Rumor has it that the Indians are in on Reds first baseman Yonder Alonso—and with good cause. Alonso wouldn’t just be a great building block for future teams: he’d be a significant upgrade at first base right away. Assuming the asking price isn’t too high, bringing him to Progressive Field should be one of Cleveland’s top offseason priorities.
But, as is usually the case with rumors like these, that’s not necessarily a safe assumption to make. Yahoo! Sports’ Tim Brown reported last week that Cincinnati GM Walt Jocketty wanted either a No. 2 starter or a closer in any deal for Alonso. It’s not clear exactly what that would mean—there is no single Platonic ideal of what a No. 2 starter is (other than just the second guy in the rotation), and the Reds already refused to trade Alonso to Oakland for Andrew Bailey. But whatever the case, it’s clear that it would take an impact arm to bring Alonso to Cleveland.
Still, I think the Indians and Reds would match up quite well, and there’s one player the Tribe could give up who would make this deal work for both teams: Josh Tomlin.
Tomlin, 27, had a breakout 2011 campaign, going 12-7 with a 4.25 ERA (4.23 SIERA) in 165.1 innings for the Tribe. An absolute fiend at limiting free passes, he all MLB pitchers with a 1.1 BB/9 and 3.2-percent walk rate while finishing fourth in the league in K/BB ratio (4.2) and seventh in WHIP (1.08). FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference both put him at just under 2 WAR, while Baseball Prospectus had him at a very solid 2.5 WARP. An elbow injury in August ended his season, but there’s no concern that he won’t be fully recovered for 2012.
So why would the Indians deal him? I have nothing against Tomlin and I’d be sad to see him go—I’d love to keep watching him not walk opposing hitters in a Cleveland uniform for years. But the point of trading is to make one’s team better, and the Tribe would almost certainly win more games with Alonso than with Tomlin.
Let’s assume for simplicity’s sake that Tomlin and Alonso will be about equally good in 2012. (Tomlin could end up being a little better, but if one of them were to break out, it would almost certainly be Alonso. I think projecting them as equals is fair.)
If Tomlin is out of the picture, who replaces him? David Huff would be next in line for a rotation spot, and given the improvements he made last season there’s a decent chance he’d actually end up outperforming Tomlin. Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Fausto Carmona, and Derek Lowe would remain. You’d still have Jeanmar Gomez and Zach McAllister waiting in the wings in case of injury, plus Scott Barnes, Kelvin De La Cruz, Corey Kluber, and Danny Salazar already on the 40-man roster. Yes, the Indians would miss Tomlin, but they’d be able to replace his production pretty easily.
More importantly, whatever the Indians would lose from trading Tomlin, they’d more than make up for it by bringing in Alonso. Depending on which numbers you focus on, Alonso projects to be at least 2 WAR better than Matt LaPorta over a full season, though I’d feel confident predicting the difference would be more like three or four wins, and the disparity could realistically be even larger. (LaPorta doesn’t have a firm grip on a starting job for 2012, but until the Indians bring in someone else he’s the presumptive first baseman.)
This same benefit extends past next year; in fact, the deal looks even better for 2013 and beyond than it does for 2012. If LaPorta loses the starting job next year, it means he’ll probably never get it back, and there’s no obvious candidate to replace him at first base long-term. Meanwhile, there would be more candidates for Tomlin’s old rotation spot as future prospects develop and Carlos Carrasco returns from Tommy John surgery. Not to mention that, while Tomlin isn’t too old to continue to develop, Alonso has a much higher ceiling.
So why would the Reds pull the trigger? Well, we already know that they’re looking to trade Alonso, and Tomlin fits for what we know they want in return. I’d probably call Tomlin a No. 3 starter (as opposed to the No. 2 guy Jocketty desires), but would they really be able to do much better? According to FoxSports.com’s Ken Rosenthal, most teams consider Alonso to be too “one-dimensional” to be worth trading a top-of-the-rotation arm. That only a club with pitching to spare and a hole at first base or DH could make a play for Alonso—he’s been trying to learn the outfield, but Rosenthal quotes a GM saying his glove is “terrible” there—significantly diminishes Jocketty’s negotiating power.
The Reds would benefit from this deal more than one would expect in a vacuum because they, too, would be dealing from strength to shore up a weakness. Since Joey Votto isn’t going anywhere (though if he were, it’d be worth the Indians’ while to at least inquire as to the asking price), Alonso’s only opening would be the outfield, where his poor defense would probably cancel out most of the good he’d do with his bat.
Alonso is a poor fit in Cincinnati, and he isn’t nearly as useful to his team as Tomlin would be in stabilizing the Reds’ rotation, which is Jocketty’s top priority. This proposal might help the Indians more than it would the Reds, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be mutually beneficial: with 28 other teams in the league, a win-win deal is a win-win deal even if the other side wins more.
It might take a little more than just Tomlin to bring Alonso to Cleveland—I could see the Tribe throwing in someone like Jason Donald, though Jocketty isn’t in a position to demand much more than that. Even if it wasn’t a straight-up trade, a deal centered around Tomlin and Alonso would bring both of Ohio’s MLB franchises closer to a championship.