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The larger message of the Mike Clevinger trade

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Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

You can set your clock by Chris Antonetti.

After each trade, the Indians team president says something along the lines of what he said yesterday: “One of our objectives is to build a sustainably competitive team, and we think this trade does that.”

After Trevor Bauer was shipped to Cincinnati (“Trying to improve our competitive position both in the short term and also kind of enhance our position moving forward by infusing young talent.”), after Corey Kluber packed his bags for Texas (“Our goal is to sustain our competitiveness and to try to infuse the organization with young talent.”) — Antonetti was nothing if not consistent. And it’s not hard to argue that he’s been successful in achieving his goal of sustaining a competitive ballclub. Since 2015, when Antonetti was named president of baseball operations, the Tribe has a record of 482-361, which is fifth-best in all of MLB.

Trading Clevinger was a smart move at the right time, and because of Cleveland’s pitching depth it was the kind of move that will not seriously harm the team’s short-term aims. But what message does it send, trading a third pitcher that has compiled a 4+ fWAR season in the last 13 months?

Zack Meisel described it well in his trade recap at The Athletic:

Over the last few years, [the Indians] have transformed one of the oldest rosters in the league into one littered with youth. Their aim is to never rebuild, to never descend into the pit of misery that forces fans to focus more on hopes, wishes and minor-league box scores than tangible, big-league results. So even when it might make sense to address a present-day need — and their outfield was desperate for an upgrade — they always have an eye on the next few years.

But that “pit of misery” he describes, the one the team is avoiding, what if we’re living in it anyway?

Consider this article from Sunday by The Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto in which he lists the following players Cleveland would not be able to afford in 2021: Mike Clevinger, Brad Hand, Carlos Santana, and Francisco Lindor. Pluto is practically a lifer on the Tribe beat. He has the connections, so you can trust that what he’s saying isn’t just his opinion, but practically the word of the team. Heck, he even quotes Antonetti as saying “Our financial losses will be extraordinary this year,” which has publicly primed the fanbase for disappointment (and ignores the fact that the team could be sold at any time for a very handsome profit).

So, consider again: Mike Clevinger is gone. Brad Hand is also likely gone after this year. We likely have to say goodbye to a team legend in Santana unless he takes a team-friendly deal. And then, to quote Pluto, “[Lindor] will be in line for a contract worth more than $20 million through arbitration in 2021. The Indians won’t pay him that.” After saving costs by cutting out practically the last vestiges of the 2016 World Series team there still won’t be enough money to give the best shortstop in baseball what he is owed in arbitration (to say nothing of what he’s actually worth)?

If this isn’t the pit of misery, what is?

In the Selby is Godcast, Meisel said “If the Indians are going to win the [Clevinger] trade, they’re going to win it from 2021 to 2027.” Maybe Cleveland wins a World Series during those years and we look back and think about how they fleeced San Diego in the deal. Hell, maybe they luck out and win a World Series this year. But it’s more likely that the longest active World Series drought continues. And instead of trying to maximize the window available with a core of incredible talent (Lindor, José Ramírez, Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco, etc.), the team is cutting costs to try and compete “sustainably.”

If all you want is to compete, the team has a good strategy. But pinning your hopes on winning the lottery in the playoffs rather than spending to fill in the gaps of a stars-and-scrubs lineup, well that’s asking fans to accept delayed gratification. This in spite of the fact practically no one alive can remember the last time Cleveland celebrated a World Series victory. Maybe the “short-sighted” (Meisel’s phrasing) national writers, like Joe Sheehan, might be right after all.