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A brief history of trading away aces and trying to compete

If the Indians are going to do it, they wouldn’t be the first

Divisional Round - New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians - Game Five Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Cleveland Indians are probably trading away a really good starting pitcher this offseason. They better, anyway, or Ken Rosenthal might have to revaluate his entire life with how hard he’s been pushing the rumors — even going as far as guaranteeing it will happen prior to the Winter Meetings.

Trading away someone like Corey Kluber might hurt, but it’s not a signal of the Indians throwing in the towel, and it might actually be the correct decision. I’ve talked about it in-depth already, but the gist of it is: Corey Kluber isn’t going to be here forever anyway, teams don’t want short-term rentals anymore, the Indians have a ton of pitchers and one of the worst outfields in the league.

All this to say the rumors are certainly there and they do make a bit of sense. It also wouldn’t be the first time a team has traded away an ace pitcher. What makes the Indians’ situation unique compared to, say, the Tigers shipping Justin Verlander to the Astros midway through 2017 or the White Sox saying goodbye to Chris “Scissors” Sale last offseason, is that the Indians are still competing. Both of those teams got prospects — good ones — but none that were going to jump in and help their new teams win championships that season. Those teams weren’t looking to trade away their best pitcher and still win a World Series right away. The Indians are.

The idea for this article came not only from an insane boredom in the worst part of the offseason, but also a question brought up by a podcast listener, who asked a pretty straightforward question without an answer: Has any team actually done this before? Has any team traded away their unquestionable ace — a guy that has won multiple Cy Youngs, anchored a team through a run to the World Series, and so much more — and still went on to compete immediately? In decade’s past, trading away your ace was lunacy, nothing more than kindling for local radio personalities to lambaste your front office until your plan went up in flames.

We’re in a new age now, though. For better or worse, teams are getting smarter with their spending, smarter with their roster decisions, and looking for long-term success over a couple more wins here and there. Teams want dynasties.

The Indians are in a strange position of being one of the only “in-between” teams in this transition. They aren’t tanking, but they didn’t necessarily tank to build this current core, and as a result they probably aren’t the best team in the American League, either. It’s far too early to pack in altogether with the talent they have on the roster, and they have a division that is easily winnable for the next two to three years. Combined with the ultra-analytical environment that baseball is currently in (in other words, a lack of stooges to take on huge sums of dead money), this might be a one-of-a-kind situation for the Tribe that we won’t see again for a long, long time.

Knowing how forward-thinking Chris Antonetti and company are, they probably backloaded Corey Kluber’s contract like they did because they thought they could just send him and his team-friendly $17 million-or-so per season money to a team who didn’t care about paying so much for an over-30 pitcher. But those teams aren’t around as much as they used to be, and they certainly aren’t dealing major-league ready talent for them.

We can’t look ahead to the future and see if the Indians will or will not make the right trade — whether it’s with the Dodgers, Padres, Reds, or some mystery team — but we can look at past trades and try and answer one curious fans question. Because it’s December, and there’s nothing else to do.

First, there are the trades that don’t really apply at all. Like the Sale and Verlander trades mentioned above, their respective teams just wanted to amass prospects. In an era of constantly dealing away aging talent to try and build a winner, MLBer-for-pile-of-prospect trades are commonplace. Other similar trades include a couple of familiar names.

In 2008, the Indians traded their ace, CC Sabathia — who finished the 2008 with a Cy Young and American League-leading 6.4 fWAR — to the Brewers for assumed future superstar Matt Laporta, pitcher Zack Jackson and Rob Bryson, and some throw-in outfielder named Michael Brantley.

This trade doesn’t apply for a variety of reasons, as it kicked off the dark period of Indians history between 2008 and 2012 where the likes of Trevor Crowe, Jack Hannahan, and Shelley Duncan started multiple games. It wasn’t pretty, but they used the prospects from the CC Sabathia deal to bring in Michael Brantley, who was a pivotal member of the current Indians core until he became a free agent this offseason and signed a two-year, $32 million deal with the Astros. So this falls heavily into the trade for prospects pool.

This was also a deal that wouldn’t happen in today’s baseball, just a decade later. You see, Sabathia was only under contract for the remainder of the 2008 season. While it sort-of worked out for the Brewers as they rode their new workhorse to a 90-72 record and a playoff appearance, they were quickly knocked off by the Philadelphia Phillies. They gave up 19.5 fWAR of Michael Brantley’s career for 4.6 fWAR over half a season and a quick playoff exit. You can kind of see why teams aren’t doing this anymore. Just imagine the kind of lopsided mess it would have been if Matt LaPorta lived up to any of his hype.

Regardless, this was definitely a good trade for the Indians, but doesn’t apply here.

The deal that sent Cliff Lee to the Phillies a year later was almost cut-and-paste the same story, only this time the Indians were already a fast-sinking ship on their way to a 65-97 record and first of four-consecutive losing seasons. Like Brantley coming over in the Sabathia deal, though, the Indians did get Carlos Carrasco, who I hear is pretty good. At least this trade was realistic by today’s standards, as Lee was coming off a phenomenal 2008 campaign in which he was worth 6.7 fWAR and only owed $6 million in 2009 with a 2010 team option worth $8 million. So a little more control for virtually nothing.

The Indians aren’t the only team to have dealt away aces, of course. The closest to dealing away an ace and competing, that I’ve found (courtesy of some help from DRaysBay writers in slack) is basically the entire history of the 20-teen Tampa Bay Rays. Their constant dealing of high-end pitchers, while also keeping a minuscule roster payroll and still relatively competing, is the closest we’re going to get to answering this eternal question.

Over the course of a decade, the Rays traded away Matt Garza (2010), James Shields (2012), David Price (2014), and Chris Archer (2018). Maybe we’re getting flexible with the term “ace” here, but the Rays managed to continually cycle through some of their best pitchers for eight years and in that time they had five 90-win seasons, four losing seasons, and only fewer than 80 wins once. At best, they were a really good team, and at worse they hovered around .500 for a few years. A lot more went into the Rays being such a steady contender (Jonah Keri wrote an entire, awesome book about it), but if you want a clean analogy for the Indians trading away Kluber, I think you can look at the Rays.

The Rays, too, were trying to stay competitive while dealing away aces. They got some highly-touted (at the time) prospects for their aces, but they also got major-league talent like Drew Smyly in 2014 (who had a 1.70 ERA in 7 starts), Wil Myers in 2012 (who slashed .293/.354/.478 with 13 home runs the following year).

Whatever you think of the Indians’ financial situation, they probably aren’t as desperate to shred money as the Rays have always been. They don’t have to trade away Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer, so the goal should be higher than Drew Smyly or Wil Myers. Still, it’s not complete unprecedented. Now give me Alex Verdugo already.