The Cleveland Indians are a mere Quadruple-A farm team for the big markets was an accusation leveled in 2009 on the heels of trading the back-to-back AL Cy Young Award winners in CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee alongside All-Star Victor Martinez over subsequent trade deadlines. The inability to compete financially with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees slammed shut a contention window after a lack of depth undermined the two seasons following the Tribe coming within a game of the World Series in 2007. The postseason would not be seen again by the ballclub until 2013.
Is history repeating itself?
There are rumors the Indians are considering trading some of their veteran players on larger contracts to help alleviate the financial burdens of what has been a growing payroll.1 One of the players mentioned was Corey Kluber; a two-time AL Cy Young Award winner, has finished in the Top 3 four times, and has finished in the Top 10 each of the past five seasons. Only Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale have been as decorated in the same timeframe.
Despite another stellar final line for Kluber,2 there have been warning signs he is becoming a depreciating asset. His velocity lost a full mile per hour on his four-seam fastball, sinker, and changeup, which partially explained an effectiveness drop-off in each of those pitches. Hitters were swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone and making contact with more pitches overall than in previous seasons. As a result, Kluber saw his strikeout rate drop at the same time his hard-hit and home run rate rose.
WFNY has been tracking Kluber all season from the early peripheral drops3 to the troublesome home run trend and inability to miss bats4 all the way to how Kluber was compensating by attempting to limit hard contact.5
Kluber was still one of the top pitchers in MLB in 2018, but he wasn’t quite the same dominant starter Tribe fans had grown to expect. To those fans who had been paying close attention, his quick exit and meager results in the ALDS were not a huge surprise.6
The issue for the Indians is weighing if his value in a trade (payroll relief to be spent elsewhere plus return player value) outweighs his value to the current team. If the team believes the 2016 postseason version of Kluber will return, then the conversation is over. There is no return that can equal the domination displayed in what is expected to be a World Series contention season. However, that is not the pitcher that the Tribe has seen since.
A continued small drop-off for Kluber is likely the expectation. Such a step down would still allow him to remain among the better starting pitchers in MLB over the next two-to-three years, which happens to be the current length of his contract. Injuries or further velocity downgrades would significantly alter his valuation though; the time is now to see if another team is willing to pay full value for a potentially depreciating asset.
Can the Indians be a better team in 2019 and beyond by trading Kluber?
The 2018 Tribe had a top-line rotation with four starters arguably among the Top 10 starters in the American League with Shane Bieber demonstrating an ability to continue to be a good back-of-the-rotation pitcher. So, shifting from a strength to a weakness could make the team stronger overall.
One factor in assessing a Kluber trade is the shifting balance of how postseason teams win games. A dominant bullpen is a requirement rather than a luxury and the Indians do not have the high velocity pitchers needed to compete with the big market players in the American League. Freeing up payroll could also put the Indians in the free agent market for a reliever such as Joe Kelly, but the team will need to also be focused on the return package having some interesting names for the bullpen. The deficiency of known quantities in the outfield is another worrisome area to help bolster.
Of the teams who can and might make a play for Kluber, the two that make the most sense are the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers due to both the ability to take on payroll and the young players under control they could return. One additional constraint the Tribe should hold in any Kluber deal is for the other team to also take on either the contract of Yonder Alonso7 or Jason Kipnis.8
The idea of trading with the hated Yankees is stomach-turning for most fans of the Indians, but the non-payroll limited Yankees also happen to have one of the deepest systems in terms of high-ceiling relief arms. The Yankees are also reportedly already meeting with the Indians about potential trades.
The package from the Yankees includes the contract-year for a player they are looking to dump in Sonny Gray, who happens to be a good bounce-back candidate for less than the Tribe has planned to pay Alonso. He could slot into the rotation or transition to a relief role where he might regain his upper-level abilities. Voit is a high-level hitter and German a high-ceiling reliever are both team-controlled through 2023. The best talent returned in the trade would be Garcia (a 19-year-old who spent time in Double-A), Loasigia (a potential starter or dominant reliever ready to contribute in MLB), and Florial (Top 3 Yankees prospect but years away from MLB).
Make no mistake; it would be a hefty price tag for the Yankees. They might demand to negotiate lesser players such as Luis Cessa instead of Garcia and/or Miguel Andujar instead of Voit before they would agree. The Indians would want to hold firm on the above offer as those younger pieces could be moved in subsequent deals for MLB-ready players.
The idea of trading with the Dodgers might not be much more endearing given it would pair Kluber with Clayton Kershaw out West– though it would mean banishment to the National League. The Dodgers could offer some similar relief options while having more immediate help for the outfield potentially available.
The Indians get more immediate help here as the Dodgers also are dealing from areas of strength. Chris Taylor’s emergence makes him a prime candidate to headline a trade given Corey Seager has NL MVP ability and is returning to his place on the Dodger infield in 2019. Alex Verdugo might be the Dodgers best prospect in a loaded system, but he will have a tough time breaking through an already crowded outfield. Given those high-level players controlled through 2021 and 2023 respectively, the Tribe will not be able to garner the types of arms in return they did in the Yankees deal. J.T. Chargois has plus velocity and is tinkering with his slider though he hasn’t quite put everything together. Gerardo Carrillo has potential to be an absolute steal in this trade with upper velocity and elite control (ranked lower in the Dodgers system due in part to his Triston McKenzie sized stature and being further away from MLB).
The Cleveland Indians find themselves in a position where they can strengthen multiple weaknesses with one daring move. Catching up to the big market teams who are expected to fly by the luxury tax thresholds this offseason will require such boldness. Losing a fan favorite three years before it is necessary will be disheartening to some. Should the front office hit on the move though, it could renew hope by injecting more components into the system, which could simultaneously open the window more in 2019 and keep it propped longer.
Subtracting off the roster an elite pitcher who can make arguable claims about the best stretch of pitching in the history of the franchise makes an argument it is for the betterment of World Series contention difficult. Discussion of market realities and financial ledgers are not persuasive. As such, any trade of Corey Kluber will elicit lash back from the fanbase.
However, standing still will not be enough. If the Indians want 2019 to be The Year, then it is up to the front office to feel emboldened to make the signings and trades necessary to compete. If it means one of the all-time great Indians must be traded to do so, then so be it.