As Major League Baseball’s trade deadline approaches on Monday, the Cleveland Indians have recently been linked to the St. Louis Cardinals as a potential suitor. According to reports, the Indians have had scouts showing up at recent games, although the specific players they’ve been scouting are somewhat a mystery. Okay, that’s not completely true. The major report has the Indians scouting…outfielders?
That report was written by the St. Louis Dispatch’s lead beat writer, Derrick Goold, one of the most respected beat writers in America, who also discussed the Dodgers and Yankees in the same report. The Dodgers were apparently looking for “left-handed relief help,” while the Yankees were after starter Lance Lynn. So, the question is, does Goold know what he’s talking about? Why would the Indians — in need of left handed relief help — be scouting outfielders, in the same report in which the Dodgers are scouting left-handed relief help?
The Indians are currently winners of nine in a row, have a resurgent starting rotation with the re-addition of “good Danny Salazar,” and have seen a boom in offensive production, scoring 66 runs during their win streak. Prior to the streak, and in particular, prior to Salazar’s return, it was believed Cleveland would make a run at an available starting pitcher, trying to avoid the same rotation attrition that nearly buried them in the 2016 playoffs.
With Salazar looking a lot like the 2016 All-Star1, with Trevor Bauer shining up his performance, with Clevinger’s year-long performance, and with Josh Tomlin continuing his mysterious spot-efficiency, the Indians suddenly have a six-man rotation, all with playoff merit past Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. While there are still questions, with mere hours before the deadline, it’s doubtful that Indians general manager Mike Chernoff and team president Chris Antonetti will waste resources for a starter, when all of the options are at best, equals to the Indians current situation, not improvements.
Past the rotation, injuries to Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall opened the door to the Indians looking at potential utility players to compensate their losses. But with Kipnis ready for a DL stint in the minors and a return in the next week, and with Chisenhall set to run the bases to test his strained calf and a return in the next couple of weeks, the need for a utility player isn’t a priority.
In other words, what are the Indians going to do with an outfielder?
The current Indians 25-man roster, without Chisenhall and Kipnis:
- Corey Kluber
- Carlos Carrasco
- Danny Salazar
- Josh Tomlin
- Mike Clevinger
- Trevor Bauer
- Andrew Miller
- Cody Allen
- Bryan Shaw
- Nick Goody
- Dan Otero
- Zach McAllister
- Shawn Armstrong
- Yan Gomes
- Roberto Perez
- Erik Gonzalez UT
- Jose Ramirez 3B/2B
- Carlos Santana 1B
- Francisco Lindor SS
- Giovanny Urshela 3B
- Bradley Zimmer CF
- Austin Jackson OF
- Brandon Guyer RF
- Michael Brantley LF
- Edwin Encarnacion
While not listed here, Abraham Almonte, Tyler Naquin, Ryan Merritt, and Daniel Robertson are all ready for action.2
So what do you do with outfielders, if the Indians are indeed on the lookout for Grichuk and Pham?
Let’s start with the return of Kipnis in the next week. The easy move there would be to send down Urshela, which is the likely scenario. While Urshela’s defense has been gold glove worthy, the Indians certainly aren’t going to keep around a guy with a suspect bat when Kipnis returns. I could make a good case that the team is in many ways better with Urshela at third and Ramirez at second, they aren’t going to start experimenting with Kipnis at new postions in August of a potential World Series run.3 So immediately, you lose the ability to send an infielder or outfielder down for an incoming Grichuk or Pham, which means you move to the pitchers.
The Indians do currently stand at 13 pitchers, but with them likely to move away from the six-man rotation in the next week, where do you think that starter is going to go? While I’m not going to speculate4, that starter is going to move to the bullpen, and Shawn Armstrong is heading back to Columbus. That leaves the bullpen at 12, and opens a spot for Grichuk or Pham for the net week or two.
Why only short term?
This scenario seems somewhat possible, especially when you look long-term, but I’ll get into that in a second. If you’re somewhat underwhelmed by the move for this year, you should be. Long-term, the deal makes a ton of sense, but as for a deadline move?
