Can the Cleveland Indians improve by trading Kluber?

(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

Rumors swirl around trade talks involving the Cleveland Indians and namely Corey Kluber, but can the Indians really get better by trading their ace?

With the beginning of spring training just days away (pitchers and catchers report on Feb 12th) there is still plenty of doubt surrounding the Cleveland Indians lineup, namely the outfield situation.

In 2018, Cleveland outfielders produced a collective 5.3 fWAR, lead by Michael Brantley with 3.5 himself. Brantley is now an Astro and the Indians are left with a lot of questions.

There are players coming back off of an injury like Tyler Naquin and Leonys Martin, and players that are still injured like Bradley Zimmer. There are young guys like Greg Allen and new guys like Jordan Luplow. Nothing seems very solid about the Indians outfield in 2019 and this is reflected in the projections.

This group is projected by Steamer to produce a collective 2.6 fWAR, almost exactly half of last season.

The steamer is the brainchild of a high school teacher from Brooklyn New York named James Cross, and two of his students Dash Davidson and Peter Rosenbloom. It is used most notably on fangraphs and has been very accurate in projecting players from one year to the next.

If the Indians are going to match last season, they essentially need to find a way to make up the 2.7 win deficiency that exists between 2018 and 2019. The likelihood of the Tribe signing a 2+ fWAR free agent is nearly nil at this point, so a trade is their only real chance.

There have been plenty of trade rumors swirling around the Indians this off-season with Cleveland ace Corey Kluber sitting in the center of the vast majority of alleged discussions. He has been linked to talks with the Dodgers, Reds, and Brewers most often, but will a trade really help the Indians now.

Of course, Kluber will bring a bevy of young prospects to the Tribes farm system, but if the Indians are in a win now mode then they need an impact outfielder. Trading Kluber for a 2+ win outfielder shouldn’t be a problem, the problem is that Kluber is worth 4.8 fWAR as projected by Steamer, and that just creates a greater deficiency.

Losing Kluber from the rotation leaves a spot in the five-man open for the taking. That spot would be filled mostly by Adam Plutko with likely spot starts by a slew of other options like the returning Cody Anderson and possibly even Danny Salazar.

According to Steamer, Pluko is not projected to make many starts by any of the metrics available, so his number has to be extrapolated a bit to match his output should he slide into the 5th starter role. Given that role change, Plutko would be projected for 0.6 fWAR.

Subtract that form the projected 4.8 that the Indians would lose from Kluber and the Tribe is trading away 4.2 fWAR. Add to the 2.7 fWAR that they are already trying to make up and that means the Indians would have to trade Kluber for 6.9 fWAR of Major League talent.

That’s a major problem. There are only two players in baseball projected to produce at that level, Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. Those two are certainly off the table.

Another option would be adding a bullpen arm along with an outfielder, which would be the better move given the Indians needs. Going team by team with the Indians rumored partners, this win deficit is still nearly unattainable.

The Dodgers have been the most rumored team in contact with the Indians this off-season, and outfielder Joc Pederson seems like the likely best fit. He is projected to be the Dodgers 4th outfielder despite smashing 25 home runs last season and producing 132 OPS+ in 148 games.

He would be a fantastic addition to the Indians lineup and give them an additional power threat in the middle of their order. Pederson is projected to produce 2.9 fWAR in 2018 over 145 games.

The bullpen options are limited for the Dodgers but they have a couple arms that could help the Tribe. Both Scott Alexander and Caleb Ferguson would be excellent additions to the Cleveland pen, but those pitchers have a projected value of just 0.4 each. Only the best relievers produce more than 0.5 fWAR and elite arms might hit 1.0 WAR in a season.

If the Indians can get Pederson and one of either reliever from the Dodgers, that’s a total addition of a projected 3.5 fWAR leaving them with a total deficit of 3.4 fWAR. That puts them in a worse position than if they just stood pat.

Moving on the Brewers that are a few options for the Indians. Milwaukee isn’t likely to part with Christian Yelich or Lorenzo Cain, so that leaves the trio of Ryan Braun (projected 1.6 fWAR), Eric Thames (0.4 fWAR), and Ben Gamel (0.1 fWAR).

That’s not a lot of wins to make it worth the Indians while in a Kluber trade.

In the bullpen, Corey Knebel would be a great get. He’s one of those elite arms that is projected to produce 1.0 fWAR this season. If they can wrestle Braun and Knebel away from the Brewers, that’s still just 2.6 fWAR gained against 6.9 fWAR lost.

Finally, we have the Reds. Cincinnati snagged Yasiel Puig from the Dodgers during a time when the Indians were rumored to be in the boisterous Cuban. The Reds do not have a very deep outfield, so the pickings are slim.

Matt Kemp (0.2 fWAR) and Scott Schebler (0.6 fWAR) are really the only two that could conceivably be available. Even if we go with a fantasy scenario and say that their best-projected outfielder, Puig, would be an option.

Puig is projected at 3.1 fWAR, the highest of any guy we’ve reviewed so far. Continuing with this fantasy situation, let’s say the Indians get the Reds best starter and reliever as well with Luis Castillo and Raisel Iglesias respectively.

That scenario puts Plutko out of the equation which means the Indians need to make up Kluber’s 4.8 fWAR and the 2.7 fWAR left in the outfield. That best possible haul from the Reds would yield a projected 6.3 fWAR, arguably a push.

As bad as it seems, the Indians are better off standing pat than trading Kluber in order to acquire an MLB ready player to help the offense. Of course, any trade would strengthen the farm systems and aid the future, but for this team in 2019, it only hurts their overall value.

It’s not inconceivable that a free agent value will fall low enough for the Indians to bite, especially if April is looming and there are still solid guys unsigned, but as far as trades go I think the Indians need to keep the cards in their deck.

Let’s all hope that some of these young hitters like Jake Bauers, Yu Chang, or Max Moroff can step up and show us a glimpse of a bright future. The Indians still have one of the best rotations in the game and should ride those arms to another division title.

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Once they hit the playoffs, as anyone that lived through the ’90s can attest, pitching and defense win championships.