As the Indians divisional lead narrows and the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline approaches, the Indians are left with a panoply of complex decision which will produce near-term and long-term impacts. Some of these impacts can be foreseen. Some cannot be known. In weighing each potential deal, the Indians must balance the impacts that can be foreseen as they have two obvious deal headlining prospects: Akron Rubberduck’s catcher Francisco Mejia and Lynchburg Hillcat starter Triston McKenzie.
While McKenzie has done absolutely everything you could ask of a 19 year old prospect in high A, his risk profile is simply much higher than that of Mejia. Mejia is a freak offensively with a feel for hitting that few possess. His contact skills and instrinsic ability to control the barrel head to drive it to the baseball is elite. Mejia from the right side of the plate is reminiscent of Jose Ramirez in his ability to barrel the ball to all fields. His left-handed swing is smooth and offers weight transition in a way that may remind many Indians fans of Shin Soo Choo.
Swing on a first inning double from smooth swinging Francisco Mejia. pic.twitter.com/wt2DgzX3QU
— Mike Hattery (@snarkyhatman) May 8, 2017
The strongest indicators of Major League success statistically in the minor leagues: 1) age compared to level; 2) Strikeout % and 3) ISO. Mejia is two and a half years younger than the average age at Double A. His strikeout percentage is just 13%, the second best of his career and an indicator of plus contact skills. A fifty point ISO improvement over 2016 indicates power growth.
Speaking with those inside and outside of the organization in Akron, the Indians know that his bat is big league ready now. The risk remaining in Mejia’s profile is whether he can stick at catcher long term, which will influence his value. Baseball Prospectus covered the risk when they ranked him the No. 3 prospect in all of baseball:
We’re pretty confident Mejia is a catcher. If we were positive Mejia is a catcher, he’d have a good case for number one. His smaller frame might not hold up under the rigors of a 120-game major league catching assignment, making him more of a C/DH type. Bat could play there too though.
The other issue for Mejia beyond body type at catcher is that he simply needs to make defensive improvements. While Mejia’s arm is plus and will never be an issue, game calling and receiving remain a developmental challenge. Mejia has made significant strides learning English and improving his communication, but it is still an area where he needs more growth. Further, the organization is working on his game-calling ability in terms of learning to sequence and set hitters up. Finally, his blocking and framing skills- while adequate- remain growth areas as well. Still, Mejia’s bat has huge positional value if he remains at catcher.
With this report in mind, Mejia is a relatively low-risk prospect who is destroying competition multiple years older than him while learning a new language to communicate with his pitchers.
Trading Mejia has become a popular topic with many being willing to part with him for a starting pitching upgrade. This willingness has the power to open up an earnest conversation about balancing short term and future interests.
Trading Mejia for an elite starter in the near term is based on two underlying assumptions: 1) It seriously improves the Indians odds of winning a World Series in 2017 and 2) the Indians have a clear window that expires following 2018 when Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Michael Brantley, and Lonnie Chisenhall are all no longer are under team control and Kluber, Carrasco are two years farther into their aging curve.
Time to review these assumptions. The Indians playoff odds prior to Sunday’s affair were just over 96% with their WS% just under 17%, good for third best in all of Major League Baseball. Indeed, after the first round, projection systems rather adore the Indians because of a talented lineup and the ability to use Kluber-Carrasco-Miller-Allen for a dominant portion of the series.
One of the difficulties for the Indians is that they have such a strong and deep roster that significantly improving a position is challenging. The Indians third and fourth starters have FIPs of 4.05 and 4.11 respectively. Not to mention one of them carrying an xFIP of 3.66.1 With Quintana off the board, Sonny Gray, Gerrit Cole and Chris Archer are the only big time starters available. Unfortunately, while Cole is controllable he is actually a FIP downgrade from both Clevinger and Bauer.2 Sonny Gray is an upgrade of about half a run but with three DL stints in 2016 as well as issues in 2017, his profile carries a lot of risk.
This leaves Archer. I do not think he will get traded. His contract is far too team friendly for Tampa Bay to consider it unless they received Mejia, McKenzie, plus a really good third piece. Time for a myopic look at Archer though, even his value in 2017 in terms of increasing World Series odds would be fairly thin. He would at most start five games, and only one in the divisional round. Indeed, in the variance driven playoffs trading for a pitcher with a half run FIP upgrade with the chance for only a single start in the divisional playoff round is a ton of risk. Indeed, if it shifted the Indians WS% even 1% it would be an aggressive projection. Archer is an outlier to this conversation because he comes with control through the 2021 season, which would provide long-term playoff odds increases.
The thing about the playoffs is that they are unpredictable. The Indians entered the 2016 playoffs in shambles, a beat writer publicly writing them off and their second starting pitcher being Josh Tomlin. If the Indians played 162 games with Tomlin-Bauer as their 2-3 starters they would be in serious trouble, but in a small sample with bullpen that can be maxed out every night, the Indians made it to the World Series. Repeatedly getting to the playoffs increases a franchise title odds farm more than a short-term upgrade impacting one or two postseasons.3
Major League Baseball teams play 162 games to strip away the randomness and separate out the good teams from the bad. Once teams reach the playoffs, it is all cluster luck with teams carrying thin marginal advantages. Think of the playoffs like blackjack where the house has a small edge which can be stripped away thanks to luck in a small sample. If you accept this assertion, then you must also accept that it is nearly impossible to shift World Series odds upwards any significant amount. Especially when the target is upgrading the role of third starter which is not as powerful an influence on a playoff team as it is during the regular season. Therefore, I reject that acquiring any starter available significantly alters the Indians odds of winning the World Series.
Second, 2018 being used as a closing window strikes me has a fool-hardy analysis. From 2019-2021 the Indians will have the following position player core Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Bradley Zimmer and Francisco Mejia. Obviously, Zimmer and Mejia retain bust risk, but among Zimmer’s floor looks like an affordable league average starter, and the hit rate for Baseball Prospectus Top 5 prospects is incredibly high, above 70%. Further, Kluber and Carrasco remain incredibly cheap assets through 2020. Clevinger is under control through 2021. With a cheap front-end rotation, though aging curve could threaten their projections, an incredibly cheap position core allows the Indians flexibility. Cheap, long -term control allows the Indians to supplement with players like Edwin Encarnacion.
Now, the Indians through aggressive deal-making can shut the window following the 2018 season but at this moment the Indians look prepared to improve their World Series odds overall by structuring a contender that can continually make it to the dance floor rather than for just one unpredictable chance.