Since the embarrassing ALDS defeat at the hands of the Astros, the Cleveland Indians have been making all the wrong kinds of headlines.
They will almost certainly bid farewell to all three of Michael Brantley, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. The Cleveland Indians front office does not have the financial resources to be a major player on the free agent market.
This is mostly due to the fact that Jason Kipnis and Edwin Encarnacion will combine to make $34.5 million in 2019, but stars like Francisco Lindor and Trevor Bauer also figure to see exponential increases in their respective salaries via the arbitration process.
The Tribe’s bullpen is in need of an overhaul, and the argument can be made that the outfield is comprised of players who wouldn’t start on Opening Day for any other contending AL team.
And then, of course, there are the rumors that the Indians are open to trading one of their starting pitchers. This hasn’t sat well with a fan base that’s gotten used to hanging its hat on the best starting rotation in baseball.
Whether we’re looking at the facts or the rumors, this all adds up to a uniquely gloomy outlook for a team still believed to have the nucleus in place to contend for a World Series. Confusion, uncertainty, and maybe even a little bit of panic are starting to settle over Tribe Town.
I’m as neurotic as the next baseball fan, but at times like these I try to simplify things by making them into an organized list. Here is how my list of questions shakes out for the Indians this winter:
- How can the front office sidestep the money owed to Encarnacion and Kipnis in order to improve the roster?
- If the team decides to part with a starting pitcher, can they do it without making the team worse in 2019?
- Considering the limited resources, is it possible to fix both the bullpen and outfield before spring training?
The answers to all these questions go hand in hand. First and foremost, I believe it is easier to piece together a cost-effective bullpen on the fly than it is to reconstruct an outfield that way. The relief corps is coming off a disastrous 2018, but there is no need to sell the farm or spend big for bullpen arms.
The Indians suffered routinely from a lack of consistency in the outfield during the 2018 season, and finding that consistency at all three positions must be the primary goal of the front office this winter. In order to do it, the Indians are going to have to get creative, and they’re going to have to make more than one significant trade.
A contract swap with Kansas City
It’s going to be difficult to pull off a full-fledged salary dump, but what the Indians may be able to do is trade “bad money” to another team in exchange for theirs. Encarnacion and Royals outfielder Alex Gordon will make the same $20 million in 2019, and both have options with buyouts for 2020.
Setting aside for a moment the fact that Michael Brantley (17) nearly out-homered all other Cleveland outfielders combined (25) in 2018, the Indians are as much in need of elite defense in the grass as they are in need of elite offensive production in the batting order.
Gordon is a six-time Gold Glove winner, and has earned the award in each of the last two seasons. He is also durable enough to have appeared in 128, 148 and 141 games, respectively, in the last three years. Considering the injuries that have forced the Indians to regularly shuffle their outfield, knowing Gordon will be on the field except for the occasional maintenance day would help stabilize the revolving door.
Of course, there is next to no incentive for the rebuilding Royals to part with a Kauffman Stadium lifer who was an integral part of their 2015 World Series just to help a division rival maximize salary limitations, so the Indians would have to include a mid-level prospect or two in this deal.
Essentially, the Indians fill a massive void in their outfield for the same price they would pay the one-dimensional Encarnacion, and the Royals get a couple pieces to put toward their future. Both sides get to wash their hands of the big money after the 2019 season.
Now that we’ve shipped off the only player in baseball to hit 30 home runs in each of the last seven seasons, the Indians will need to acquire an impact bat to hit behind Lindor and Jose Ramirez in the order. Perhaps it seems counterproductive to go this route, but there are so many options out there that fit this bill while also providing the Tribe with roster flexibility that Encarnacion does not.
Of course, in order to acquire any of them, the Indians are going to have to give up someone neither the team nor the fan base will be excited about trading. This is where Cleveland’s starting pitching depth inevitably comes into play.
It is incredibly difficult to leave sentimentality at the door in situations like this, but from a sheer roster standpoint, it does make sense to explore the possibility of trading from a position of strength to address voids elsewhere.
When names like Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco are on the trading block, the list of teams with interest should include just about everyone. The complicated part is finding trade partners that are willing to give up Major League talent in return.
If I’m a general manager taking calls on a two-time Cy Young winner with a relatively team-friendly contract, I’m asking for one of your two or three best position players, and probably at least one prospect. If you’re the opposing GM, you’re only considering that deal if you have the same depth on offense as the Indians have in their rotation.
No matter how many times I think about it, the team I keep circling back to on this is the Dodgers, for two reasons. Along with possessing a wealth of outfielders, after two consecutive World Series defeats the Dodgers also have all the incentive in the world to go into overkill mode and sign Bryce Harper.
