The Cleveland Indians’ strategy this offseason has gotten a bit of national press, and the consternation among the fanbase is nearly palpable. Along with the wholesale marketplace that is the Seattle Mariners, Cleveland has altered its roster perhaps more than any other team. It’s still only December, and they’ve already replaced or lost their 2018 starters at catcher, first base, designated hitter and left field, along with their two best relief pitchers and an interesting young player in Yandy Diaz. There are still rumors of a Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer trade and, with so much money chopped off the 2019 payroll so far, perhaps a signing or two is in order. Much has been done, and there is still much to do. Due to all of this turmoil, some of the smaller moves may have gone overlooked, but it doesn’t take much for a small move to turn into a big move. Let me give you an example:
In November 2012, the Indians traded a semi-interesting relief pitcher for a journeyman middle infielder and a minor league, part-time catcher. Ostensibly, the hope was to pick up a solid back-up infielder to replace Quad-A players like Cord Phelps and Jason Donald. And they did! In 2013, Mike Aviles gave the Indians 394 plate appearances, equipped with a reliable glove and decent baserunning. He was not good, but he was better than Phelps and Donald, so mission accomplished. That, of course, is not the end of the story though. The other guy in the trade, seemingly a throw-in, would have a much greater and longer-lasting impact on the club. I’m talking about Yan Gomes.
If you’re reading this article, I don’t have have to tell you about the 2013-2018 Indians starting backstop. You know the drill: Don’t run on Yan, that beautiful power swing, etc. etc. My question is, what drew the Indians to Gomes? The Brazilian native was a 10th round pick in 2009, and despite fairly strong numbers in the minors, Gomes’ propensity to swing and miss and concerns of skewed power numbers from offense-friendly environments limited his MLB potential in the eyes of many smart people. Hindsight tells us that this was a great trade, but at the time, I’m not sure how many people actually cared about anyone involved, and if they did, it was probably Aviles, who had come in fourth in the 2008 AL Rookie of the Year for Kansas City.
The thing is, I chose Gomes for this story simply because he was the first person I thought of. I could tell you the same story with Michael Brantley, or Corey Kluber, or Mike Clevinger. Not the same exact story, obviously, but the same kind of story. Brantley, a non-prospect, was a player to be named later in the trade that sent C.C. Sabathia to Milwaukee in 2008. Cleveland received Kluber, a non-prospect, from the Padres in return for an over-the-hill Jake Westbrook and Ryan Ludwick. Mike Clevinger was a 24-year-old starting pitcher in Single-A ball when he was the return for Vinnie Pestano! This doesn’t only happen to the Indians; there are several amazing players who were practically stolen from other teams.1 But as far as I can tell, the Indians are the best at this, and I don’t know how they do it.
Obviously, the entity that is the Indians front office is a huge, multi-faceted machine, run on impressive Princeton brain power, and well, I’m one person, who didn’t go to Princeton, with access to only public information. They deserve the benefit of the doubt. They know what they’re doing, and I shouldn’t question them. But here I am, questioning them. What did they see in these guys that their original teams were blind to? I don’t think I have the time, connections, or money to figure out the answer to that question, so let’s put a pin in it, shift gears, and come back to this thought later.
The other important question for this offseason: What makes a good relief pitcher? Or maybe a better question: How do you know if someone will be a good relief pitcher? It may sound simple or obvious, but this is clearly a question to which MLB teams do not know the answer. This is clearly an important question for the Indians in particular since their bullpen was one of the worst in baseball in 2018, and they’ve lost a couple of big names in Cody Allen and Andrew Miller. How can they improve? I’d like to present you with two examples:
Last offseason, Colorado spent $106 million on three years of Bryan Shaw, Jake McGee, and Wade Davis. To put that into perspective, that’s twice as much money as Jason Kipnis’ salary, and in half the years.2 Despite the massive financial investment, each member of that trio was a disappointment, and McGee and Shaw were catastrophic failures:
Meanwhile, Milwaukee rode their vaunted bullpen to Game 7 of the NLCS in 2018, on the backs of studs like Corey Knebel, Jeremy Jeffress, and of course, Josh Hader. Here are their stats:
Each of the Brewers’ best three relief pitchers is more valuable than the Colorado trio combined. And, to add insult to more insult, Milwaukee paid just under $6 million for their services in 2018. Not each, mind you. Total. The Brewers bullpen was one of the best bargains in baseball in 2018, and I definitely would not count them out in 2019, either.
