I’ll say this at the top — the next few hundred words might seem a bit boastful. Humblebraggy even, if it were a raw, abject fan writing it.
But as a probably impartial writer who doesn’t even own a Cleveland Indians hat (lost it in a lake last month, but that’s unimportant here), I am merely saying what I see with this team. It’s big-time trade season, a time when contenders are expected to make a move to finalize their candidacy for October. Just last year for the Indians that looked like Andrew Miller. But this year, as July closes and I look at this roster, I can honestly say that I don’t know what the Indians can do to really improve.
This isn’t to say Cleveland is a perfect team. They’re 10 games over .500 and in first place, and own the third-best record in the AL. Their Pythagorean winning percentage is even greater — 59-40 due to a +96 run differential. They’re definitely not favorites to win the World Series, not when the Los Angeles Dodgers are going on 30-4 runs and the Houston Astros have a 17-game lead in their division. But if you look at the roster, where is the hole you can really fill?
On the infield, first base is iron-clad. Whether Carlos Santana or Edwin Encarnacion, neither is being pushed aside. Especially now that Santana is starting to get results from his excellent process, as I wrote about the other day. And Edwin can hit a ball a quarter mile, and hits walk-off grand slams.
Lindor is Lindor, and along those lines, Ramirez is Ramirez. At second we’ve seen a revolving crew dues to injury, but Jason Kipnis is wokring his way back. Even if he isn’t 100 percent, how can you trade him away, or bench him? He’s a vital cog in the operation of this mad band. You have to play him. At his best he’s one of the best second basemen in baseball. Otherwise he’s simply pretty good. You could upgrade that with Ian Kinsler, but the Detroit Tigers aren’t about to do that.
The outfield is, if anything, too crowded with talent. Brantley has re-assumed his usual excellence, Bradley Zimmer is the best center fielder the Indians have had since Grady Sizemore, and whether it’s Austin Jackson (143 wRC+ and hitting both lefties and righties) or the soon to return Lonnie Chisenhall (149 wRC+, also hitting everyone), right field is fine. This is without mentioning the HBP king Brandon Guyer or Abe Almonte, both of whom have had moments and kill left-handed pitching.
Considering the motley crew that patrolled the grass last year, the amount of depth the Indians have out there now is luxurious.
I’ll leave the rotation alone. Yes, it would be nice to replace Josh Tomlin, and Trevor Bauer has been disappointing this year. Though Bauer at least has had a few good outings and is due some positive regression, as his 5.25 ERA belies a 3.91 FIP. This stretch of goodness isn’t a ruse. The same thing is true for Tomlin, to a degree (4.38 FIP against 5.59 ERA).
With Mike Clevinger breaking out, Kluber Klubering and Carrasco proving nothing we’ve seen in the past is a ruse, what do you do? The Indians have too much talent in the rotation to consider trading for a fourth or fifth starter unless they’re really greedy. It’s a waste of resources. They are good now, and adding a Sonny Gray or whoever would be a merely marginal addition. It would be amazing and cool, but not something a forward-thinking franchise should do. Even if they’re peaking right now.
The only places the Indians could really improve are the bullpen and catcher. For catchers, though, I'm hesitant. Yes, Yan Gomes is a very good defensive catcher, and he's also got an 86 wRC+ this year. His offense has almost entirely offset his defensive prowess. But between him and Roberto Perez, the Indians have two top 10 defensive catchers in all of baseball.
Cleveland catchers are fifth in Baseball Prospectus's Framing Runs and Blocking Runs and third in Throwing Runs. The only team with better backstops that aren't contending are the Los Angeles Angels and Atlanta Braves. Unless Martin Maldonado (who also owns a 95 wRC+ this year) comes cheap, the only real answer is Tyler Flowers. He will be very expensive in prospect terms because he's logging a 124 wRC+ this year in addition to being the best framing catcher in baseball and would be around for 2018. He's also lost his team runs with his arm (-1.7 runs) and blocking (-0.7) though, so it's a struggle to rationalize moving away from either Gomes or Perez. Especially when your team is built around pitching.
A part of me also worries about how a new catcher might affect some of the pitchers. When Gomes got hurt last year, it seemed to take Corey Kluber a bit to get used to Perez. That could have just been Kluber's usual early season problems, but do we want to run the risk? It's certainly doable to upgrade the catcher position, but the cost might be quite prohibitive. With Jose Ramirez turning into a true offensive star, Edwin Encarnacion being himself, and really the whole offense starting to click without even having everyone back from the disabled list, is it really that different than an NL team using a pitcher? And Gomes at least is way better at hitting than pitchers.
The relief corps, though, that could use a boost. But does it have to come from outside?
Andrew Miller and Cody Allen are fine, so at this point we're talking about finding a third reliever. I do think Bryan Shaw is a bit worse this year than in years past, and his value in part comes from his durability as much as his ability in the moment. It's rare to have a non-Miller pitcher be able to eat 80 or so innings, and come back night after night with solid returns. But Zach McAllister has found a curveball and his 3.85 DRA is fourth best among Indians relievers. Incidentally, Bryan Shaw's is 3.39, just a couple ticks above Allen's 3.25. Nick Goody has at least become this year's Dan Otero/Jeff Manship.
The real issue is, the cost of top flight relievers is something like Clint Frazier. The best one on the market is probably Brad Hand, who would cost something like that and has way less of a track record compared to Miller. Boone Logan will be back to LOOGY about, and the Indians have at least four other legit relievers. Depending on how much you believe in Goody, at least. If it’s a lot, you have five.
Looming over all this is Terry Francona. The man has time and again preached the value of Shaw, specifically, and is known as a player’s manager. It's not to say he's tied his future to a middle reliever, but it would be a bit hypocritical of him to talk about how important Shaw is only to just shunt him aside. Baseball can't be an emotional game this time of year, and the front office can force Francona's hand, but whether the relief corps or guys like Jason Kipnis or Lonnie Chisenhall, what causes you to bump them down the depths chart short of bringing in a legit star?
Chris Antonetti said the Indians would be active at the trade deadline. They should be. No team is perfect, and if the end goal is to win a title, then anything that can be markedly improved, should. But it’s hard to identify that on the Indians right now.
Maybe it’s just because they’re on a hot streak, but this winning makes sense. If they were to make a big move, do the Indians even have the assets? I'm leaning towards "no" on both counts. Not if you want to protect some modicum of the future.
They have two top-25 prospects (I am open to trading McKenzie because I believe in Cleveland’s pitching development an not in pitching prospects) and could make a move. The Kansas City Royals did, though the expiration date on their current crop of stars is fast approaching. Not so with the Indians. You should never take the future for granted, but recklessness could doom them even quicker than doing nothing.
It’s just hard to find a way for the Indians to efficiently take advantage of the value they have in the minors. Which is the problem with the trade deadline, anyway. I guess if you’re going do to it, do it big. Don’t just nudge the needle. Trade for Gray. Trade for Hand. Trade for Kinsler(? I don’t know).
Maybe the Royals have the right approach right now. Otherwise, The Indians could do a lot worse than just stand pat.