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Mejia for Hand: Why the Indians traded their top prospect for a pair of relievers

Francisco Mejia’s future is no longer in Cleveland, but this deal was about the Indians planning for theirs.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Francisco Mejia is headed to San Diego. The Tribe’s top prospect is now a Padre, offered up in exchange for relief pitchers Brad Hand and Adam Cimber.

Why?

The Indians bullpen needed help

If only the Tribe’s bullpen woes were limited to Andrew Miller’s extended stint on the DL (from which we hope he’ll soon return). You know the story by now: Baseball’s best bullpen last season become this season’s worst. Ranking near the bottom of the league in both ERA (5.28) and FIP (4.85), the Indians bullpen has seen a revolving door of at least 20 different relief pitchers this season, few of them good.

You might be able to work around that in a division as terrible as the AL Central — and the Indians have done exactly that — but it’s not good for a club with World Series aspirations.

Brad Hand — and to a lesser degree, Adam Cimber — are here to help.

Hand is a left-handed reliever and a two-time All-Star who has spent the last two and a half years with the Padres, who picked him up off the waiver wire when the Miami Marlins decided to cut him loose after five mediocre seasons in the majors. The change of scenery led to an instantaneous change in his fortunes. Since arriving in San Diego, he has recorded an ERA of 2.66, FIP of 3.07, ERA+ of 154, K/9 of 11.8, K/BB of 3.94, and collected 46 saves over that span.

Cimber was a ninth round pick by the Padres back in the 2013 MLB Draft. The 27-year-old submarine pitcher is in his first season in the major leagues, having made his big league debut back in March. In 48.1 innings pitched over 42 games so far this season, he has recorded an ERA of 3.17, FIP of 2.32, ERA+ of 127, K/9 of 9.5, and K/BB 5.10.

The two of them represent an immediate (and much-needed) upgrade for the Indians’ bullpen, both during the rest of the regular season and for the postseason.

Francisco Mejia’s future was uncertain

Even as the Indians’ top overall prospect, there was no clear path for Mejia to the majors. Yan Gomes is signed through 2021, with club options for ‘20 and ‘21. Roberto Perez could be in Cleveland through 2022, with club options for ‘21 and ‘22. And in spite of the latter’s struggles at the plate, the Tribe’s decision-makers feel that both provide defensive value at catcher.

Mejia has been prolific at the plate, slashing .297/.346/.490 at Double-A Akron last season and making headlines in 2016 with a 50-game hitting streak in the minor leagues. But the Indians seemed concerned about his development as a catcher, and have experimented with him at third base and in the outfield to find a place for him. But Francona admitted earlier this season that Mejia was not receptive to a position change and saw his future at catcher.

Neither side was “wrong,” so to speak. I can understand the Indians wanting to get Mejia’s bat in the lineup, however possible, and I can certainly understand Mejia feeling strongly about at what position he feels he can succeed. This trade allows Mejia to chase that dream in San Diego, where his chief competition is Austin Hedges, and in turn the Indians are able to bolster their bullpen with an All-Star closer and a promising young reliever.

The post-Allen and Miller era looks less bleak

The Tribe’s top two relievers, Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, are both free agents after this season. The same goes for Zach McAllister, Oliver Perez, and Josh Tomlin. That’s four relievers and one Josh Tomlin walking out the door, including your closer and set-up man. Both Allen and Miller are expected to sign deals well beyond what the Indians can afford this offseason. You can hold out hope for another buyer’s market like we saw this past winter, but I’m certainly not — and I don’t think the Indians’ front office is either.

The addition of Hand, who has served as the Padres’ closer since late July of last season, offers some relief, pun intended. In January, he signed a three-year extension with the Padres, meaning he is under contract through 2020, with a club option worth $10 million for 2021. Hand will earn $6.5 million next year and $7 million in 2020, which is a bargain contract for a 28-year-old closer when you consider the Indians are paying a 29-year-old Cody Allen $10.5 million this season.

If Hand slides into the closer role for the next two or three years — and I expect that he will — he can anchor the Tribe’s bullpen for the foreseeable future.

Cimber, a rookie under team control through at least 2023, will also help stabilize a bullpen that could look dramatically different in the next couple years.