Cleveland Indians: Evaluating potential trade partners (NL Central)

SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 10: Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs hits a two-run home run during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park September 10, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 10: Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs hits a two-run home run during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park September 10, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images) /

As part of our league-wide exploration of the trade market for the Cleveland Indians, today we discuss the National League Central.

We are officially two-thirds of the way through MLB’s six divisions as we determine potential trade partners for the Cleveland Indians. We have previously covered the AL East, AL Central, AL West, and most recently visited the NL East.

Today, we will focus on the NL Central, which could wind up being one of the more interesting divisions in the league in terms of its teams’ willingness or ability to sign off on an impact trade with Cleveland between now and Spring Training.

For those of you joining us for the first time, I invite you to visit the above-linked posts regarding the divisions we’ve discussed earlier. If your interest in the Indians is restricted to hypothetical trades they may or may not make with clubs in the NL Central, here is a quick breakdown of how I’m going about these examinations:

  • Indians have: starting pitching depth, improving farm system, Francisco Lindor
  • Indians need: corner outfielder(s), fourth infielder, left-handed bat

Each team is being evaluated on whether it needs (or wants) what the Indians have in surplus, as well as whether it would be willing or able to pay the necessary price in a trade. From there, MLB’s other 29 franchises are grouped into one of the following categories:

  • The No Chance Tier – minimal to non-existent possibility teams in this tier execute a trade with the Indians
  • The Long Shot Tier – unlikely trade partners that may have a player the Indians covet and/or may have a need the Indians can address under the right circumstances
  • The “We Don’t Have to Worry About it Until the World Series” Tier – National League contenders
  • The Horseshoes and Hand Grenades Tier – teams in this tier will undoubtedly target some of the Indians’ top trade chips, but may lack in willingness or ability to meet the asking price
  • The Low-Profile Tier – a trade may come to pass, but it will not be of the high-impact, headline-making variety
  • The Blockbuster Tier – teams with the established MLB talent necessary to execute a trade that alters the landscape of the league

As usual, a final note: any hypothetical trade scenario must involve at least one established MLB player changing teams. With that, let’s dive into the National League Central.

Milwaukee Brewers: “We Don’t Have to Worry About it Until the World Series” Tier

We’ve discussed the Phillies and Angels as teams sorely lacking in starting pitching depth, but I pumped the brakes on the potential for a significant trade to occur between the Indians and either of those teams due to the fact that I can’t see the Indians getting appropriate value in return. Milwaukee also needs at least one proven starter, but unlike those other clubs, the Brewers might be able to match the asking price.

The Brewers have an $11-million mutual option in play for Mike Moustakas, who would be a perfect fit in Cleveland as a left-handed third baseman, with the ancillary benefit of allowing Jose Ramirez to permanently transition to second.

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If for some reason the Brewers called me regarding the availability of the Tribe’s starting pitchers, I’m starting the conversation with Moustakas. Of course, Corey Kluber’s name then enters the equation.

Parting with Kluber at a position of strength in return for a player who instantly fills a glaring need on the Indians’ 25-man roster is a much easier pill to swallow today than it would have been last winter before Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber established themselves as certified front-of-the-rotation starters.

There would likely need to be complementary pieces involved, but if the Brewers are willing to make Moustakas available, he’s a no-brainer in the right deal. He’s a free agent after the 2020 season, at which point Nolan Jones should be ready for a full-time promotion to the bigs. Everybody wins.

St. Louis Cardinals: “We Don’t Have to Worry About it Until the World Series” Tier

Much of what we’re about to discuss regarding the Cardinals depends on whether 38-year-old Adam Wainwright returns for that “one more year.” If he doesn’t, St. Louis could be on the hunt for another starting pitcher.

Jack Flaherty will enter 2020 as an NL Cy Young candidate, but the Redbirds could use another arm to fill out the rotation with Dakota Hudson and Miles Mikolas. They don’t have any help on the way from the farm in the immediate future, meaning they’ll likely need to make a trade or sign a free agent.

Does the emergence of Tommy Edman make Kolten Wong a potential trade chip for the Cardinals? Edman is younger, cheaper, has more years of club control remaining, and was the better overall hitter in 2019, albeit in fewer plate appearances.

