The All-Star break ended this past week, we finished our first series in the second half, and with 91 games played we must take stock of the 2019 season. Several credible news outlets report the Indians' considering a minor sell off, while many of its fans cry for reinforcements in the form of a trade. At this point the Indians can either trade off some players, try to improve this team, or hold. I find myself debating the merits on this Sunday after spending much of the day working.
Where We Stand
The Tribe sits at 51-40, 6.5 games out of first place in the Central and tied for the second Wild Card. Unlike 2016, 2017 and 2018: the Tribe is no longer the favorite to win the AL Central, despite winning about the same number of games this yeas as we did in each of those years (54, 48, and 50 respectively). Sadly, our competition has significantly improved. The Indians led the Central in each of the past three seasons, and only in 2017 (when the Twins were also good and made the playoffs as the 2nd Wild Card) did we even face much competition at all (although the Tigers posted a similar record to Minnesota in 2016). More seriously: the Twins look really good this year. Minnesota leads the league in runs, and is in a virtual three way tie for second in ERA (with Houston and Cleveland). The Twins' Pythagorean record of 56-35 is not much worse than their actual record (58-33).
The Indians actually posted a better record than the peripherals would indicate (47-43), and face a 100 run gap in our run differential with Minnesota. The division is not out of reach, especially with 10 games remaining against Minnesota, but Fangraphs projects us winning the Central only 9.2% of the time, with a solid 45% chance of reaching the playoffs overall. A 45% chance at the playoffs is nothing to sneeze at, even if we're only guaranteed one playoff game (and not even at home to boot). However, we must value the odds of the 2019 season as lower than those of 2016-2018. Therefore it is fair to consider our weaknesses, and then decide what resources to apply to this team.
Offensively little went our way to start the year, and the Tribe ranks 10th in the AL in runs scored. Francisco Lindor (OPS+ 119), Carlos Santana (147) and Roberto Perez (121) anchor a weak lineup, which provides little in terms of length. Our bench does provide some pop, especially with Luplow hitting lefties reasonably well. However, crucial weaknesses were left unaddressed in the offseason. Our three most played outfielders are Tyler Naquin (97), Jake Bauers (86) and Oscar Mercado (93), with Greg Allen (80) offering minimal help. Finally, Jason Kipnis (75) and Jose Ramirez (74) continue to slump this season. Barring a surprise return by Jose Ramirez or Jason Kipnis, or serious help from Bobby Bradley (who has not hit well so far): the offense will continue to struggle.
Our pitching is a tale of two surprises. Injuries to Mike Clevinger, Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco ravaged what should have been the best rotation in baseball. Luckily, Shane Bieber rose to the occasion, made the All-Star team, and replaced one of our four aces. Replacements Jefry Rodriguez (ERA+ 100 in 43.2 IP), Zach Plesac (ERA+ 118 in 45 IP), and Adam Civale helped plug the gap in the short term. Trevor Bauer regressed from his banner 2018 season, but remains effective (ERA+ 129 in a league leading 138 IP). Mike Clevinger already returned to duty, and Corey Kluber will likely return in August. In short, the rotation looks strong enough to either maintain, or improve, upon its current performance without the need of a trade.
I anticipated the bullpen to remain weak, albeit not as weak as 2018. Brad Hand is second in the league in saves and besides one ghastly outing last month has pitched outrageously well (ERA+ 219 in 39 appearances). Nick Wittgren, Adam Cimber, and Oliver Perez set up Hand quite well, with ERAs between 2.97 and 3.38. Middle relievers: Tyler Clippard, Nick Goody and Tyler Olson are all performing adequately. In short, while the bullpen only boasts one true relief ace in Brad Hand, we have enough solid relievers to make up for it. Cleveland leads the league in bullpen ERA, a great rebound from our 2018 debacle despite losing mainstay Cody Allen, and Andrew Miller.
To recap: the team has serious offensive problems, which will most likely remain unaddressed internally. Our pitching looks solid, with several players returning from injury to reinforce overperforming youngsters currently on the roster. Acquiring a DH (to properly replace Edwin Encarnacion), and preferably one outfielder could do wonders to assist us in catching Minnesota.
Making a Trade
Which brings us to the rub: ownership apparently lacks the resources (or the will) to improve the club. The needs of the team are obvious, but the desire to free up the resources appears lacking. If the Indians did choose to acquire an outfielder, or DH, plenty of options could be available. A short list includes:
-Nich Castellanos. I am pulling my list from MLB Trade Rumors, and while technically Justin Smoak could make sense, I will start with Castellanos. Nicholas leads the league in doubles, and is still fairly productive despite only posting an OPS+ of 109. Remember, the Indians don't need Castellanos to be Carlos Santana: they just need him to beat Jake Bauers, or Oscar Mercado, or Bobby Bradley (none of whom are playing well). A solid hitter would be a massive improvement over on our current roster, and since he's a half season rental he shouldn't cost too much.
