The Indians have done a decidedly poor job of developing pitchers in recent years. No one they’ve drafted in the last decade has made serious contributions to the team as a starter. Few top starters have been hitting free agency lately, and when they do, the Tribe isn’t in the position to throw around the kind of money it takes to sign them anyway. If you can’t sign the best arms as free agents and your development system isn’t turning them out either, the only remaining avenue to great pitching is to trade for it.
Tuesday night the Indians completed a somewhat stunning pair of trades, basically spinning what would have been Shin-Soo Choo’s last year with the team into three years of centerfielder Drew Stubbs. ...Oh yeah, and six years of Trevor Bauer, one of the five best pitching prospects in baseball! Across the land, Tribe fans rejoiced at a deal almost every knowledgeable analyst has called a steal. Even those fans most hardened against the Antonetti/Shaprio regime had to tip their cap.
As will no doubt be pointed out in the comments, TINSTAAPP ("there is no such thing as a pitching prospect," for those of you not up-to-date on how the cool kids talk). Bauer is obviously no sure thing (hell, 2012 proved that Roy Halladay is no sure thing!), but he’s certainly got the potential to become one of the best pitchers in baseball and could be the Tribe’s staff ace by the end of 2014. Between signing Terry Francona to manage the team and this deal, I think the 2012/13 off-season can officially be declared a success.
That said, looking at the Indians' roster, as presently constructed, I don’t see a very good team in 2013. If nothing else changes, the Tribe ought to be better than they were in 2012, because Mark Reynolds should be better than Casey Kotchman, Lonnie Chisenhall should be better than Jack Hannahan, Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana both could be even better, and the starting pitching (with or without Bauer) almost has to improve, because... well, how could it be any worse?! As good as the trade was though, losing Choo means the outfield is now glaringly weak, there isn’t a DH, and a better starting rotation isn’t the same as a good one. The reasonably expected improvements might bump the team to what, 75 wins? Maybe .500 ball if things really break right? It’s been a great off-season already, but the Indians are now stuck in something of a no man’s land. What might they do to step out from it, in one direction or the other?
GO FOR IT
If the front office is serious about trying to contend next season, there’s a good deal more to be done. A couple more bats are needed, and at least one of them needs to be of the sort that can make a serious impact. Another starting pitcher should be brought in too, because while Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson both stand a decent chance of rebounding, Carlos Carrasco could be ready to make good on the promise that made him the crown jewel of the Cliff Lee deal, Zach McAllister has shown signs of life, and Bauer might be ready to make a difference already, the odds of all those things happening are slender at best.
The Indians have money to spend (they’re committed to ~$20 million less than in 2012). With bigger TV money only one year away, they should be willing to go even higher than the 2012 waterline. There is an offer out to Nick Swisher. Boston is in on him too, along with a couple other teams (possibly San Francisco and Seattle). Besides Josh Hamilton, Swisher is the best hitter available and he’d likely become the Tribe’s best bat, essentially replacing Choo’s production, but he wouldn’t be enough. In for a penny, in for a pound.
I’d love to see Anibal Sanchez added, but even in the "go for it" scenario, adding both him and Swisher would be too rich, one long-term contract too many. Edwin Jackson could be available for 3 years at $11-12 million per. Shaun Marcum will likely sign a two-year deal, for something like $9M a year. Carlos Villanueva brings some potential upside and might be had on just a one-year deal, maybe for as little $6 million. Cody Ross or Scott Hairston could round out the outfield and/or DH. Neither would be a major boost, but with Swisher and Jackson along too, I think you could squint and see 87 wins from that team (with the right breaks), which could be enough to win the Central.
If that seems too rich for the Indians' blood, or if the available players simply don't seem worth the cost, if the 2013 roster isn't going to get much better than it is today, the Indians shouldn't be finished trading with the future in mind. The deal with Arizona was in the works for weeks, but because the Diamondbacks were known to be in the market for a shortstop, everyone expected it to be Asdrubal Cabrera heading for the desert. There's obviously one less team looking for a shortstop, but Cabrera is still better than anyone available at the position. Cabrera's bat is good enough that a team in needed of a second or third baseman might be interested too.
It's great that the Indians were able to obtain Bauer without giving up Cabrera, who's signed for another two years at a very reasonable rate. If they don't add other strong pieces though, they should still look to move Cabrera with an eye on 2014 and beyond. With Mike Aviles ready to step in now and Francisco Lindor getting closer, the team wouldn't suffer all much of a drop-off without Cabrera anyway, so the only reason to keep him is because on a contending team, every little bit matters. Without more help, the Indians have no reason to operate in "every little bit matters" mode for 2013.
Chris Perez should be moved too. There's no consensus about what type of package he might be worth, but $7 or $7.5 million for a relief pitcher makes no sense at all on a team not planning to contend for a playoff spot (I happen to think Perez is worth trading even in the "go for it" scenario, because that money would be better spent on Ross or Marcum, or being put towards Jackson). There aren't many other players that make much sense to try and trade away. Masterson and Jimenez are unlikely to have much value after their dismal 2012 campaigns (though that could change if they bounce back, but the team still isn't contending).
What happens with Swisher ought to determine the rest. I think he'll be worth a 4-year, $52 million deal, which is about where things stand right now. If he signs, I think the team should commit to an $80M+ payroll and pursue Jackson. If things break right, that roster wins the Central. If things break badly, Cabrera gets shopped before the deadline. Maybe Swisher too, either at the deadline or a year from now. Barring an injury, he'll still have plenty of value to many teams.
If Swisher signs somewhere else, there's not enough available talent to make the Indians strong contenders, and Cabrera should be moved now. The team could run out a ~$60 million payroll next year, maybe win 75 games or so, and take a run at next winter's best available players. They'd have more money to spend and a core of young players that could very well be even better in twelve months.
I applaud the front office for acquiring Trevor Bauer. Now it's time to decide which direction they're headed in 2013.