Clint Frazier, lefty Justus Sheffield, and relievers Ben Heller, and J.P. Feiyereisen for Miller, and were willing to give up a package of catcher Francisco Mejia, infielder Yu Cheng-Chang, outfielder Greg Allen and reliever Shawn Armstrong, it’s likely the Indians are more than willing to get a deal done if the right player comes along.
To make such a deal, the Indians would need a ‘Royal Flush’ in return. That winning hand would definitively need to be a defensive center fielder, who can hit a bit, and likely have multiple years of control. I do also feel like cost-effectiveness is important, but without knowing what sort of money a team might take on in a trade, I’m going to ignore that for the sake of this discussion. It’s not like players like this grow on trees, but they are out there.
That perfect storm likely won’t happen within the division, and I only mention that because two perfect players for the Tribe, like the Chicago White Sox Adam Eaton and the Kansas City Royals Lorenzo Cain, are both potentially available, and unlikely to find new homes within the AL Central if the rumors are true. So we can cross them out.
I’m also going to exclude Andrew McCutchen for a few key reasons. First of all, he’s declining defensively, if not offensively as well. Defensively, he’s clearly slower, and he has a –47 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) over the past three seasons, with over half of that deplorable number coming last season. He was less than a 1 WAR player this past year, and is due $14 million this coming season, with a club option of $14.5 million in 2018. He really FEELS like a pricier version of Michael Bourn, and the Pirates will command a bigger prospect haul than David Schoenfield’s proposed deal of Mike Clevinger, Triston McKenzie and Erik Gonzalez, and would guess they’d want a current starter off the roster. Change Clevinger to Trevor Bauer, and add Cheng-Chang to the deal, and that’s likely their starting point.
The Indians won’t say no without looking, but boy, if “Cutch” ends up mimicking Bourn, you’ve given away a lot of future for a player that the internal options could match in some form or fashion. The gamble is if he has an “outlier” season or two left in the tank. Just not sure the price they would have to pay is worth that gamble.
I’m also going to ignore Ian Desmond because he’s only played the position for one season, wasn’t all that great at it other than the fact he was better than most folks thought he’d be (see Lonnie Chisenhall), and would just be another question mark. He WOULD likely be an interesting get for his potential as another uber-utility guy as a former infielder, but is only under control for one season before hitting free agency after 2017. He’s just not the perfect storm.
I’m also going to ignore Carlos Gomez, and if you’re wondering why, you likely are reading this because you enjoy words, and not baseball.
While my ignoring could certainly be simple ignorance, to me, that leaves five viable options for the Indians, if they want to make a trade of consequence, and with teams that may be looking to make a move:
The Perfect Fit: A.J. Pollock, CF, Arizona Diamondbacks
At the end of 2015, I’m not sure there was a hotter player on the market than Pollock. He had a .315/.367/.498 slash, and was a 6.5 fWAR player. He’s arguably one of the two or three best defensive center fielders in baseball, and would immediately make the Indians defense up the middle the best in the league.
He’s everything that manager Terry Francona loves. He hits, defends and runs the bases well. He’s respected in the clubhouse, and has all of those warm and fuzzy “clubhouse” funs that everyone respects, but has all the metrics to go along with it.
He can hit anywhere at the top of the order, and I would have to believe would be a guy that might hit lead-off permanently, but really COULD slide around, as he has all throughout his career. He also has pretty even splits, and this goes with home and away as well.
The front office would likely love him for all of the above, as well as his two years of control, and with the Diamondbacks overhauling their front office, Pollock would be just the type of player they’d use to begin the rebuild.
The Diamondbacks would want a lot, but the Indians would have some leverage, thanks to an injury history that is a true worry, even if it feels sporadic. He’s only played one complete season at 29-years old, and has only played two seasons with over 100 games played. It’s a legit worry for a player who will clearly command three major prospects.
I would expect the DBacks to be looking for a CF in return, a pitcher, and a ton of bullpen help. If the Indians offered them up the Lucroy deal, with maybe a tweak, I could see Pollock moving to Cleveland. The gamble would be worthwhile. A healthy Pollock in the line-up for one season wouldn’t guarantee a World Series as no player does, but boy would he improve the team in all facets.