-Melky Cabrera. This would be an intriguing acquisition, and again should cost us almost nothing. He's batting over .300 in 80 games in Pittsburgh, and is again a little better than league average.
-Trey Mancini. A commonly mentioned name, Mancini would represent a true upgrade in the lineup and probably eclipses Lindor in true offensive production. He's just entering arbitration, so he would slot in an outfield spot for the remainder of Lindor's control as well. He would be costly, probably several top prospects, to acquire.
-Hunter Renfroe. The Padres continue to stink, and Renfroe is entering his prime. He boast lots of power, but his OB% barely clears .300. He's interesting, and if he could just walk a little more he might be a really great hitter for us.
Whit Merrifield would be amazing to acquire, but I cannot see the Royals actually parting with him given their GM's comments, and our previously stated refusal to spend resources. Overall, plenty of options exist, including a few who would slide in perfectly on this team for the long haul (not just for 2019). Everyone expects the Tribe to compete in 2020, so there's no reason to limit ourselves to rentals, even though they would cost less in terms of prospects than Mancini or Santana.
Selling Trevor Bauer
I would write about trading Brad Hand, but the idea is so idiotic that either: A) some team was so stupid that we couldn't say no, or B) the front office/ownership has lost its mind and we should all drop our season ticket packages for 2020. Since I don't think either scenario is likely, that leaves us with considering trading Trevor Bauer.
Bauer's posting a strong season, although disappointing when you consider how good he was in 2018. There are signs Bauer's numbers are artificially good; his FIP is his highest since 2015, and he's already surrendered more homers this year than he's done in almost any other season. On the other hand, Bauer is young, with great stuff, and analytical enough to right the ship (hell he did it in 2018). With another year of control left, it's likely Bauer will bring in a decent haul. Corey Kluber should return soon, so the practical effects of losing Bauer could be mitigated for the season. It's important to note: Kluber looked mortal to start the season (although I doubt he maintains a 5.80 ERA: his FIP is actually better than Bauer's). If Carlos Carrasco somehow comes back, that would further reduce the necessity of Bauer. If Danny Salazar also comes back: he may be expendable.
What could we get for Bauer? Rumors suggest the Yankees might part with Clint Frazier. Frazier has posted an OPS+ of 120 in 200 plate appearances this summer, but Clint has struggled to stay on the field. I am curious if New York would actually trade Frazier for Bauer as well. Beyond New York, what other contender boasts a major league ready outfielder, posed to help the Indians immediately?
Let's Consider Reality
Lets be realistic: the Indians have two starters who are performing well, and playing consistently. Three potential aces to return is awesome but...Kluber wont be back for another month, Cookie has Leukemia and Danny Salazar hasn't pitched an inning in Cleveland since 2017. Faced with those odds Bauer looks pretty darn important to this team this year.
More importantly, outside a hypothetical reunion with Clint Frazier: what Major League ready outfielder/DH could we acquire who really helps us immediately? This is the same bloody dilemma we faced in the offseason: trying to trade Major League players for Major League players. These kinds of deals simply rarely happen in the modern game. Mandy Ball mentions both Hand and Bauer as potential trade chips to acquire said young outfielders, but once again few other options realistically present themselves. As we saw in the offseason threading the needle to compete now, while saving money AND trading off critical players is damn hard.
Which leads me to conclude that the most likely outcome of this midseason is nothing, at least nothing major. The Indians long ago decided they would not trade prospects to help the current club. Furthermore, the team payroll is now tapped out (despite the All-Star Game). The team would like to trade a starting pitcher for a starting outfielder, preferably one who makes less, with more years of control, than the pitcher they're trading. This fanciful scenario will almost assuredly not present itself. Since the Indians could still make the playoffs, with relatively little going their way: I don't see us trading Bauer. Since the team doesn't want to hurt the future: I cannot imagine us trading for anyone of value.
It's a shame. This team still has good bones (especially if Jose Ramirez finally bounces back), and I struggle to see how the team will compete in 2020 against Minnesota without some infusion of talent either via free agency or a trade. If the Dolans wont pony up now, with the best shortstop since Lou Boudreau on the roster (and wont pay him): the question becomes when will they? The team needs help, and it's unclear to me that two to three years from now is a better opportunity than today, we should take advantage of it by trading for outfield help.