Cleveland Indians acquire Sandy Leon in odd trade

The Cleveland Indians haven’t made a move involving any big names yet this winter, but Monday brought news of a puzzling trade for a backup catcher.

The Cleveland Indians acquired Sandy Leon from the Boston Red Sox on Monday in a trade for 21-year-old right-handed pitching prospect Adenys Bautista. In a corresponding 40-man roster move, James Hoyt was designated for assignment.

Leon is a switch-hitter who has spent his entire career as a part-time player, and his last serviceable offensive season was in 2016. He is projected to make $2.8 million in 2020 before becoming a free agent at the end of next season.

At face value, this is a strange trade on a number of fronts. For starters, Leon is older than incumbent backup catcher Kevin Plawecki. He’s also under team control for one fewer year and will cost nearly twice as much in 2020 as Plawecki ($1.5 million projected in arbitration).

From a performance standpoint, there isn’t a whole lot to point to in terms of underlying potential. Leon did post 27 combined defensive runs saved in 2017-18, but that number fell all the way back to zero in 2019.

Offensively, he’s nearly a 25% strikeout hitter for his career. He hasn’t posted an OBP above .290 in three years, and his walk rates don’t provide much optimism that he’ll drastically improve upon that anytime soon. Leon also has three straight campaigns with a hard-hit rate under 30%.

What’s more, a new backup catcher has to be somewhere near the bottom of the list of the Indians’ needs–especially at the expense of a relief pitcher on the 40-man roster. With Roberto Perez having established himself as one of the better catchers in the league (and in terms of defense, the best), Plawecki seemed like a fine guy to continue trotting out as a substitute every four or five days.

It now appears as though Plawecki will be out of the picture behind the plate in favor of a player who provides no obvious upgrade outside of his switch-hitting ability.

The glass-half-full way of viewing this trade is that it could potentially be the first step in a much larger plan for the Tribe this winter. The question is: What does that plan look like, and how is anyone who follows the Indians supposed to connect the dots?

It wasn’t a salary dump; the Indians are actually taking on more salary. It wasn’t a cost-effective means of addressing a glaring need so that the Indians could pursue other glaring needs with more resources and flexibility at their disposal. Cleveland acquired a backup at one of its strongest positions, and designating Hoyt for assignment weakens one of the club’s thinner position groups.

Next: Our top stories from November 2019

The trade for Leon is, in a word, puzzling. And only time will tell what the Indians had in mind when they made it.

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