This is an Indians article, so I will fight the urge to write case studies for each of the Brewers’ relief pitchers, and get to the point. Hader, Jeffress, and Knebel have been traded a combined nine times in their careers. Hader was drafted by the Orioles, and his path to Wisconsin went through Houston. Knebel, a Tiger, then a Ranger. Jeffress has been on the Brewers three different times. These guys weren’t groomed by the Brewers’ farm system, nor were they big free agent splashes. Like Gomes or Kluber, they were afterthoughts.
I’ll cop to cherry-picking a little bit here–I can’t pretend every journeyman pitcher becomes a stud reliever, nor can I pretend big splashes always fail.3 That said, Chris Antonetti and the gang have made several small moves this offseason, in an effort to look more like 2018 Brewers and less like the 2018 Indians.
In November, Cleveland acquired Taiwanese right-handed pitcher Chih-Wei Hu from the Rays in February in exchange for teenage infielder Gionti Turner.4 Hu (Who?) has predominantly been a starting pitcher in the minors, although the Rays attempted to convert him into a relief pitcher in 2017. His fastball sits 92-93 and touches 95, down a few notches from his 2016 Futures Game appearance. Nonetheless, his bread and butter is his changeup, a nasty palmball with really low RPM that causes it to fall off the table. While he does have a starter’s arsenal, I’m guessing the Indians are in love with that fastball/change-up combination, especially if the fastball plays up out of the bullpen. Please enjoy of Hu striking out Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Didi Gregorius in order:
James Hoyt’s path to the big leagues resembles his wicked slider. After playing baseball for Palomar Community College and the Centenary College of Louisiana, Hoyt bounced around between a couple of independent leagues before being signed by the Braves in 2013, at the age of 27. After being traded to the Astros organization, he climbed his way through the farm system, piling up huge strikeout numbers at every level on the back that aforementioned slider. Finally, in 2017, he made it to the bigs and put up strong peripherals in 49.1 innings. The Indians actually traded for him during his injury-plagued 2018 season, but 2019 marks his first chance to break in and make an impact with the Tribe.
When the Indians traded Gomes to the Nationals, the prize of that trade was ostensibly Daniel Johnson, a speedy Double-A outfielder with plus raw power and athleticism. Jefry Rodriguez was the second piece of that trade, but he stands to make a much greater impact in 2019. Like Hu, Rodriguez has been a starter during his entire professional career and has a nasty two-pitch combination. But unlike Hu, Rodriguez relies on power pitching. As a starter, his fastball sits at 95-96 and tops out at 100, which gives me reason to believe his velocity will play up out of the bullpen. Here he is blowing Travis Shaw away with a high fastball, and check out how ahead of this curveball Mark Trumbo was:
Cleveland has also signed Colorado’s Brooks Pounders and Boston’s Josh D. Smith to minor league contracts, each of whom had successful Triple-A campaigns in 2018. Pounders’ strong Triple-A numbers were overshadowed by a terrible year in the big leagues, but a mile of elevation tends to give pitchers a hard time. Meanwhile, the lefty Smith was solid in a dual role as a spot-starter and reliever for Boston’s Triple-A team last year. Neither of these arms has the upside of Hu, Hoyt, or Rodriguez, but it’s not hard to imagine either of them being useful inning eaters out of the Tribe bullpen in 2019.
Big picture, there is a correlation between spending money on payroll and win total, and the frustration of many Cleveland fans regarding ownership’s unwillingness to spend is mostly justified. I too would like to see the Indians invest more money in player contracts. That said, we know it’s possible to build a strong bullpen without spending lots of money on the free agent market, and that return on investment for relief pitchers is frequently disappointing. In reality, not all of the names I mentioned will actually be good, but it’s easy to see why the Indians think each of them could be.
If only two of them actually work out, the bullpen is probably improved from last year; if three or four of them succeed, the bullpen would be a strength, not a weakness. That’s not even considering the return of Cody Anderson and Nick Goody from injury, or interesting farmhands like Henry Martinez, a 24-year-old flamethrower who jumped from High-A to Triple-A in 2018. The gaping hole that is the Indians’ outfield depth chart is still a major concern, but quietly, Cleveland may have shored up the bullpen woes of a year ago.