Cleveland Indians: Way-too-early trade deadline outlook (bullpen)

The Cleveland Indians bullpen will remain shrouded in uncertainty until the season gets into full swing, but there’s no shortage of potential deadline help.

Earlier this week, we published Part 1 of a three-part series discussing potential trade deadline targets for the Cleveland Indians. Our first installment focused on infielders; in Part 2, we will discuss bullpen arms.

Like the infield, the bullpen can be tough to forecast, though for different reasons. We can safely predict that the Tribe’s infield will be predominantly inhabited by Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, and Jason Kipnis; with Carlos Santana and Jake Bauers presumably rotating back and forth between first base and designated hitter (and/or the outfield). That’s a pretty favorable alignment heading into the season, and probably doesn’t demand a great deal of reinforcement at the deadline.

The bullpen, on the other hand, has a much wider spectrum of potential outcomes. The Indians had the worst bullpen in baseball in 2018 with Cody Allen and Andrew Miller. It wouldn’t exactly come as a shock to see the unit struggle again without them.

Or, as forgettable as 2018 was, maybe it was an excruciatingly drawn-out fluke. Maybe there’s a reason to believe Cleveland’s relief corps will be significantly better in 2019. In any case, Terry Francona’s bullpen comes with a little more uncertainty than his infield. For this reason, it’s fair to get a little more aggressive as we conduct our hypothetical summertime search for relievers.

Jose Leclerc – Rangers

Before we even dive into how tremendous an addition Jose Leclerc would be to Cleveland’s bullpen, let me start by admitting that he’s going to cost nothing short of a divine emperor’s ransom. He’s 25 years old, hasn’t even reached arbitration yet, and enters 2019 as the Rangers’ closer.

Among qualified relievers in 2018, Leclerc ranked seventh in strikeout percentage at 38.1, fifth in WHIP at 0.85, and third in HR/9 at 0.16. Coming off a season in which they collectively allowed a league-worst 1.51 HR/9, the Indians bullpen could use a guy who’s adept at missing bats and keeping the ball in the park.

This is admittedly a long shot, but I’d be more inclined to chalk myself up as completely crazy if the Mariners didn’t just send 24-year-old, pre-arbitration-eligible Edwin Diaz to the Mets a few months ago. It’s not totally out of the realm of possibility for the Rangers to execute a similar blockbuster for Leclerc when they find themselves 15 games out of the wild card hunt in the middle of July.

The Indians could build another nice one-two punch in the back end of their ‘pen and be set up well for the future when the guaranteed portion of Brad Hand’s contract ends in 2020. If they choose to go this route, however, it’s going to cost them a pretty penny in the prospect department.

Will Smith – Giants

As we wait to see if our Leclerc line gets any bites, we should probably hedge our bets by casting a few more elsewhere. The San Francisco Bay seems like a good place to start, as the Giants don’t figure to make a serious run at the playoffs in 2019.

Enter Will Smith, a quality reliever with an affordable price tag who’s set to enter free agency after the upcoming season.

Smith posted an HR/FB percentage of 6.5 in 2018, a career low. This is a more succinct way of saying just over one out of every 20 fly balls hit off Smith cleared the fence. Again, if last year is any indication, the Indians can’t possibly have enough relievers who excel at limiting home runs.

Smith has also put up pretty strong strikeout numbers with minimal free passes throughout his career. At the risk of getting a tad lefty-heavy, he’d be a fine addition to the Indians bullpen for the home stretch of 2019.

Jared Hughes – Reds

The marquee name in Cincinnati’s bullpen is closer Raisel Iglesias, but upon further examination, I’d rather trade for Jared Hughes.

Hughes has made at least 63 relief appearances every year since 2014, never posting an ERA above 3.03 in that span (twice he’s finished below 2.00). His most intriguing attribute, however, is his ability to induce ground balls. In 2018, he ranked sixth among qualified relievers in GB/FB ratio (3.68). Dating back to 2015, he ranks eighth.

Interestingly enough, Dan Otero ranks ninth in that same time frame. Otero is a candidate for positive regression after a disastrous 2018 campaign, but Hughes would be a solid insurance policy either way.

Hughes has a $3-million club option for 2020, which is a bargain for an underrated reliever with an established track record of keeping the ball in the park and limiting runs.

Sergio Romo – Marlins

I admittedly wrestled with this one for some time as I noticed a few unsettling trends in 35-year-old Sergio Romo’s recent numbers. For one thing, Romo put up an ERA above 4.00 for the first time ever in 2018.

His strikeout rate, which was never particularly high, to begin with, has trailed off since 2015. In the same time span, his WHIP and hard-hit rate have increased, while his HR/9 has leveled off at just under 1.50.

Obviously, none of this suggests Romo is poised to be one of 2019’s Reliever of the Year candidates. If he continues on his gradual downward trajectory in what is sure to be a frustrating season with the Marlins, he won’t be on anyone’s radar come to the trade deadline.

In the end, though, I settled on the idea that adding 27 postseason appearances to a bullpen suddenly lacking in playoff experience wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Romo doesn’t have to be 2016 Andrew Miller; he just has to be reliable when it matters.

Romo is a free agent after this season, so the Indians wouldn’t assume any long-term risk, and they’d only be paying him a fraction of his $2.5-million 2019 salary. He’s also not going to cost anything more than a low-level prospect to acquire.

Archie Bradley – Diamondbacks

I know, I know. The Diamondbacks don’t consider themselves to be on the brink of a full-fledged rebuild after losing Patrick Corbin and voluntarily parting ways with Paul Goldschmidt. That’s all well and good. I get it.

But as of this writing, Vegas has them as an unpromising 200/1 favorite to win the World Series, ahead of only the Marlins among NL teams. So do you know what I think? The Diamondbacks are only kidding themselves.

Archie Bradley is among the valuable trade assets they’d be wise to take calls on once they come to grips with reality, which should happen around the halfway point of July.

Bradley put up very similar numbers in many of the most meaningful pitching categories between 2017-18, yet there was a marked discrepancy in his ERA from one season to the next (1.73 in a lights-out 2017, a modest 3.64 in 2018).

The most likely culprit is that his hard-hit percentage jumped noticeably from 31.2 to 40.1, resulting in his HR/FB rate nearly doubling from 7.4 percent to 13.8. It’s hard to imagine his exceptional 2017 campaign was just a flash in the pan, so I’d look for these variations to find a middle ground in 2019.

And even if he never gets all the way back to that version of himself, a flame-throwing reliever whose ERA hovers in the middle threes isn’t necessarily anything to sneeze at.

Of course, this suggestion isn’t without a little bit of boldness. The Diamondbacks believe in themselves, and Bradley remains under team control through the 2021 season. The Indians would have to pay up to acquire him, but we’ve seen Cleveland’s front office attack the market on deals like this in the past (see: Miller, Andrew, and Hand, Brad).

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Keep an eye out for the third and final piece in this series, in which we will discuss potential outfield targets.