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

Our series on extremely early trade deadline predictions for the Cleveland Indians rolls on as we address potentially their most glaring need.

Welcome back to our three-part series examining some of the possible trades the Cleveland Indians could make this summer. In Part 1, we discussed infielders; in Part 2, we took a look at some bullpen arms. Today we are going to talk about the outfield.

The Tribe’s outfield has been the subject of quite a bit of ridicule since the end of last season, as many have difficulty comprehending how upper management could possibly be comfortable going into 2019 with Leonys Martin as the team’s most proven player at the position. It’s a fair criticism, as the team is putting an awfully large number of eggs in the baskets of oft-injured or underwhelming players in the outfield.

It would also be fair to trust that somebody within the Indians organization had seen something from Jake Bauers that presumably nullified the need to sacrifice payroll or assets in the pursuit of bigger names. Bauers wouldn’t be the first cast-off from another team to make a name for himself in an Indians uniform. It’s an optimistic, “whatever helps you sleep at night” way of thinking, but only time will tell after all.

In any case, the Indians enter 2019 with a pretty wide spectrum of outcomes in the outfield, and it stands to reason that their trade deadline checklist will include at least one acquisition. I’ve broken it all down into three types of transactions, and which one the Indians elect to make depends on the team’s outlook near the end of July.

The Rental

In a best-case scenario, Martin and Bauers prove to be somewhere between adequate and exceptional, and the Indians are left with only one real question mark in the grass. Maybe Greg Allen, Tyler Naquin, Bradley Zimmer (upon return from injury), or a combination of all three are serviceable enough to not warrant an especially aggressive deadline.

If such is the case, a player like Detroit’s Nicholas Castellanos comes to mind as a potential fit. He’s a right-handed hitter with power, slots in nicely as an everyday corner outfielder, and will become a free agent at season’s end. Of course, the Tigers figure to be mathematically eliminated from playoff contention by Mothers’ Day, and Castellanos has already heard his name swirling about in trade rumors. The Indians won’t be the only team inquiring about him, and it might drive up Detroit’s asking price.

Outside of Castellanos, the rental market at this year’s deadline is pretty barren. Marcell Ozuna is probably the best outfielder set to become a free agent, but his St. Louis Cardinals figure to be buyers this summer, not sellers. The most likely target for Cleveland, then, is Cincinnati’s Yasiel Puig.

Puig is a right-handed bat with admirable walk rates throughout his career and the ability to launch a few poorly-located breaking balls onto Progressive Field’s Home Run Porch. If the Reds’ offseason experiment doesn’t yield a playoff push, Puig will be finishing the 2019 season elsewhere–but he might stay in Ohio.

The Forward-thinking Move

The Indians could take on a short-term rental like Castellanos or Puig if they feel they are a player or two away from going on another genuine postseason run. Part of the trade deadline process, however, is honest self-evaluation. Not every move needs to be made with the thought that, “this is the one that gets us over the edge this year.” It’s possible to make forward-thinking deals as well.

Miami’s Brian Anderson put forth an impressive first full season in 2018 despite playing for the hapless Marlins, slashing a respectable .273/.357/.400 and scoring 87 runs. He’s got just over a year’s worth of MLB service time, which lends itself to the possibility that Miami would rather keep him around as a building block than trade him. On the contrary, he’s already 25, which means he’ll be approaching 30 by the time the Marlins are ready to contend in a stacked NL East.

Another team that comes to mind in this scenario is the Texas Rangers, who find themselves in the unenviable position of playing in a division presided over by the Houston Astros. If the Rangers declare themselves open for business this summer, they have a pair of intriguing young outfielders that could be available in Joey Gallo and Nomar Mazara.

Gallo is renowned for his ability to obliterate a baseball, though that ability is accompanied by an exorbitant strikeout rate. Any team who wishes to acquire his services will have to be comfortable with that trade-off. Still, the Indians could do worse than slotting the 25-year-old into the cleanup spot and reaping the benefits of his 40-homer power. Gallo has just over two years of service time.

Mazara is the more well-rounded hitter of the two, lacking Gallo’s power but also striking out considerably less frequently. He’s 23 and has three full years of service time.

These deals with the long term in mind are often difficult to complete, as they require the buyer to part with highly regarded prospects and force the seller to accept the futility of their efforts to contend in the immediate future.

The Go-For-Broke

The last type of deal we will discuss is the one with the potential to create an unapologetic fervor within a fan base; the one that puts the rest of the league on DEFCON 5; the one that sends the message, “We’re gunning for the World Series and we dare you to stand in our way.”

The Indians executed precisely this kind of deal when they traded for Andrew Miller three years ago. Miller’s arrival in Cleveland sent shockwaves through the rest of the American League and nearly resulted in the franchise’s first championship since 1948. Perhaps after a frustrating winter, Chris Antonetti and company will send another resounding message at this year’s deadline.

This is, of course, where top prospects like Triston McKenzie come into play, but as Casey Stern has so famously proclaimed, “Prospects are cool, parades are cooler.”

The most obvious name to bring up here is that of Mike Trout, but before we get carried away, let’s admit that he’s highly unlikely to be traded. His salary, though astronomical, shouldn’t come into play, not even for the Indians. If anyone is worth $33.25 million, it’s Trout. Instead, the fraction of a chance that Trout is moved hinges entirely on whether or not the Angels can live with themselves in the aftermath of voluntarily parting ways with the next unanimous first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.

Further complicating things is Trout’s full no-trade clause, though it stands to reason that he’d accept a deal to a contending team after years of staying home in October.

It’s tempting to point to how the Nationals handled Bryce Harper at last year’s deadline, but there’s also a marked difference between the two situations. The Nationals could afford to lose Harper for nothing on account of having Juan Soto and Victor Robles on the rise, along with Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, and an exceptional starting rotation. The Angels, on the other hand, have a below-average MLB roster and only two prospects ranked in the top 100. They could replenish their farm system at every level with the asset haul Trout would command.

Regardless of how unlikely it is, it’s impossible not to get one’s hopes up at the thought of the best baseball player on the planet patrolling center field in Cleveland for a season and a half. If the Indians would be willing to sell off their long-term future at the 2019 deadline, they could address their most glaring weakness in one fell swoop and take over as the favorites to win the American League pennant both this year and in 2020, after which Trout can go play wherever he wants.

Next: Mike Clevinger brings an interesting approach to his starts

The law of averages says we’ll be lucky to witness one Cleveland Indians World Series title in a lifetime. Count me among those who would be perfectly content to sacrifice the next half a decade in return for the chance to witness it this year.

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