We as humans have a tendency to oversimplify things in order to more easily understand them, and much of that oversimplification involves a false binary dichotomy. For example, you’re either an adult or a child, you’re asleep or awake, you’re dead or alive. In reality, these aren’t disjunct, binary categorizations, but we like to pretend they are. Someone who is 17 years and 364 days old doesn’t just morph into an adult human being when the clock strikes midnight. An 18-year-old might be expected to be able to sustain herself, but few would expect her to be able to file her taxes or purchase a house. The term adult in a social context, then, isn’t all that useful. In reality, there’s a spectrum of maturity, and describing where someone falls on that spectrum is far more informative than labeling someone discretely as an adult or child. More on topic, we (i.e. the media) use these false binaries all the time in sports: contender or pretender, star or scrub, and most relevant, buyer and seller. Everyone wants to know, are the Indians buyers, or are they sellers, but the reality isn’t so simple. The Cleveland Indians are neither buyers or sellers. It’s a spectrum, and they’re somewhere in the middle.
A spectrum still has extremes, what you might call a traditional buyer or seller. The Detroit Tigers, for example, are so far out of playoff contention, both for this season and beyond, that the franchise’s only rational move is to sell off present-day assets in order to build for the future. The Minnesota Twins, on the other hand, find themselves in a great position to win the AL Central in 2019. Still, five of their top seven highest-paid players are free agents after this season, and the other two are only controllable through 2020. Only the future knows whether or not they’ll be able to replace that production. This could be their peak; they should maximize their chances to win while they can. They’re what you’d call a traditional buyer.
Unlike Detroit or Minnesota, the Indians don’t have the luxury of simplicity. The winner of three consecutive AL Centrals and favorite to win a fourth to begin 2019, the Indians find themselves five games behind the booming Twins. Acquiring a player or two won’t alone be the difference in their pursuit to overtake the division lead; it’s going to take health, bounceback performances, and/or an epic collapse, and the uncertainty surrounding those possibilities is disconcerting. Corey Kluber didn’t look particularly robotic to begin the season, and then a batted ball caused his mechanical glove-holding limb to malfunction. Carrasco had been bitten by the home run bug before learning that he ailed from a far more grave condition. Jose Ramirez and, to a lesser extent, Francisco Lindor have failed to meet lofty expectations. No one knows what the remainder of 2019 holds for any of these guys, but in order for the Indians to compete for the AL Central, they need positive outcomes from most or all of them. In short, the prognostication for the Indians to finish 2019 is extremely volatile. The best hope for the franchise might not yet be in the majors; it would be irrational to trade him. They’re definitely not buyers.
But they’re not sellers, either. According to Ryan Pollack’s report on The Hardball Times, the Indians still have the most surplus value in baseball (for the uninitiated, surplus value is the difference between a player’s production and his expected production based on salary). As mysterious as the future is for Kluber, Carrasco, and Ramirez, they’re each under team control through at least 2021, and even with the uncertainty surrounding them, it’s hard to imagine any of them not providing value to the club, given their track records. Additionally, Brad Hand is signed through 2021, Mike Clevinger and 2019 surplus-value king Roberto Perez are each locked up through 2022, Shane Bieber and Jake Bauers through 2024, and Oscar Mercado likely through 2025. As hopeless as this season may have seemed at times, and as dispiriting as owner Paul Dolan’s comments about the team’s financial status have been, the immediate future of the major league squad is still bright. They’re definitely not sellers.
Boil all this buyer/seller business down, and the essence is whether the team should prioritize their short term or long term goals. The Indians aren’t really in a position to do either of those things—what Cleveland really should be prioritizing is the “medium term.”
At the 2018 MLB trade deadline, the Indians made one move to help their big league roster, a relatively short term purchase. They traded middle infield prospect Willi Castro to the Tigers to acquire Leonys Martin; you, dear reader, know how that one turned out. But, quietly, the Indians made another trade, one that, as a medium-term prioritizing trade, didn’t get much press. They traded rookie ball outfielder Jhon Torres to the Cardinals for a lanky outfielder, recently converted from shortstop, with plus speed and a feel for hitting. A year later, he’s Cleveland’s starting center fielder. The Indians dove into St. Louis’s trashcan and emerged with Oscar. Torres, by the way, has a 36 wRC+ in his 75 A-ball plate appearances this season.
As fun as it is to dream on super-young, super-talented prospects like Torres, production in rookie ball doesn’t even approach a guarantee for future success. The Indians are known for their adeptness as churning out rookie ball prospects with a strong feel for hitting—I mean, look at all these guys! Is it possible that a few of them turn into MLB stars? Absolutely. But there’s no way to know which ones, and it’s also possible that none of them are future big leaguers at all. Meanwhile, the upper minor leagues, specifically amongst position players, is, to put it nicely, a bit shallow. That’s a big problem, considering that even with the arrival of Mercado, the Indians have had among the least productive outfields in MLB. They’ve also gotten the worst performance at DH of any AL team, and second base is losing its current occupant after the season. The top of the roster is flush with present and future value, but the bottom of the roster is essentially vacant.
They have plenty of trade bait in the lower minor leagues, but I haven’t even mentioned the player most likely to be traded: Trevor Bauer. Bauer, who is under team control through 2020, will likely cost his employer over $20MM dollars over that duration, an expense Indians ownership frustratingly wants to avoid. But wait, I just told you the Indians aren’t sellers—why then would they want to trade off short-term assets? Well, it’s simply a matter of prioritizing the medium term. There’s a huge trade market for a starting pitcher this July, thanks to intense division races in the NL East and especially the NL Central, and combining Bauer and a Jhon Torres-type rookie baller could net the Indians some serious medium-term contributors. And, with the emergence of Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger, the Indians can more easily absorb the blow to the major league roster, should they decide to trade him. The Cleveland Indians’ medium-term core is clear—Lindor, Carrasco, Clevinger, Bieber, Ramirez, Hand, Perez—now is an opportune time to surround it with even more talent. By combining Bauer with a young position player or two, the Indians could balance their roster and plug a gaping hole in their lineup. As long as they focus on adding medium-term value rather than fitting into the buyer/seller paradigm, the Cleveland Indians remain in a good position to compete for the AL Central for years to come.