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Trading Corey Kluber was a salary dump, full stop

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The front office does smart work, but when they’re hamstrung by salary it only goes so far

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Toronto Blue Jays v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

It will take more than a day or two to fully comprehend the Corey Kluber trade. That’s just the reality of the team parting with its only two-time Cy Young winner. What Kluber was for Tribe fans is not easily captured in a few words and not likely to dissipate in a matter of days.

Of course, that didn’t stop the lively discussion on Twitter, in which many people camped out in very settled areas immediately, despite the fact some things about the trade are unknowable. For instance, we don’t know whether Kluber’s injuries have sapped him of his elite form, whether fans are underestimating Emmanuel Clase, whether Delino DeShields Jr. can be better than replacement, and so on. The only thing that will grant clarity on those issues is time.

But I will take one firm stance: this was a salary dump.

When the details were still murky, when it seemed like a third piece might be involved, there was some merit to the idea that this was not simply an effort to remove the $17.5 million owed to Kluber this season. After no third piece was coming, well, MLB’s Mike Petriello hit the nail on the head:

Without the money owed to Kluber, the Indians are projected by Cot’s Contracts to have $85.7 million in obligations on the 26-man roster for 2020, down $33.8 million from 2019 ($119.5), which itself was down $15.3 million from 2018 ($134.8). Even if the Indians do reinvest the Kluber money, they’ll still be 13.5% under the previous year’s payroll. In a year in which they’re still tipped to be among the AL Central’s best. In likely one of the last years Francisco Lindor will be man shortstop for the club. In the middle of a playoff window.

Zack Meisel of The Athletic put it best when he wrote:

“[I]t’s time to be reasonable, to stop trimming costs and eliminating the front office’s margin for error. Otherwise, the Indians risk wasting the Cleveland tenure of one of the premier players in franchise history and one of the most dynamic players in the league…. If the Indians won’t leverage Lindor’s presence into a full-on effort to snap the league’s longest title drought, then what’s the point to any of this?”

Time still remains to add free agents, to spend money, to reinvest savings from trading one of the club’s greatest pitchers of all time, but the hour is already getting late. This offseason is not the 2018-’19 offseason. As Jed Hoyer, general manager of the Cubs, said when talking to Ken Rosenthal, we’re getting back to the sign-by-Christmas mentality for free agents. Seven of the top 10 and 15 of the top 20 free agents in MLB Trade Rumors’ rankings have already signed. You don’t need a good memory to understand that this is a big reversal from the previous year, which means that the Indians are starting from behind if they intend to use their money to good effect.

And if the Indians are going to use their money well, they need to get one of those few remaining top-20 options. Because the guys that linger in the middle and bottom of free agency aren’t exactly going to make the Tribe offense much more potent. A guy like Josh Donaldson (5 on the MLBTR list) or Nicolas Castellanos (8) would be a boon for the offense, but the options past 20 on the list, such as Corey Dickerson (25, pretty much reverse Jordan Luplow) and Avisail Garcia (29, who at best could be called inconsistent), are nothing more than what the team already has in spades.

But could or would the team actually make a deal with one of the better remaining free agents? Perhaps my pessimism from the seemingly light return for Kluber is clouding my judgment, but I consider it unlikely at this point. Despite the massively reduced payroll, I struggle to imagine the Indians doling out free agent dollars at all. Considering that MLBTR’s top seven signed free agents have agreed to deals totalling more than $1.1 billion, the Tribe signing Donaldson or Castellanos or even Marcell Ozuna seems like a fantasy.

Which brings me back to Meisel’s comment, “what’s the point to any of this?” The only thing I can think of, as I prepare to watch Kluber get introduced in Arlington, is that the point has nothing to do with us fans. I’ve been told by many a well-intentioned Twitter user to trust the front office, that they do good work. I can’t dispute their work, but I can dispute the mandates they must work under. And, well ... I guess time will tell.