How Can Antonetti & Co. Improve This Team?

Sep 21, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Cleveland Indians third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall (8) makes a diving catch in the seventh inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. The Cleveland Indians win 7-2. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

 

Well, it’s really over.  I know I said it was over about six times, but now it really is.  We have another month to watch a bunch of teams we don’t like play five hour games, but for me the offseason began when James Loney grounded out on Sunday.  Which means we have about 188 days to speculate on how the Indians will construct their 2015 roster.  One could (and some probably will) make a case for standing pat.  A full year of pitching that vaguely resembles August and September, combined with an offense enhanced by returns to form by Nick Swisher and Jason Kipnis and a defense that is anything other than horrendous, and it isn’t difficult to see the Indians improving by more than enough to overtake Detroit and Kansas City.

Is that the correct strategy?  It may be the only strategy.  While eliminating the salaries of Justin Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera frees up close to twenty million in payroll, but nearly half of that is already consumed by raises that are built into long-term contracts, and much if not all of the rest could be consumed by the seven players eligible for arbitration and potential long-term deals for more young and blossoming players like Corey Kluber and Lonnie Chisenhall.  Given the decline in attendance we saw this year (which has little prospect of improving, since the attention of Cleveland sports fans will probably be consumed with LeBron through at least the first two months of baseball season next year), we would be wasting our breath (or keystrokes) to call on the Dolans to increase payroll more than incrementally. So any roster improvements are likely to come through cost-neutral trades or through Scott Kazmir-type reclamations.

Reclamation projects have about the same success rate as blind dates – do you even remember this year’s project (Shaun Marcum)?  So if a more reliable way is sought to upgrade the roster, it will have to be through a trade.   Here again, the options are limited.  We can hope that another general manager is willing to give away a guy like Yan Gomes (thanks again, Blue Jays), but let’s assume the Indians will need to give up something of value in this transaction.  Let’s go down the list:

-nobody will trade for Swisher or Bourn

-everyone on the pitching staff is making less than $1.3 million.  While that will change with arbitration and new deals, the fact remains that trading any of these guys would probably involve getting back someone who makes more money.  That doesn’t rule it out, but such a move would not fit what the team is trying to accomplish.

-Murphy, Aviles, and Raburn make enough money that including one of them in a trade would facilitate bringing back somebody making decent money, but none of them performed well enough this year that another team will trade a real asset for them.  It is more likely that one of these salaries will be dumped to free up money or that they will be included in a trade to make it more cost-neutral.

-If Roberto Perez is traded the Indians will need to go find another backup catcher, which makes it hard to see such a deal being a net gain

-You could include Jose Ramirez in a trade if you thought Francisco Lindor was ready.  The Indians apparently do not, but if the right deal came along they might be tempted to rush him.

That leaves the players who are projected to make up the core of the offense next year – Brantley, Gomes, Santana, Chisenhall, and Kipnis.  Let’s take Gomes off the list, because a good catcher is too important to trade.  Brantley is likely to finish in the top 10 in MVP voting, so it’s difficult to see how trading him makes the team better.  Now we are down to three guys.  As it happens, there are prospects waiting in the wings who can play the same positions as Kipnis (Lindor or Ramirez), Santana (Jesus Aguilar), and Chisenhall (Giovanny Urshela).  Are any of the prospects likely to be better than the guys they would replace?  I can’t answer that, but here’s what I do know:  if the Indians called another team and suggested a trade involving Santana, Kipnis, or Chisenhall plus a prospect for a front-line starting pitcher, the other team would not hang up.  (Johnny Cueto, maybe?) I also know that Santana and Kipnis are under long-term contracts that, while team-friendly now, become more expensive over the next couple of years, while the prospects would be making the minimum salary for a couple of years, freeing up money that could be used elsewhere. I also know this – prospects have a shelf life.  They get hurt, they get into slumps, or they reach an age where spending another year in Triple-A makes them look like non-prospects.  Once that happens, their trade value plummets. That makes it crucial that some value be extracted from a guy like Aguilar, who will be 25 in June, either by playing him in Cleveland, including him in a trade for an established player, or trading him for a prospect who is further away from being ready.

It is not in the Indians’ DNA to trade core players early in a long-term contract.  There is a risk involved, as well, if they promote a prospect who doesn’t pan out.  But it seems to me that you could include Santana or Kipnis (or possibly Chisenhall) with prospects in a trade and replace them with players who have the potential to come close to their numbers.  If you can do that in such a way that it results in a clear upgrade elsewhere on the roster, it may be the best way to improve the team.