Coming to Terms with the Ubaldo Jimenez Trade

Editor’s note: By now, you’ve seen Kirk’s thoughts on the trade. As promised, here’s Part II from Jon Steiner

The trade deadline has come and gone, and the Indians find themselves in an odd position.  After ten years of trading current talent for future hopes, the front office did an about-face, and traded away four minor leaguers, two of whom have significant potential, for Ubaldo Jimenez, a front-end starting pitcher to slot at the top of the rotation for the next two and half years.

Make no mistake: this trade is about making the current team better, which has come as such a shock to the system that no one quite knows what to make of it just yet.  We aren’t used to these types of moves in Cleveland, and I’ve seen fan emotions run the gamut from elation to downright despair.  I should be upfront: when the trade was first announced, I was closer to despair than elation for many of the reasons I’ll discuss below.

But like my front office counter-parts, I think I may have done a bit of a 180 over the last two days as I’ve had some time to digest this trade.  Let me explain.

The basics of the swap seem almost beyond argument: the Indians are better this year, and for the next two years, because of the move.  Further, the Indians gave up two pitching prospects that would have made us better three and four years down the road (and beyond) than we’ll be without them.  This arithmetic has led to a somewhat facile conclusion: the Indians are “all in” for the next three years.

And the more I think about that concept, the more I disagree with it.  First, let’s talk about money.  Ubaldo Jimenez will cost us next year ($4.2 million) about what we paid for David Delucci in 2008 ($3.8 million).  He’ll cost us significantly less in 2012 and 2013 combined ($9.95 million) than it costs to employ Travis Hafner for one season ($13 million).  We are getting an ace for what amounts to almost no money.  I don’t bring this up because I care about the financial well-being of the Dolan family.  I bring it up because it will not affect the team’s ability to add pieces and parts over the next several seasons: in no way does the addition of Ubaldo Jimenez hamstring the club financially, and established front-end starters almost always do, to some degree or another.  So in a strictly financial sense, we are not “all-in”.

More than the finances though, I get the feeling from those who hate this trade (and some of those people write for this site, I should say), that the loss of Pomeranz and White effectively closes our contention window to the extent of Ubaldo Jimenez’s Cleveland tenure.  In other words, what we gave up will be so cataclysmic to our minor league system that the cupboards will be dry once Ubaldo leaves, and we’ll be left once again with no major league talent and no prospects to dream on.  The worst situation for any baseball fan: just ask Houston.

This was my first reaction to the trade also.  We have to invest in our minor league system, since we are so unlikely to sign free agents to their market value.  The loss of 12 years of cheap pitching from Alex White and Drew Pomeranz could amount to the loss of a hundred million dollars’ worth of wins.  We can’t give that up for free, and the thought of it really bothered me for a few days.

But if Adam Miller and David Huff and Kyle Drabek and Jason Knapp and Zach Britton and Rick Porcello have taught us anything, it’s that “can’t miss” prospects miss all the time.  Sometimes it’s due to injury.  Sometimes it’s due to coaching.  Sometimes the scouts just flat out get it wrong.  Whatever the cause, baseball is littered with can’t miss prospects, and every one of them used to be untouchable.  There’s a silly acronym that comes up anytime someone speaks too highly of a young pitching prospect.  TINSTAAPP: there is no such thing as a pitching prospect.  Or as Sam Beckett would say: it all goes away.  There are a million things that could derail Pomeranz and White between now and the Hall of Fame, and to dream on them like we have been is to disregard every single one of them.

Even more, there is some sentiment that Drew Pomeranz and Alex White are once-in-a-lifetime pitchers.  That their upside is without bound, and they are destined to win multiple Cy Young awards and World Series MVPs.  This reaction is both understandable, and little insane.  It’s understandable because we’ve just spent the last three years listening to the front office tell us that these guys are top-of-the-rotation talents.  It’s insane, because, well, there’s no objective reason to feel that way.  If there’s anything that I’ve learned, it’s that everyone always overvalues their own prospects.  It’s sort of the opposite of the-grass-is-always-greener syndrome.  But let’s think about this slightly rationally.

Alex White is, more or less, a Jake Westbrook type pitcher (and this is not 20-20 hindsight; I’ve used this comparison several times over the last two years), who if he figures out his off-speed pitches, will slot into the middle of big league rotation.  If he can’t, he’ll a bullpen guy.  Drew Pomeranz, if you trust the national writers, has the upside to be a #2 pitcher, only if he can develop a changeup.  He’s got a low to mid-90s fastball and a nice curveball.  He struck out Bryce Harper on three pitches.  But we should be clear: neither one of them has been deemed an ace by anyone who doesn’t write about the Cleveland Indians.

This obviously isn’t meant to demean these guys.  In a way, I still hope they become good players, if only because I’ve spent so much time rooting for them to succeed that to do start doing otherwise would make me feel like a crummy person.

But the best we could have ever hoped for from Drew Pomeranz is that he could be Ubaldo Jimenez.  A thousand things could have gotten in the way of that progression, but if you choose to believe only the most optimistic assessments, Pomeranz has the potential to develop into a front-line starter who’d strike out a guy an inning.

And we just got one of those, more or less guaranteed, for three years.

Lastly, we must remember that if our cupboard is dry in three years, it’s not going to be because of this trade.  As Tony Lastoria pointed out yesterday, less than two months ago we drafted two “future stud arms” in Dillon Howard and Dillon Peters.  And next year we’ll draft more.  It took less than three months for Pomeranz to convince us that he surpassed sliced bread in the pantheon of value.  There will be time for more prospects and time for more projections and time for more anticipation. The next three years of drafting will determine the depth of our minor league system far more than one trade will.  And if the last three drafts are any indication of our approach, I tend to think we’re (finally!) in good hands.

What really turned me around regarding the trade was a simple realization.  For years, I told myself and anyone who would listen that we had to build through the draft, and at first, this trade seemed to contravene that notion.  We were giving up on draft picks for a hired gun—the sort of thing that I’ve been militating against for as long as I’ve been writing about baseball.

But that’s not what happened at all.  We did use our solid drafting to improve the team.  We have a cheap, young, ace pitcher to slot at the top of our rotation.  What more could you want from a draft?