Marc Normandin assesses the Indians' offseason and finds that although the team hasn't made a decisive choice between win-now and rebuilding strategies, that decision might work out for the best.
The Indians' offseason began with disappointment, and the expectation that patience would once again be not only a virtue, but a shield necessary to protect against the struggles of yet another rebuilding effort. Cleveland had spent 37 days in first place in 2012, were four games up in mid-May, and peaked at eight games over .500 shortly after that. Nevertheless, their many weaknesses caught up to them, and they finished the year 20 games out of first place. Because of this, rumors of trades of nearly every arbitration-eligible player of value on the roster dominated the fall. While the Indians did make moves, including the trade of one such player, the goal of the moves was meant to quell disappointment by jump-starting the club, rather than extend it by triggering a full-blown rebuilding.
Some background is necessary: Given the nature of Cleveland's 2012 season, and the fact their minor-league system was lacking in quantity even if there was some quality to admire in the likes of Francisco Lindor, it would have been defensible had the club not only dealt away right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, but also starting pitcher Justin Masterson, closer Chris Perez, and even shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. In fact, the author you're reading right now suggested as much back in early November, after the rumors of a potential sell-off first arose:
It will be hard on Cleveland to press reset once more, but what's the alternative if they aren't planning on bringing in impact pieces through free agency? Trading to bring in talent is difficult, given the lack of prospects, and all four of these players could be elsewhere two years from now. It might not be the best for 2013, but it's the right course of action for the future.
The Indians haven't finished a season over .500 since 2007, when they lost the American League Championship Series, and have been outscored by opponents every year since 2008. The expected major league roster heading into the season was going be too similar to that which had failed to succeed the year before, and while improvements from some of the younger players could help, there just weren't enough of them to make a significant difference. In this context, blowing up and shipping out the pieces that weren't expected to be on the next competitive Cleveland club made all kinds of sense.
Rather than hold steady with the roster in place, or trade away everything of arb-eligible value, the Indians split the difference in order to improve their prospects both now and in the future. They made competitive offers to free agents Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli. When those negotiations failed, they dealt Choo as expected, but instead of putting up the white flag, they then led the charge in the Nick Swisher sweepstakes, bringing the outfielder back to his native state on a four-year, $56 million deal with an option for a fifth.
While there is the possibility they could have simply signed Choo (had he been willing, of course) to a similar deal and received near-equal projection and production, by trading him in a three-way deal involving the Reds and Diamondbacks, Cleveland was able to get something significant back. Trevor Bauer, the ninth-ranked prospect in all of baseball heading into last season, is now Cleveland's top pitching prospect because of that trade, and all of 22 years old. Yes, the Indians gave up their second-round pick (and its associated budget) for 2013 by signing Swisher, who was given a qualifying offer by his former club the Yankees, but selecting someone of Bauer's ability with that pick was unlikely. Bauer was chosen third overall in the 2011 draft, and while there have apparently been clubhouse problems and rumors of his being difficult to coach, the Indians are in a position to gamble on his ability winning out given the dearth of young pitching in their system and in the majors.
Rather than Choo, their second-round pick, and a potential sandwich-round selection in 2014 as compensation for Choo's departure, the Indians now have Swisher under contract through at least 2017, at a reasonable price, as well as six years of Bauer in the majors to look forward to. This series of transactions improved them both now and in the future, and the Indians should be commended for this turn of events.
The rest of their transactions were not as forward-focused as those two, but what they did accomplish was bringing together an Indians' roster with a chance at finishing over .500. In today's game, where there are two wild cards per league, that's a goal worth shooting for every season it can be within reach. The key is going to be with the pitching: the Indians allowed 845 runs to score in 2012, the most in the AL. As their park leans pitcher-friendly, you won't be surprised to find that this earned them the worst ERA+ of any American League club. As a unit, Indians' starters amassed a 5.25 ERA, averaged under 5.2 innings per start, and allowed their opponents to hit .285/.351/.451. For the sake of context, that's fairly close to turning every opposing batter into Carlos Santana or Cabrera, two of Cleveland's best hitters. That cannot continue if the Indians are to have a chance.
Bauer is a start, but he's young, and didn't wow at Triple-A -- it's realistic to believe the time to rely on him might not come until 2014. Masterson has bounce-back potential, but he's only one arm. While those and other questions -- will Zach McAllister be able to grow as a pitcher enough to outpace regression? Will Ubaldo Jimenez prove anything close to useful? Can 25-year-old Carlos Carrasco become a back-end option for the rotation? -- will have to wait until the season to be answered, Cleveland went out and signed what they hope is a stabilizing, mid-rotation force that was lacking in 2012 in Brett Myers.
Myers is no ace, though, he occasionally plays the part every few years. What he most definitely is, however, is a durable arm, and one that is now going to pitch in a park that he can support as much as it will support him. Progressive Field reduces right-handed offense significantly, and Myers has had trouble with right-handed power for years. Lefties, however, he is more than capable against, which could help to negate the fact Progressive boosts their numbers slightly. Even if he's just average by year's end, if he can be that way for 200 innings or more, he'll have been worth the price for what he accomplished.
The lineup has questions, but the Indians managed to answer a few of them without committing themselves entirely to competing now, nor while giving in entirely to the idea of a rebuild. They even brought in a manager with a winning pedigree in Terry Francona, giving hope that this time, maybe Cleveland found the right man for the job. If the team tanks in the season's first half, players like Cabrera, Masterson, and Perez can still be dealt in order to better prepare Cleveland for 2014 and beyond, when their next wave of prospects emerges and the likes of Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall are within or closer to their peak seasons. They've managed to straddle a dangerous line for now by improving in the present and future without sacrificing either, and while their exact path isn't clear, it's a cheerier one than could have been expected just a few months ago.