CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 24: Cord Phelps is a decent prospect, but would trading him really endanger the organization's future?. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
The Indians are in the somewhat uncomfortable position of being a mediocre team in contention. Prior to yesterday's ninth-inning collapse, the team seemed poised to put itself five gaves above .500, two games out of first place in the AL Central, and in a tie with Baltimore for the 2nd AL wild card slot. This, despite being outscored on the season by more than 25 runs by their opponents. As I have discussed previously, the real question to ask is not how the team's over or under-performance to date predicts for the remainder of the season, but what the team's actual talent is likely to do over the course of the next several months. One can make a reasonable argument that, particularly on the offensive side of things, the balance of the team is likely to perform better in the second half of the season. Couple this with the recent turnaround from Ubaldo Jimenez (and Justin Masterson, prior to his last start) and a strong bullpen performance throughout the season, and there is reason to be optimistic. This, despite the sinking feeling that has permeated the season that the Indians' success has been built on thin air and thinner AL Central competition.
Given this, should the Indians make a move to improve the club before the July trade deadline? I have recently moved towards the "YES" view in my own thinking. My view is based in part on the optimists' case above, but also on the nature of the Indians minor league talent, the likely sacrifice in any trade, at the moment. A few starting points for discussion:
First, let's assume Francisco Lindor is off-limits to any trade. Lindor is the one blue-chipper in the Indians system, a future All-Star looking talent at a defensively valuable position. His potential worth to Cleveland is huge, even though his likely arrival in Cleveland may post-date the departure of some of the key parts of the current Cleveland roster.
Second, the Indians improved draft performances since Brad Grant took over change everything. Chisenhall (2008) and Kipnis (2009) have been the most realized aspects of this improvement to date, but Ubaldo Jimenez is also a product of these drafts courtesy of Pomeranz (2010), White and Gardner (2009). The talent that does exist within the Indians system, including a lot of likely future major leaguers, are almost entirely the product of the post-2007 drafts and international scouting. Having confidence in the Tribe's ability to continually re-stock on a yearly basis changes how the organization can value potential future production from minor leaguers.
Third, a realistic assessment of the Indians system, particularly its upper half, does not reveal a lot of difference makers. The most important guys in Akron and Columbus right now who have not already seen some major league action are probably bullpen arms who have some Vinnie Pestano-like ceiling. This includes guys like Cody Allen, Tyler Sturdevant and Bryce Stowell. Most of what remains are guys with a very small chance of reaching their once-more-highly regarded ceiling (e.g. LaPorta, Weglarz), or a slightly higher chance to become a productive spart part (e.g. Phelps). Below Akron there is real talent, but talent that is both a longer distance from Cleveland and harder to project in terms of its likelihood of realizing its potential. Guys like Ronny Rodriguez (Carolina SS) might become a legitimate major league starter someday, but there is a lot of uncertainty in that forecast. The same can be said of Jesus Aguilar (Carolina 1B), Luigi Rodriguez (Lake County CF), Robel Garcia (Lake County 2B) and others.
Given our system--close to the majors long-shots and low-ceiling guys, far from the majors lottery picks of differing value--you can make the argument that transforming any of our minor league depth into actual, incremental improvements to the current Cleveland roster is a move worth making. Taking advantage of both our current position within this season and the window of opportunity afforded by the presence of Jimenez, Choo, et al., might just be a smart move for Cleveland.
It is possible that the Indians might accidentally trade away a future All-Star for a current Johnny Damon+, but I don't think the Indians are likely to meaningfully sacrifice their future through such moves. I don't think so because the Indians generally don't have that kind of minor league talent and they have shown a better ability to replace the talent they do have through conventional drafting and international signing routes. The bigger challenge is probably finding the teams that value the assets we have in our minor league system and who possess the assets we want on their big league team.
There are a lot of spots on the Indians roster that could be easily improved...the Indians should make the effort to improve them.