September 6, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics first baseman Brandon Moss (37) hits a sacrifice fly to score left fielder Sam Fuld (23, not pictured) against the Houston Astros during the third inning at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The acquisition of Brandon Moss is an unqualified win for the Indians. I can’t guarantee that Moss will be a big contributor next season, but I can guarantee that Joey Wendle would not have, and I can pretty much guarantee that he would not have been in 2016 either. Between the guys ahead of Wendle in the pecking order, the fact that he has only 370 plate appearances at the AA level, and his age (24), the odds of Wendle ever making an impact in Cleveland were low enough to make a trade for a guy who projects to bat in the middle of the order a no-brainer.
Barring another move, Moss gives the Indians serious depth, providing insurance against another Nick Swisher injury and relegating David Murphy to fourth outfielder status. It seems unlikely that Murphy, Moss, and Ryan Raburn will all be on the opening day roster, but a bench that includes Murphy, Raburn, and Mike Aviles would provide better insurance than ever existed last year and would hopefully avoid a situation where Chris Dickerson or J.B. Shuck is batting with the game on the line. Raburn has played second and third in the past; it is hard to know if he can still do so at age 34, but he would at least provide some flexibility in a pinch.
Moss posted slugging percentages above .500 in 2012 and 2013 and was on pace to easily do so in 2014 until a hip injury derailed his season. Since Oakland plays in a less hitter friendly park than Cleveland, he should be able to surpass those numbers if his hip heals adequately. If that is the case, he would probably bat cleanup for the Indians, behind Bourn, Kipnis, and Brantley, pushing Santana, Gomes, Swisher, and Chisenhall farther down in the order. Without fact-checking myself, I would bet that not many AL teams had a better hitter than Chisenhall batting eighth last year.
Let’s just get giddy for a second and think about what this team could do. Take the 2013 stats for Moss, Swisher, and Kipnis, all of which are attainable if they are healthy, and substitute them for the 2014 seasons of Murphy, Swisher, and Kipnis. That raises the team OPS from .706 to .752, which would have ranked second behind Detroit. Then take the fifty starts made by Justin Masterson, Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlin and replace them with the 2014 stats of Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco, and T.J. House, who will likely get those starts in 2015. That would result in 52 fewer runs allowed, which would lower the team ERA from 3.56 to 3.24, which would have ranked third behind Seattle and Oakland. A team that can score like the Tigers and pitch like the A’s did in 2014 would project to win about 102 games, according to the Pythagorean formula.
Now there’s a lot of holes in that optimism. It assumes that everyone who played well in 2014 will continue to do so; the odds against that are the best reason to keep looking for more bats and arms. It also doesn’t factor in the atrocious defense the Indians played; any projection that implies an improvement in that area is based more on regression to the mean than real facts at this point. And teams don’t always win the number of games that their run differential predicts; the A’s should have won a hundred games last year but only won 88. But we are definitely looking at a lineup and a pitching staff that should be in the top five in the American League if things go well.
Moss is projected to gain 6-7 million dollars if he goes to arbitration, so this may be The Big Move as far as the offseason is concerned. The Indians had a payroll of 83 million last year; they are already committed to spend 58 million this year and have about twenty more million in anticipated contracts for arbitration-eligible players, including Moss. That is unlikely to leave enough to land an innings-eating starter, the other big item on the wish list, unless Murphy’s contract is shed. That opportunity cost is the big issue with this trade; if Moss turns out to be unproductive, his payroll burden will be large enough to constrain the Indians from further improving the roster. Still, his upside is good enough to make this a very good deal.