With Lee Gone, Indians Should Call New York

As is being widely reported everywhere, Cliff Lee has been signed by the Philadelphia Phillies. This is big news for Philly fans, medium-sized news for Texas fans, and humongous news for Yankees fans (Warning: Schadenfreude ahead). That the Yankees lost out on a big ticket free agent they had explicitly targeted is unusual and will certainly get a full analysis in many corners of the web. At this point, though, many have immediately turned to deciphering what's next for New York. This is certainly a team that has made questionable moves to try to patch over deficiencies before and there's little question that starting pitching was a major deficiency for the 2010 New York Yankees. Their top five starting pitchers (Sabathia, Burnett, Hughes, Vazquez and Pettitte) postedr a 4.21 ERA in 887 IP. If you remove Sabathia, those numbers move to a 4.58 ERA in 650 IP. On top of this, Vazquez has left town and the pitchers who took extra starts last year were Ivan Nova, Sergio Mitre and Dustin Moseley. Nova might have some upside, and there's always the chance Chamberlain will be reconverted, but it's hard to believe the Yankees will stand pat. 

It appears that New York has already ruled out a trade for Zack Greinke and the best pitcher remaining on the free agent market, Carl Pavano, isn't going to play for the Yankees again. If New York wants to upgrade its rotation, it appears they'll have to do it with a trade market lacking Greinke, the clear best guy available. That's why the Indians, who are sitting high on one of baseball's most volatile stocks, should consider picking up the phone. 

Fausto Carmona's major league trajectory has been frustrating, bizarre and unsatisfying. After a brief, failed stint as an Indians bullpen pitcher in 2006, Carmona paired with Sabathia to anchor the 2007 rotation that carried the Indians to the ALCS. Carmona may well have been the best pitcher in the AL that year and the Indians front office acted as such, buying out his arbitration years on extremely team-friendly terms. In 2008 and 2009, Fausto went completely off the rails for Cleveland, pitching less than 126 innings both seasons and posting a combined ERA of 5.89. Many things seemed wrong with Fausto, from his weight to his mechanics, but the Indians were at least receiving his services cheaply: Carmona's combined salary in '08-'09 was $3.25 million.

Last year, for just a hair under $5 million, Carmona provided the Indians with a bounceback season, albeit one that looked better than it was. Carmona's 3.77 ERA seemed shiny at the time, but a league-wide dip in offense meant 3.77 was approximately league average (102 ERA+). Just as important, though, was Carmona's return to form as a rotation workhorse. He threw 210.1 inninngs last year and even completed four games. He'll be entering his age 26 season in 2011, supposedly clear of his injury nexus. 

2011 is the last season that Carmona has a guaranteed contract. He'll be paid $6.1 million next year and then in 2012, 2013 and 2014, his contract dictates club options of $7, $9, and $12 million dollars. Carmona's paltry salary will be the third highest on the Indians next season. Fausto's contract is an all-timer, an extremely flexible and club-friendly deal that certainly doesn't need to be moved. If the Indians don't plan to contend before 2014, they're doing something exceptionally wrong, so it's obvious that they could just hold onto Carmona with the intent of using him as the veteran anchor of a young team and, eventually, the veteran stopper on the next Cleveland playoff team. A return to Cy Young form seems unlikely for Carmona, but stranger things have happened. Fausto's performance has been nothing if not unpredictable and, while there's hope that 2010 represented a step forward, he's a pitcher who's performance over the next four seasons has the potential to horrify or delight. 

The combination of Carmona's 2010 and 2007 performance, along with his contract, makes him an attractive player on the trade market. This became obvious when Carmona's name kept popping up last summer, and FanGraphs ended up summarizing his ambiguous value: 

This is all going to seem like much ado about nothing, but my answer would have to be that it depends entirely on what you represent as Carmona’s true talent level. If the answer is above average with the chance to get better, then hey, those aforementioned packages aren’t too far off with that contract in hand. If it’s an enigma who puts together one good season for every two mediocre seasons, then something of lesser quality is the answer.

The fact that Carmona ended 2010 healthy and more or less in the black performance-wise means that, right now, he's trending away from "enigma." All this adds up to my request that Chris Antonetti kick the tires around the wreckage of the Yankees offseason. If New York is ready to deal, the Indians have exactly the kind of piece they need. Carmona's contract is less valuable to New York than it is to other teams, although the Yankees have recently made some noise about sticking to a budget. Even with their huge budget, Fausto's affordability would allow New York to still make plays for available relievers, an outfielder, or a catcher. Of course, the Indians have some of those to dangle as well. 

In nearly all scenarios, the Indians will hold onto Fausto and the Yankees will find their fit somewhere else. The Tribe barely has five starting pitchers: without Carmona, the rotation would probably break camp with five of Talbot, Masterson, Carrasco, Huff, Tomlin, Gomez and Laffey. Still, New York's farm system is loaded for the first time in years. BetancesBanuelosRomineSanchezPhelpsLaird and more all represent significant value without getting to Jesus Montero. It's worth a phone call. 

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