Sitting firmly in first place as July speeds to a close, the Cleveland Indians front office is no doubt working phones and scheming back and forth to find a player they could add to the roster by the deadline and get the team over the hump. That hump, specifically, is that the Tribe doesn’t have a winning record against any contending team, that deficit only made worse by the drubbing they received at the hands of the Balimore Orioles this past weekend.
Sure it was the end of a long road trip and the O’s can hit the hell out of the ball, but the Indians just looked inept at times, especially offensively. But while they look around the league and gauge the value of other teams’ players and what they have lying around on the farm they can trade, the dangers of shortsightedness must be recognized. While the the post-season is looking like a good likelihood for Cleveland in 2016, shooting the future in the foot for a decent shot in the present needs to be avoided.
To but fair, nothing in baseball is assured, and the Indians taking advantage of what they have right now -- top flight pitching, career years from several different positions, a struggling division -- is a must. Look at the New York Mets. A year ago they had a rotation that was going to carry them to glory for years to come if they could just find some offense, and they took full advantage of it by acquiring Yoenis Cespedes, and had a wonderful run before losing in the World Series. Now Matt Harvey is done for the year, Noah Syndergaard is ailing, and the Washington Nationals aren’t being bit by bad luck nearly as much and have a vice grip on the division. The Mets still have a chance at the postseason, but are in a dogfight for the second wildcard with St. Louis, Miami and Pittsburgh. They’re still a good team, but just 12 months ago they and the Chicago Cubs were supposed to be the two new superpowers in the National League, dueling in the NLCS for years to come. Instead, the Mets are fighting for their very postseason lives and even if they make it there won't have homefield advantage even once. A far cry from where they were last season.
On the flip side, the Nationals may have suffered from looking too far in advance. In 2012 they shut down Stephen Strasburg to help preserve his elbow, and got knocked off by an inferior St. Louis Cardinals team. They lost in the NLDS in five games and it’s sometimes thought that with Strasburg out there instead of, say, Edwin Jackson in game two opposite Chris Carpenter, the Nats would have won that and on to win the series, and who knows what then. There are lots of moving parts, but they looked great that year, as good as they ever have. Maybe that was their shot, maybe they’ll be fine as Strasburg is amazing again this year along with a still solid Gio Gonzalez and the electric Max Scherzer. It’ll be a great what-if until they win one though.
Which takes us back to the Indians. Watching them in Baltimore, and really all year, they need that extra something to really get from good to great. They have an incredible run differential, best in the AL and third behind Washington and the Chicago Cubs, but that’s also powered in large part by having one of the best rotations and defenses in the game. In terms of OPS+ their best hitter is Tyler Tyler Naquin at 154, and even if he keeps it up it’s nerve-wracking to have a rookie be your best hitter. Especially since he doesn’t play every day. And with Juan Uribe and his 56 OPS+ soaking up most of the at-bats at third, there’s plenty of room for improvement. The bullpen needs a boost too it seems, even if Cody Allen is a competent closer. Having another guy like Andrew Miller would really shorten games for the Indians, put urgency in the minds of their opponents so they press and flail at the starters. But the cost of Aroldis Chapman was rather high, and Miller has another on his contract. The Tribe would pay a true premium for pitchers for Miller or even those a bit worse.
That’s where the the Indians find themselves though. They have assets in the form of a very good farm system right now, after years of work and not being very good spent building it up. They could get Miller, or Longoria to upgrade third, or Jonathan Lucroy to upgrade the catching situation if they so chose. Players like Clint Frazier or Bradley Zimmer these guys are the type of player to be a central piece in any deal. Even further away there’s players like Bobby Bradley and Brady Aiken, two players with so much potential shine on them it’s blinding that rebuilding teams would love to have. If they wanted to, the Indians could get any kind of player. But to blindly sell the future would be foolishly ignoring the past.
Remember right after the Indians made it to the ALCS in 2007, and in the ensuing year the wheels fell off in all types of ways and the Tribe fell into the cellar? Remember the guys from the farm that were called up to hopefully fix things? This was back when the front office had this thing about college starting pitchers, but couldn’t get them any better once they were in the system. Pitchers like Jeremy Sowers or Mitch Talbot or David Huff, seemingly repeats of the same exact pitcher who just couldn’t get through the fifth inning time and again. Or the position players like Trevor Crowe and Andy Marte, both Tribe draftees, or Jason Donald and Lou Marson who they got in a trade for the reigning Cy Young Award winner. To say nothing of Matt LaPorta. For years and years the Cleveland farm system was barren, not producing anything except Fausto Carmona, who it turned out was not a person who could play baseball in so many different ways.
This is what the Indians have worked so hard to get away from the last several years, and it’s not a place they want to get back to. Nothing is guaranteed in baseball, that’s true, but at the same time the Indians aren’t even at full strength this season and are one of the strongest teams in baseball anyway. That run differential isn’t because of a 14-game winning streak, it’s because they’re really a good team. The division isn’t exactly one step away from becoming the AL East of the 90’s, either. The Detroit Tigers are slowly falling into a spiral of mediocrity at best as their huge cash outlays will hamstring them and their bereft farm system, emptied from desperation by Dave Dombrowski as his boss demanded a championship, isn’t ready to produce much of any depth that’s so needed in baseball. The Kansas Royals are still good, but not as good as they were last year and their starting pitching has taken a step back. Meanwhile all their young players are going to need to get paid soon and are represented by Scott Boras, who the Royals just can’t afford. The Chicago White Sox are a step away from total demolition, and the Minnesota Twins just fired their GM after a flush farm system has proven to be smoke and mirrors.
The Indians have this whole rotation tied up for several years and the bats are just now knocking on the door of the majors and will be ready just as soon-to-be expensive veterans are will be leaving in the next couple years, which will turn into comp picks themselves and fuel the system. This does seem like a great year to strike, but to me it feels like the first part of a long run, not the time to max out the present. Francisco Lindor just got to Cleveland, and he, not Brantley or Santana or Kipnis, is the backbone of the Tribe future.
This is not to say the Indians shouldn’t make a move. Brantley is a constant unknown every day nothing positive comes out, and just a day after I wrote that Yan Gomes was due to turn it around he got knocked out for two months. If they can get better, they should. But not at the expense of a real, sustainable and dominant future. They have a pipeline that’s just started to deliver results. Now is not the time to dump it all in the ocean in the hope it will raise the tide.