The Most Questions: Charlie Blackmon, CF, Colorado Rockies
Blackmon has more red flags than any player listed, and is my least favorite player of the bunch. He absolutely went off last season, hitting 29 homers with a .324 average, and actually had decent home and away splits (.335 with 12 homers at home, vs. .313 with 17 homers on the road). This doesn’t match his career splits, and that Coors Field advantage is always a real fear.
Defensively, Blackmon is pretty good. I’ve watched him play a few times, and he does seem to have better skills than the numbers would suggest, and I do wonder if the same advantages that make him a solid offensive player, hinder him defensively. It can’t be easy fielding howitzer shots in the Mile High City.
Like Pollock, he’s solid on the basepaths, and while his stolen bases diminished considerably (43 SBs in 2015, to 17 in 2016, but this could be a result of his growing power).
Colorado has some interesting prospects in the pipeline, and the 30-year old Blackmon would command a big prospect haul. While Pollock would certainly be a bit of a sell low, Blackmon would definitively be a sell high, and has all the same intangibles as Pollock.
He is also under control for two more seasons, and isn’t a free agent until the 2019 season. In other words, he’s the type of big deal player the Indians would be interested in making. I’m guessing the package of players would be similar as the Pollock deal.
The biggest problem is that the Rockies need a first baseman, and that’s one of the positons the Indians can’t offer them much hope, unless they can somehow showcase Jesus Aguilar as a future superstar. Of course, that’s not the case, but perhaps a lower level top corner infielder could do the trick. The Rockies have a nice young team, and they may consider depth over position.
The Home Run: Ender Inciarte, CF, Atlanta Braves
I can’t think of one reason why the Braves would deal Inciarte, and am only including him because he is clearly still on the Indians radar, and because Jeff Nomina will be excited, and because he’s mentioned in this piece, will tweet this thing out like it was his life.
While Pollock and Blackmon both have advantages, Inciarte would feel like a home run for a variety of reasons.
First and foremost, Inciarte is coming off of his first gold glove season in his first year in Atlanta, and at 26, doesn’t feel close to his potential. This is the kid that understands routes, and has the elite speed in the field that makes his range insane. In other words, he can play shallow, and still rob deep balls. He can play deep, and rob shallow hit balls. And he’s the kind of player that takes perfect angles right or left, and can take away multi-base gappers.
Oh, and did I mention his 12 assists yet?
Inciarte is above average on the bases, and still has the look of a player with upside there. He does lack power, but has an insanely low K-rate of 11.8, and while his walk rate is probably too low, this is an area that you could see improving. He’s a high IQ player, and it wouldn’t be silly to think there could be a power jump here, without costing too much.
He’s under team control for four more years, and you are looking at a player that could be a game changer in 2017, and honestly, jam the Indians window open for years to come. Of the players mentioned, this is the one player that will cost the Indians the greatest amount. In other words, that deal the Indians had ready for Jonathan Lucroy is the starting point.
Of course, why in the hell would the Braves want to deal this upside, even with a potential massive haul? The Braves are hunting for a catcher, and also may want some starting pitching. The Indians do have some interesting options there, with Gomes and Perez, and starting with Clevinger and Bauer, could perhaps goad the Braves into dealing potentially their best on-the-field player.
Who knows, but I’d be all in regardless.
The Surprise: Kevin Kiermaier, CF, Tampa Bay Rays
If the Indians are looking for straight-up defensive superiority, they should look no further than Kiermaier, who is nothing short of spectacular for the Rays. In 2015, Kiermayer saved 42 defensive runs, and while he “only” saved 25 in 2016, it was because he missed almost 60 games due to injury. Like Edgar Inciarte, Kiermaier won the 2016 Gold Glove Award in 2016. Unlike Inciarte, it was his second such award in as many years.
Of all the guys on the list, you get what you get offensively with the kid. He’s a middling hitter, but doesn’t kill you. He’s never really going to be a guy that challenges for the top of the order, but has a bit of upside there, as he’s about to turn 27.
