Cleveland Indians Hot Stove Mailbag

Terry Francona Chris Antonetti

The author while too unimportant to request questions for a mailbag column has done so to avoid brainstorming a new idea.

The Indians are in a complex position with a litany of options at seemingly every turn; if one wants an introduction to these options they would be best fulfilled reading Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs and Gage Will. Alas, to the questions.1

Robbie’s prompt is a valuable one considering the Indians are faced with balancing this question as they consider trading Corey Kluber. Time for shorthanded-math to elucidate an approximated answer. Let’s use Corey Kluber as the centerpiece to the hypothetical. First, a few projections and assumptions. Kluber is essentially a three-year asset with Year 2 and Year 3 being team options, which have a commoditized value in their own right. While cost per win is not linear, the current assessment is that the cost per WAR is roughly $9 million. Further, project Kluber for something like 5-4-3 WAR over those three seasons; a fairly reasonable projection. This creates 12 WAR with an assessed value of $108 million. Kluber’s base over those three seasons would be $40.5 million potential flexing to roughly $45 million based on incentives. This creates an approximate surplus value of $65 million with error bars to each side of probably $10 million. WAR is an estimator but imprecise!

With that sort of projected surplus especially with the Yankees and others discussing the luxury tax as a sort of cap; Kluber is easily one of the 15 best available assets in baseball. Which is why many including Robbie and Buster Olney have tossed about the notion of adding on a distressed asset to a Kluber trade to lower the prospect2 return but increase financial flexibility.

This is certainly a palatable notion and the Indians “bad contracts” be it Kipnis or Encarnacion are more simply bad for a small market team than overarching bad contracts. Each has just one guaranteed year remaining with Kipnis at $14 million (plus a $2.5 million buyout) and Encarnacion over $20 million. But I disfavor taking this approach for a few different reasons.

First, I think it would be difficult, MLB is divided into elite teams and tankers; thus the amount of teams in a Kluber bidding war is small. Likely the Yankees, Mets, Phillies, Dodgers and of course another team or two I have overlooked. Yet, that is a small pool and the amount that could take even one year of dead money is fairly limited if teams are going to pretend that the luxury tax is some type of hard cap.3

Second, I don’t think clearing one year of either player’s salary is worth the diminishing return you would receive. This is because one year of flexibility for the Indians is far less valuable than a better asset with 6 years of control. Consider, that Encarnacion is the largest free agent contract in Indians history and adding an impactful outfielder would be anchored on a sort of multi-year commitment with elevated annual values the Indians have simply avoided. Further, if a Kluber deal occurs; married to a Gomes deal the Indians should have $20 million in flexibility to improve one OF spot. Then, the second spot would be remedied by acquiring a valuable asset via the trade itself.

For example, project Kipnis or Encarnacion being between $10-$15 million4 in dead weight on a Kluber deal reducing the surplus projection to $50-$55 million. That would via research by Craig Edwards reduce prospect value/young big league centerpiece significantly– a prospect roughly in the Top 3-8 in baseball as a centerpiece to a 10-25 type prospect centerpiece; a significant diminution in prospect outcome value.

Of course, the Indians could go this route of attaching Kipnis to Kluber but that is only satisfying if they push out their financial flexibility to add between $30-$40 million this offseason, which seems unlikely. If the Indians move costs it has to be for the purpose of flexibility to multiple starter plus level players and that is largely outside their offseason modus operandi.

Look Chipotle is all about volume folks; it is not the greatest Burrito but for fast food, don’t knock it.5

This question is somewhat driven by the outcome to the first above but I my presumption is that the Indians have less than $20 million to spend this offseason; perhaps less. With this caveat; I do not believe they can embrace the cost/risk gamble that is A.J. Pollock. The first realistic piece I believe is Marwin Gonzalez but that depends on how versatility is valued as an asset this offseason.

The second would be once elite, now complementary piece Andrew McCutcheon. McCutcheon is a slightly above average offensive threat with aging corner outfield defense but certainly not to the point it is a liability. Positioned to be limited to a two or three year commitment with an annual average value between $10 and $17 million, McCutcheon could well slide into the Indians sweet zone.

Nick Markakis and Adam Jones are two other potential free agent targets both of whom being more fourth outfielder than starter at this point but each with pedigree, experience and likely receiving limited guarantees on one year deals.

And with Tito involved hijinks are often in play.

The Indians offseason could go a hundred ways seemingly but with Patrick Corbin off the board and the winter meetings approaching; the next week could alter the Indians for the next decade.

  1. Editor’s Note: the restraint it took Hattery to not use the phrase “threading the needle” in this introduction should not go without mention. []
  2. Or MLB []
  3. Note a three-way deal could be a potential to this issue with a tanking team taking on Kipnis for a prospect kicker. []
  4. these are rough estimations and not binding []
  5. Editor’s Note: and a free helping of e coli with outbreaks at their restaurants in 2015, 2017, and 2018. []