Cleveland Indians: Time for a sense of urgency after Kluber trade

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 02: A view of Progressive Field prior to Game Seven of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians on November 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 02: A view of Progressive Field prior to Game Seven of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians on November 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Indians got the awkward salary dump out of the way by trading Corey Kluber. Now that it’s over, it’s time to finally take steps forward.

Sunday’s trade of Corey Kluber would seem to suggest–in a perfect world, at least–that the Cleveland Indians‘ winter blueprint will be to spread medium-sized quantities of cash throughout the roster, as opposed to allocating it all in one place.

Despite the collateral disappointment of parting with one of the Tribe’s most universally beloved players of the last three decades, it’s not the worst road map. Unless Francisco Lindor exceeds his projected arbitration number of $16.7 million by roughly 5%, Kluber was going to be tied with Carlos Santana for the highest base salary of any Indians player in 2019 at $17.5 million. Being able to distribute that figure among two or three players is not a totally unenviable position for a small-market franchise to be in, even if it had to draw the ire of a fan base to get there.

It is merely optimistic conjecture to assume that this is indeed what the Indians plan to do with that money, or “savings,” if you will. But suffice it to say it would be extremely ill-fated, for a multitude of reasons, if Cleveland doesn’t take a more aggressive financial approach in the wake of trading a two-time Cy Young winner.

The question then becomes: What are the Indians waiting for? The highest-profile free agent herd may be collectively off the board, but the Indians were never going to be in on players from that crop anyway. What is the hold-up in finally signing a player from the more affordable tier?

It’s not often that a team with a singular, glaring need makes it this far into the winter without addressing it in any capacity, but the Indians have needed a second baseman since they declined Jason Kipnis‘ team option for 2020. Mike Freeman was also DFA’d to create roster space for Emmanuel Clase and Delino DeShields after the Kluber trade.

Still out there on the open market is former Phillies second baseman Cesar Hernandez, who, at this point, is arguably the best fit of any player available for the Tribe’s roster needs. He’s coming off his least impressive season since 2015, but he’s a switch-hitter with a well-demonstrated knack for drawing walks throughout his career.

Hernandez was non-tendered by the Phillies earlier this month, and he’s not going to command a salary anywhere near what the Indians spent at second base in 2019.

Cleveland is also in need of a trustworthy left-handed outfield bat. Tyler Naquin, the only current Indians player who remotely fits this description, will miss most (if not all) of the first half of the 2020 season after tearing his ACL at the end of August.

Corey Dickerson and his career 125 wRC+ against right-handed pitching remain there for the taking. With the exception of Oscar Mercado, who among Cleveland’s outfielders would be a lock to start over Dickerson on Opening Day if the Indians signed him?

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If the Indians want to push things a step further and rebuild some of the good faith they’ve been steadily depleting with the fan base ever since last winter’s deliberate shedding of payroll in the middle of a World Series window, Paul Dolan’s “Enjoy Him” comment regarding Lindor’s future, and most recently with the Kluber trade, bargain adds like Hernandez and Dickerson are no longer where the Indians need to stop clicking “add to cart.”

Josh Donaldson is presumably ready to sign his retirement deal, and the location factor that is often viewed as a detriment to Cleveland’s ability to attract big-name free agents would likely be of secondary concern to the third baseman if a contending team from a less flashy market were to show him the money.

Why not offer him three years and $75 million, and see if the Indians can’t win a World Series in one of those first two years before Lindor leaves? Perhaps he’d welcome the return to a clubhouse he’s familiar with, a manager whose resume speaks for itself, and a roster that has put together four straight 90-win seasons. It’s also not as if this exact experiment hasn’t been attempted before, with Jose Ramirez moving to second base.

If the Tribe doesn’t want to get that far outside of their comfort zone, it’s not like they’re limited to a choice between one extreme end of the spectrum or the other.

At this point, what is legitimately stopping the Indians from jumping into the fray on Marcell Ozuna? The pesky qualifying offer caveat may prevent him from signing the long-term deal he would prefer. If that’s how it plays out, why should the Indians not be among the highest bidders on a shorter-term offer?

And these are just some of the options left out there in free agency. The Indians can also now afford to take on more money in trades as well. The point is, this Indians front office has always been celebrated for its creativity within the constructs of the franchise it represents. Now, that same front office has financial flexibility to pair with its creativity, and it’s imperative that the club capitalizes this winter.

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In any case, the Kluber deal officially vacuumed out the last of the breathing room the Indians’ top brass had in terms of being able to perform spin-moves on the idea of spending money to win. If ever there was a time to get aggressive and display a long-awaited sense of urgency in pursuit of a World Series, it’s now.