What you do get, though, is the best center fielder in perhaps all of baseball, when healthy, which is saying a lot considering I just talked about Inciarte. Like everyone on this list, he runs the bases well, and can steal some bases for you too. He’s just a good solid player, and is under control, like Inciarte, for four more seasons. The major difference here is that he doesn’t have the offensive upside that Inciarte has, so his cost, while pricey, will certainly be less than the Braves center fielder.
What would it cost the Indians?
I think he’d be right in their wheelhouse, as the Rays could be looking for catching help. For those that are counting at home, the Indians have three interesting pieces they could start with in Gomes, Perez and Double-A prospect Mejia. Obviously there’d be more involved, but they’d be dealing from a position of need, and thanks to injury issues and need, this could be the perfect deal in the making for the Indians.
No, the offense isn’t there, but he does fit two other areas really well, and certainly has a bit of upside offensively. He’s sorta the poor man’s Inciarte, if by poor, you mean four-years of control, and a gold glove winner.
The Forgotten One: Marcell Ozuna
Eighteen months ago, I discussed the possibility of the Indians dealing for the Marlins Ozuna. He had recently spent some time in the minors, was on the outs with the club because of a variety of issues, and had Scott Boras for an agent. Those things are easy to overlook when you need a center fielder, and have Terry Francona as your manager.
That said, the Indians didn’t go after him at the deadline that year although there were clearly inquiries. There also appeared to be inquiries between the two clubs during the offseason prior to this past season, with nothing coming to fruition.
This year could be a different story, however, with the Marlins likely to be looking for a starting pitcher after the tragic loss of superstar Jose Fernandez, and Ozuna is the likely trade bait for teams looking to add an outfielder.
He’s a mixed back of a player. He’s shown signs of offensive brilliance, and shown signs of abysmal offense. His wRC+ over the years has been rubberband of inconsistencies (92, 116, 90 and 105) over the past four seasons. Defensively, he’s not a great center fielder, although via the eye test, he seems to be better than his numbers would suggest. Still, he projects to be a right fielder long term, so not a perfect fit in that regard.
While he was an all-star last year, it’s important to note that he dropped off a cliff offensively, hitting .209 over the last half of the year, 100 points lower than his first half.
But Ozuna is good, as well as inconsistent. He has 20+ home run power, has a howitzer of an arm, and would signify an upgrade on some levels, from the players they have now. The cost could simply be a starting pitcher, but I’m not sure the Marlins would want a Clevinger or a Bauer in a deal, and equally, I’m not sure the Indians would value Ozuna more than either starter.
But it’s worth a call in the end, to see what fruit shaking the tree could bring.
There are other options out there, and one of WFNY’s main Indians’ writers, Mike Hattery talked about them a week or two ago. It’s equally likely the Indians do play it safe, as they are known to do, considering they made it to the series without a splash in the outfield. My only concern is that they made it to the series in spite of their outfield. Almonte is probably better than I give him credit for, and there are outstanding young options knocking on the door.
Zimmer exhibits some warning signs offensively, but he can certainly be a solid center fielder, and Greg Allen single handedly made the greatest outfield I ever saw in a game in Erie this past May. He caught a drive to the deepest recesses of center field, and laid out, making an over the shoulder catch while parallel to the ground that only a few in the world could have made, and I say that without hyperbole.
They do have players to cobble together an outfield, and as it proved in 2016, that can get you to the World Series.
It’s the safe thing to do.
It’s the easy thing to do.
It’s what the Indians always do.
But this isn’t a normal year, is it?
It feels different, because this year is different. The Indians were a walk-off hit away from winning the World Series, and have already swung for the fences in trades during last season’s deadline. And however unrealistic trading for any of these four may be, this is the year in which a major Indians’ trade actually wouldn’t be a swerve. Adding a single center fielder that can fill in the holes offensively, defensively and with control could be the Triple Crown that leads the Indians to a World Series Championship.
This year, the prudent move isn’t to play it safe and wait for a player to develop, or pray for health or some sort of irrational defensive improvement. With the pieces that the Indians still have after the failed Lucroy deal, Antonetti and Chernoff are playing with what probably seems like a loaded deck, and with a team that has tasted World Series success, and a front office that knows how to make impactful deals, this could be the year in which the biggest offseason move happens on the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario.