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Don’t expect much from Cleveland at the trade deadline

Standing pat might make the most sense for this ball club

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported Saturday that Cleveland is “open to trading big leaguers,” according to rival clubs, and proceeded to wonder out loud whether Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, and James Karinchak could be on the trading block.

I wouldn’t bet on it, Jon.

Set aside the fact that Bieber, Plesac, and Civale are the only proven big-league pitchers on Cleveland’s roster — a sobering fact that has been made painfully obvious during the last month — and all three are under contract through at least 2024. Consider instead the basic reason why clubs “sell” at the deadline: To cut payroll and flip their high-priced big leaguers for young players who are going to help them build a contending club for the future.

Considering Cleveland’s $52.8 million payroll currently ranks dead last in MLB according to Spotrac, I’m not sure lowering it further is a priority for the front office — though I wouldn’t put it past them. How would they go about it, anyway? José Ramírez, the team’s highest-paid player, is a bargain at $9.4 million. His club options for 2022 ($11 million) and 2023 ($13 million) aren’t going to break the bank either. You only trade him at this point if you’re dead set on slashing payroll and punting on contending in 2022 and 2023. He’s far too valuable to this lineup.

If not Jose, your next highest-paid players are Eddie Rosario, Roberto Pérez, and Cesar Hernandez. Eddie and Hernandez are oft mentioned names in trade talks amongst fans because they are veterans by this team’s standards and both could be free agents at the end of this season (Hernandez has a club option for 2022). But in order for Cleveland to offload their contracts, there has to be a contending club who sees them as a missing piece of their playoff puzzle.

As for Roberto Pérez, Austin Hedges proved to be a capable starting backstop when Perez was on the injured list for an extended period earlier this season, but I’m not sure there is much demand for a catcher with no offensive value whatsoever.

So if Cleveland wants to cut payroll, those are their options, none of which would net much in return. If their goal is to trade for younger players who are going to help them in the future, Heyman’s suggestion of a starting rotation fire sale makes even less sense.

Staff ace Shane Bieber is under contract for three more seasons. Everyone else who has occupied a rotation spot at one point or another this season — from Zach Plesac to Eli Morgan — is under contract through at least 2025. Unless there is a team out there willing to unload their farm system for the next three years and change of Bieber, he’s not going anywhere. He is arbitration-eligible next season, but Cleveland is well-positioned to afford a bump in the salary of their AL Cy Young Award winner considering every starting pitcher on their roster has yet to make seven figures. Plesac and Civale aren’t eligible for arbitration until 2023.

Cleveland’s front office has been dead set on “retooling” rather than “rebuilding.” In other words, they’ve been willing to spend the bare minimum to keep the team competitive and avoid a dreaded 100-loss season. Whether or not that is the best way forward is open for debate. But I think we can all agree that the quickest way to a 100-loss season would be to trade one or more of Bieber, Plesac, and Civale. It’s no secret how much Cleveland values starting pitch. The 2016-18 era of the franchise was built on dominant starting pitching. So if the team plans to return to contention in the near future, I would imagine Bieber, Plesac, and Civale are a focal point of those plans.

The same could be said for James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase. Two of the best relievers in baseball and both are young and under contract through 2025. You don’t trade players like Bieber, Plesac, Civale, and Karinchak at a time like this. You build around them.

So while I’m not surprised that Cleveland is open to trading big leaguers, I would be surprised if any of their top players will have cleaned out their lockers by the time the trade deadline expires. You can debate whether they are going to buy or sell, but I think it’s more likely they watch and listen. Their roster is far from a finished product, but they have enough interesting pieces in place that a fire sale would mean throwing in the towel on their retooling efforts.