The one unknown here is whether or not the Indians believe Chisenhall can return at 100 percent. While many were optimistic regarding Chisenhall’s breakout 2017 campaign, he’s regressed in past years after having hot months, and hot halves. Projections looked favorable for Chisenhall sustaining his numbers, but his health has put that in question. If the Indians are looking for depth at the position, this makes sense. Of course, they do have Almonte and Naquin in Columbus already, but Pham, and in particular, Grichuk, both are your very typical Indians moves. These are guys that can add depth in 2017, and can equally fill specific roles in 2018 and beyond.
Pham was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006. Let that settle in for a bit. He’s been with the Cardinals organization for ten years, and has played a whopping 210 major league baseball games. It’s really a great story if you’re looking at his stat sheet, because this is a kid drafted in the 16th round 11 years ago, didn’t play a lick of major league baseball until 2014, and continued to persevere until this year, which is undoubtedly a breakout season.
Pham has never been a real prospect in the St. Louis’ system, according to everything I’ve read or seen. He was, at best, a fringy top-20 pick, who was often graded as “toolsy,” but unable to add the skill set to the tools.
So who is Pham, this year?
This year, Pham has added the skills, to the tools, and put together one helluva season. His slash is .309/.384/.521 with a 140 wRC+ and a .211 ISO. His 3.5 fWAR is not only the best on the Cardinals team this year, but the best by far. Jedd Gyorko comes in second for everyday players with a 1.9 fWAR, with starters Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha over a full point behind, at 2.4 and 2.3.
Pham has 14 homers, 14 stolen bases, walks at an 11.4 percent clip, with a 24.4 percent K/9. He can play all three outfield positions, but this season, has played 49 games in left and 23 games in center, and he plays them extremely well. His UZR in left is 3.6 and 2.8 in center, his DRS in left is five and six in center.
But if you follow me at all, you know I’m an eye test guy. In center, glove side:
In left, backhand:
In center, at the wall:
— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) June 28, 2017
I could go on all day here.
What makes Pham seem more than a flash in the pan is his selection at the plate. He’s extremely selective and forces the pitcher to throw strikes. The problem is that his contact could be a whole lot better and he doesn’t hit a ton of fly balls. What does all this mean offensively? While he’s tearing it up right now, it’s not likely that a 29-year old playing his first substantial time in the big leagues becomes a 30 home run hitter year-to-year. But he would be an interesting upside candidate for the Indians, both in finishing up this season and moving on to the next, because that defense really translates.
A couple of other notes on Pham. I believe he is out of options after this season, which means he’s either on the roster or designated for assignment, and he will get picked up if the latter occurs. Pham would be under the Indians control until 2022.
Grichuk was selected in the 2009 draft one spot ahead of Mike Trout, and I’m sure Grichuk’s been used as a punchline for years. It can’t be easy being selected right in front of this generation’s greatest player, and by the same team. But it’s not like Grichuk didn’t have pedigree. He led the nation in home runs that year, and while Trout clearly had the upside, it was believed that Grichuk would be the perfect corner outfielder to Trout in center. It just didn’t work out that way.
The overview for Grichuk is fairly simple. He’s a free swinger, who strikes out 30 percent of the time, while walking only 6 percent of the time. His slash is .236/.285/.453 this season, but he does have 13 homers and 34 RBIs. His wRC+ is 88, but his ISO is .217. He had a breakout 2015, in which he hit 17 homers with a .276/.329/.548 slash, and his wRC+ was 137. It looked like Grichuk was going to be a star, in spite of his strikeout issues.
Grichuk has always been a fringy top ten prospect for both the Angels, and the Cardinals. Obviously, when you are selected in the first round, you carry a bit of weight. He’s got some speed, but isn’t going to steal you a ton of bases, and he can play defense, even though it looks like he’s struggling this year.
The bottom line for him is fairly simple. He strikes out a ton. If you put a pitcher in front of him that can bend the baseball in any sort of way, he’s striking out over one-third of the time. His career K% against the slider is 34.7 percent, and his K% against the curve is 37.5 percent. That’s alarming for any player, let alone at the big league level.
This season has been an interesting one for the former first rounder. While the Cardinals had seemingly locked him into the lineup, Grichuk found himself demoted at the end of May, clear down to Single-A so that he could work on his swing. He only spent a week there, before getting the bump back to Triple-A, but the point was clear:He needed to do something significant to return to St. Louis. This follows the pattern that Grichuk found himself in in 2016. He was twice sent down to the minors, once to work on his swing, and once because Brandon Moss was returning from injury.