Wong is a left-handed hitter who could serve as a suitable replacement for Jason Kipnis at second base, though his value is due more to his defense than his bat. He has never hit more than 12 home runs or posted a wRC+ higher than 108 in any single season.

He does, however, have 33 defensive runs saved since the start of 2018. The Indians could do worse than kicking the tires on an exceptional defender and addressing offensive needs elsewhere in their lineup. Wong is owed $10.25 million in 2020, with a $12.5-million club option for 2021.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Low-Profile Tier

The Pirates have an $11.5-million club option on Starling Marte for 2020, which it would serve them well to exercise with the ultimate goal of flipping him elsewhere for prospects. He’d be a half-decent addition to the middle of Cleveland’s lineup, and heaven knows the Indians could use another proven everyday outfielder.

Where I’m not sold on Marte is that he’s a right-handed hitter, and I’ve gone on record several times as saying the Indians’ primary focus this winter should be finding a reliable left-handed outfield bat. Marte has also gotten progressively worse defensively every year since 2015, bottoming out at negative-nine defensive runs saved in 2019.

I’ll leave the door open for the possibility that Marte is wearing an Indians jersey come Opening Day 2020, but I can’t categorize him as a blockbuster acquisition.

Cincinnati Reds: Low-Profile Tier

The Reds and Indians got what they wanted from each other in the Trevor Bauer deal last summer, and it’s difficult to envision the two Ohio clubs engaging in negotiations on another, similarly high-impact trade just months later.

The Reds now have a respectable rotation with Bauer, Sonny Gray, and Luis Castillo, along with a blossoming core of position players led by Eugenio Suarez and breakout rookie Aristides Aquino.

Amir Garrett and Raisel Iglesias remain intriguing potential additions to the Indians’ bullpen, but the Reds (on paper) look capable of being a halfway competitive team next season. As such, it’s difficult to imagine they’ll be easy to swindle into dealing a high-leverage reliever this winter.

I’m not seeing a realistic trade scenario here, at least not one involving another big name.

Chicago Cubs: Blockbuster Tier

The Cubs are a candidate to make some serious changes this winter, and they’ve already made a big one in letting Joe Maddon go. The root cause of any changes involving their MLB roster will undoubtedly stem from the financial predicament of owing an astronomical amount of money to aging, under-performing players.

Cole Hamels is off the books, but Chicago will still shell out $87 million combined in payroll salary to Jason Heyward, Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, Craig Kimbrel, and Tyler Chatwood in 2020. Maybe Kimbrel makes good on his deal next season with a full year of, you know, actually being on a baseball team, but the point here is simple: the Cubs are hamstrung.

None of the above-mentioned players are particularly desirable trade candidates even for a team looking to take on a bad contract incentivized by prospects or additional MLB talent, so the Cubs would almost certainly have to up the ante on their outgoing price in order to make it worth anyone’s while.

In addition to these lead sails, the Cubs also have to make room for the growing arbitration salaries of Javier Baez and Kris Bryant, as well as Anthony Rizzo’s $14.5-million club option. Or, they could trade one of Baez or Bryant.

Simply put, there is no objective way to look at the Cubs’ projected 2020 starting rotation and believe they are a serious World Series contender. Because of all the money they have tied up in regrettable contracts, the trade market is the only feasible way for Chicago to land a starter they can actually depend on regularly. And if they’re going to get one, they might as well shoot for a front-of-the-rotation guy.

Here’s where things get interesting if we bring in the Indians, however. The Cubs are likely to ask for someone like Mike Clevinger, as opposed to Kluber, if Bryant or Baez are on the table. Kluber is coming off a season ruined by injury, and his $17.5-million 2020 salary only qualifies as a bargain if he returns fully to form, which is obviously no guarantee.

Clevinger is younger, and precisely the type of inexpensive contributor the Cubs are desperately in need of at the moment. If this opportunity presents itself, it will make for a fascinating internal struggle for just about anyone with any ties–emotional or professional–to the Indians.

On one hand, can you imagine adding one of Bryant or Baez to the Tribe’s infield? On the other, the Indians made it through the 2019 season with only one member of their Opening Day rotation pitching the full year. Trading away another–especially if it’s Clevinger–could come back to bite them.

Next. Indians round out their coaching staff. dark

With that, we have officially wrapped up five of the six divisions in MLB. Stay tuned for the final installment in which we will discuss the NL West.