As weird as it sounds on March 9, when you consider the sour state of the American League Central and the Indians’ starting rotation, it’s really not too early to talk about the trade deadline.
Okay, it probably is, but it’s a discussion worth having anyway because of how little the Tribe did in the offseason to address their holes in the bullpen and outfield. Maybe those holes have been overblown — we won’t know until the season is well underway — but if they weren’t, there is still plenty of time to fix them. They could have some marginal upgrades in the outfield for next to nothing. They could have spent $330 million on Bryce Harper. But they didn’t.
As a team most of the way there to a World Series contender, the Indians are not resigned to signing free agents to fix their blemishes, and one could argue it’s the right decision.
I’m the one.
I’m arguing it.
It’s the right decision.
Enough time has been spent on the fact that the Indians are likely going to run away with the AL Central. Joe Sheehan and Jon Morosi may be reading a new Twins dynasty through the tea leaves, but Baesball Prospectus’ PECOTA standings have the Indians winning the division by 15 games at 97-65, and FanGraphs’ Depth Chart projections have them winning by 10 at 92-70 and one of only five teams in the majors with a run differential over 100. There is hope for the Twins, and they were the poster child for spending money on mid-level players in an offseason where no one seemed to want to, but with their rotation they probably aren’t there yet.
The Twins as a darling underdog notwithstanding, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of competition on Cleveland’s way to the playoffs — so why dedicate more resources to signing a player for a full season or even trading for a rental now when he’ll do essentially nothing for the team until October? There are more arguments to it than being cheap, too.
The market for half-season rentals has seemingly cratered as teams look to build within for the long-term and have come to terms with the reality that a few months of a player isn’t going to make or break your World Series hopes. Bryce Harper is a phenomenal player, but why would any franchise in their right mind slice the head off their farm system to get him for a few months and hopefully a few hacks in a single postseason? There were rumors the Indians refused to trade away Shane Bieber in a deal for Harper at the deadline last July, and now Bieber looks like another great pitcher in the Tribe’s toolbelt for at least half a decade.
The Nationals had the luxury of not trading Harper, saying they were going to go for the playoffs, and then reload in the offseason by giving Patrick Corbin a huge six-year contract when it didn’t work out anyway. Not every team is going to be able to do that. The Nationals were — and still are — competing, but there are going to be teams heading into a rebuild who desperately need to get rid of a player on a one- or two-year deal to start building their next core. Regardless of how stagnant the market is for them, they’re going to take something to platform off of.
Like with the free agent market, most teams with front offices full of smart people are coming to this conclusion at the same time, which makes those players extremely affordable for a team that wants them. And while other teams refuse to trade away a pile of prospects for a half-season of a player as the final piece of their puzzle, the Indians sit in a perfect position to swoop in and take advantage of a market inefficiency.
It’s partly the reason the Indians were able to get an injured Josh Donaldson for Julian Merryweather right before the waiver wire deadline passed on August 31. It didn’t work out and Donaldson is nothing more than a Trivial Pursuit answer 40 years from now in the one retirement home that actually has an updated version of Trivial Pursuit VR, but the Indians didn’t lose much. Merryweather has promise, but major injury concerns of his own, and Donaldson was a former MVP who the Indians only really needed for three series in October. It was a brilliant move, even if it didn’t pan out.
I’d be willing to bet the Indians are hoping to do the same thing again, and Mike Chernoff seems confident that they’ll have the funds required when they need it, for what it’s worth.
#Indians GM Mike Chernoff on @BullandFox: "I think Paul's (Dolan) willing to invest. We'll have to see as we get to the trade deadline, but we're at least in a position where Paul has continuously been willing to add at the trade deadline & help this team when we needed it most."— Keith Britton (@KeithBritton86) March 8, 2019
The Indians might have an above-average outfield. The Indians might have an abysmal dark hole in one-third of the lineup every night. Either way, they have a pair of superstar infielders, a great defensive catcher, and the best rotation in baseball to carry them to the midway point of the season. Why make hasty decisions now, before all the information is collected? For better or worse, Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff are committed to seeing this younger, more unproven outfield get its short under Terry Francona. That’s the exact mentality that would lead them to wait until midseason to add anything, if such a need exists.
PECOTA projects each of the starting outfielders to be worth at least one win above replacement player, with Leonys Martin leading the pack at 1.6 WARP and heavy platooning throughout. Role-players like Jordan Luplow (1.0 projected WARP), Greg Allen (0.7), Tyler Naquin (1.1), and Jake Bauers (0.3) fill out the group. An upgrade is an easy answer there, but why do it now? Can Adam Jones really hack it now — does he have a better chance of being an above-average hitter than Luplow, Naquin, Allen, or Bauers? Probably, but he’s also probably going to be available at the deadline, along with other, better outfielders. And what if the Indians’ faith in their young outfield core pulls through and one or more them outperforming projections?
Take Nick Castellanos, for example. The Tigers have no use for him this season — sorry, big fella, but your team is bad. The Indians probably could have tried to trade for him this offseason... or they could just wait until the deadline and make sure he’s healthy and producing in time for the final run into the playoffs. Let another team (in this case, the Tigers) carry the burden of him getting injured or caving to the pressure of a contract year. Give your own young guys a shot to find themselves while your starting rotation mows everybody down for a couple months.
Maybe no one in the bullpen bounces back and it turns into another insanity-inducing season from the reliever core. Find the newest sensation that pops up and hope he can ride a small sample size of success into October.
Jason Kipnis floundering, and you want to keep the outfield defense intact? Politely ask Jose Ramirez to move to second base and get a Jake Lamb, who in my fantasy land bounces back to a 2-WAR player.
Let’s get real crazy and take a hard look at Anthony Rendon if the Nationals are torched in the National League East and can’t stomach the idea of letting another star walk for nothing — and if no team is willing to empty their farm system for a half-season of him, the Indians might get him and his handful of big October at-bats for something tolerable.
The Indians are such a volatile team, with so many different holes that could either worsen or fix themselves, that it goes beyond being cheap to not fix them in the offseason. It would border on irresponsible to try and plug everything, without knowing what is going to be just fine when things get rolling. It goes against the conventional wisdom of today that says you should only go for players you can use to build long-term success with, but that’s exactly why it can work. Memefication of the term aside, the Indians could take advantage of a mini market inefficiency if they play their cards right.
Time is on the their side, and they should know it.