But to some extent, it’s worked. Grichuk has simplified his swing by choking up on the bat a bit, modeling an approach utilized by Joey Votto. Since his return, his slash is .264/.302/.593, with nine homers and three doubles. The K% is still up, but that’s just who he is. The key is what he does when he’s making contact, and since he’s returned from his High-A and Triple-A stint, he’s clearly been better.
So I’m sounding harsh regarding Grichuk, but the potential is there. He hits the ball a ton, even though it looks like it’s regressing a bit. That can be explained away by his overall struggles at the start of the year. In 2015, he was tied for 14th in exit velocity with Josh Donaldson, at 93.3 MPH, a tenth ahead of Mike Trout. In 2016, he dropped off a bit, with a 92.8 MPH EV. In 2017, Grichuk’s EV has dipped to 89.7, which may or may not be concerning, and may or may not look different if I were able to find a split from his end-of-June return from the minors.
But he hits the ball hard when he actually hits it. But it’s a legit question: Will he ever be efficient at hitting the ball enough to make barreling the ball important? For what it’s worth, he is ninth in the league in Barrels/PA, and 12th in the league in Barrels/Batted Ball Event.
Defensively, Grichuk, like Pham, can play all three outfield positions, although this year he’s primarily been a corner outfielder. He’s played 43 games in left, five in center, and 27 games in right, and he’s been pretty average at all three. For the first time in his career, his UZR has been right around 0 for all three positions, and his DRS is there as well.
The eye test? In left, backhand, going back:
Another in left, backhanded, going back…but a bit further:
And another in left, heading towards the line…
And while this is last year, here’s a nice play in center:
He can play defense, and while Pham seems to be better, it’s hard to say how much better looking at small sample sizes, although Pham has considerable more speed. Neither are Zimmer elite, though.5
But the concerns are real with Grichuk. While it’s clear that you are going to have a tremendous amount of upside, as Grichuk doesn’t turn 26 until August, you are also likely going to be dealing with periods of angst. Grichuk doesn’t have any options remaining after this year, which makes a deal for him tricky. The Indians won’t have the ability to “get him right,” as the Cardinals have had over the previous few years. They also have less control — although a ton of control — than Pham. He becomes a free agent in 2021. Of course, Pham has more control, but is turning 30 soon…so the teeter totters.
Who do you trade for?
It’s the deadline, so you go for the player that best helps your team this year. What makes this potential deal really strange — beyond the fact that it doesn’t appear that there is any space for either player — is that they’re both right-handed hitters. I’m never upset about nabbing right-handed hitting, but don’t the Indians have Jackson and Guyer for that?
So for this year, to me, the player you deal for is Pham. He’s visibly and statistically a better defender who has had a fantastic offensive year by every standard. While changing leagues will likely make both regress a bit initially (maybe not), Pham seems to be the guy that can fit in right away, play all three positions, and have an impact bat. In many ways, he is a way better Abraham Almonte, although he can’t switch hit.
Both Pham and Grichuk splits vs. righties and lefties are solid though.
Again, Pham is a little better.
As for next year and beyond?
I’m still a slight lean to Pham, even though Grichuk has a clear higher upside. If Grichuk ever figures it out, his power potential alone would make him an elite hitter, and the Indians have clearly figured out, to some extent, how to fix it.
The questions I have are less about making the trade, but why now? Is Chisenhall a serious concern? Are the Indians that low on their bench? Or are they looking for a long-term solution for the eventual departures of Santana and Brantley?
The cost? This is where I get hung up. You’d like to think that something centered around Naquin would be the answer, but why would they want a guy similar to the guy they’re dealing? Naquin does have a bit more control, but not much. Honestly, Pham and Grichuk have more upside. So my guess is you’d be looking at something centering around Greg Allen and Naquin, but it’s hard to gauge the value of either player, since they aren’t main components (although Pham is interesting).
Either way, both Pham and Grichuk are intriguing options, both in 2017, but especially beyond.
- I know it’s a small sample size, but I think the Indians have seen enough prior to the waiver deadline to not waste resources [↩]
- OK, I say that loosely, but my only point is that these four — Almonte and Naquin especially — are able to fill a utility role of some sort on a dime, and do it with experience. [↩]
- Oh, next year, we’ll be having a lot of that discussion [↩]
- Bauer [↩]
- But who really is? [↩]