Call me crazy, but giving up one of my best players doesn’t sound so bad if I’m getting an elite starting pitcher and Harper in the same winter. And so, I propose a trade headlined by Corey Kluber and Cody Bellinger.
If the Dodgers land Harper, he becomes their Opening Day center fielder with Yasiel Puig manning right. From there, they can mix and match with Joc Pederson, Enrique Hernandez and Chris Taylor as they have done in the past. How they shake out a rotation that includes Kluber, Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler is up to them, but you won’t find anybody in Los Angeles complaining about it.
On Cleveland’s side of things, Bellinger instantly slots in as the team’s cleanup hitter. He can bounce back and forth between the outfield and first base, with Yandy Diaz manning the latter more often than not and Yonder Alonso taking over as the regular designated hitter. Bellinger provides the Indians with something they haven’t had for quite some time: an outfielder who can hit for power.
Naturally, this trade proposal isn’t happening in a one-for-one swap even if the Dodgers had already signed Harper. Both teams will have to add a complementary piece or two. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Hernandez was part of the return for Cleveland.
But it allows both teams to trade from positions of strength and depth, gives the Dodgers room to make a splash on the free agent market, and brings about the end of the Indians’ struggles in the outfield.
A new leadoff hitter
So far in our hypothetical stampede through the trade market, we’ve brought in a Gold Glove left fielder and a versatile power hitter who can play center or right. Maybe it’s safe to stop here, with Greg Allen having proven himself serviceable as a third outfielder in 2018.
But with Lonnie Chisenhall gone, Bradley Zimmer recovering from shoulder surgery that could keep him out until after the All-Star Break, and Leonys Martin just having been given the green light to resume baseball activities, there’s room for one more addition.
For this final move, we stay out west in Seattle. The Mariners have begun to dismantle their operation, and though they seem hesitant to go all-in on a tear-down, they have a few exceptionally valuable trade commodities to work with.
Smith ranked third in all of baseball with 40 stolen bases in 2018, and his .367 on-base percentage would go a long way toward replacing the top-of-the-order production left behind by Michael Brantley. He also plays all three outfield positions.
Of course, the Mariners are going to drive a hard bargain for a rapidly improving player who won’t even be eligible for free agency until after the 2022 season. And maybe at that juncture of the negotiation process, Chris Antonetti can ask Seattle to throw in one of their top-flight relievers and both sides can very much make it worth each other’s while.
If the Mariners are truly going into a rebuild, they don’t need players who are going to help them win 73 games for the next three years. With the Astros having reached the crest of their trajectory, the Athletics coming up on their own, and the Angels still somehow fumbling their way through the prime of Mike Trout‘s career, perhaps it’s time for Seattle to join Texas at the bottom for awhile.
Unless Jerry Dipoto performs some kind of WWE-style pivot after shedding Cano’s salary and jumps in the market for some of this year’s high-priced free agents, it seems pretty clear that the Mariners have made the right choice in loading up for the future.
The Indians can help with that in exchange for Smith and Alex Colome. Take Triston McKenzie and Nolan Jones off the table, and see what kind of prospect package the Mariners would ask for. Perhaps Ethan Hankins and Yu-Cheng Chang could serve as a starting point.
Hankins (one of Cleveland’s top right-handed pitching prospects) will not be ready for the Majors until the Indians are entering the next phase of their own evolution. Moreover, Chang is blocked on the left side of the Tribe’s infield for the foreseeable future. The Mariners can begin to stockpile pitching prospects to go with recently acquired Justus Sheffield, and add an infielder with some power in his bat.
The Indians receive two difference-makers with incredibly team-friendly financial situations. Colome, like Smith, will not reach free agency until the end of Cleveland’s proverbial “championship window,” and immediately adds a right-handed punch at the back end of the bullpen to go along with Brad Hand.
By swapping bad contracts, trading from a position of strength, and parting with a few prospects in exchange for effective players under team control, the Indians can utilize this winter to become a markedly more complete team in 2019 than they were in 2018.
The Opening Day lineup could look something like this, assuming all these wild trade theories come to fruition:
- Mallex Smith – CF
- Francisco Lindor – SS
- Jose Ramirez – 3B
- Cody Bellinger – RF
- Yandy Diaz – 1B
- Yonder Alonso – DH
- Alex Gordon – LF
- Yan Gomes – C
- Jason Kipnis – 2B
Imagine how many runs Smith could score at the top of that lineup. Imagine how many home runs Bellinger could hit straight past The Corner. Imagine the comfort of having Gordon’s elite defense in left.
The Indians could choose to hold fast and make low-profile moves for 2019. But if they want to win a World Series, they’re going to have to be bold.