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. []