Note: While I would support the following action if the Tribe FO made it, I'm not 100% advocating in support of it. This is about 50% in favor and 50% Devil's Advocate.
It's early December, which means a few things. Northeastern Ohio is cold, Christmas music is on the radio, the Browns are finishing up another losing season, the lineup for the five BCS bowls is being determined (that Buckeyes game sucked!), and baseball's Hot Stove is upon us. Trade rumors are flying around, and millions of dollars in free agent contracts are being handed out left and right as if money grew on trees.
One of the biggest rumors involves David Price; a lot of people expect that he'll be traded this winter. He's two years from free agency and getting expensive for the Rays, who have other good pitchers in their rotation. Still, there's no reason they have to trade him. They can afford to sit back and wait until they get an offer to their liking. The Mariners are reportedly interested, but it would probably cost them Taijuan Walker, possibly the best pitching prospect in baseball. It would also be kind of stupid. Sure, Walker is a prospect, prospects bust - especially pitchers - blah, blah, blah. And Price is really, really good, right now. But Walker is major league-ready right now, and probably pretty good right now, though not as good as Price, and he might be as good as Price in a year or two. The Mariners won only 71 games last year, and while they're hoping to vault into contention next year, they have a lot more work to do to get there, even after signing Cano, and they have to hope their young talent keeps developing like they hope. They're not in a position to justify trading 6 years of Walker for two years of Price. Keeping Walker and adding a pitcher like Matt Garza or Ubaldo Jimenez would be a better move. I think the Indians are in a different position than the Mariners, in our contention window - we already had a postseason appearance last year - and our financial situation - we probably can't afford to go out and sign someone like Garza or Jimenez.
Now, DRaysBay admits, as Dave Cameron argues, that the surplus value on Price's contract equals about $30 million or so. But Cameron stops there, as if that settles it. The DRaysBay link examines all deals for starting pitchers from 11/1/10 to 11/1/13. The players traded for within $10 million of their surplus value were guys who were thought to be just decent, average players (or worse) at the time of the deal. At the bottom of the list, from around -20 to -75 million in surplus value, is a bunch of marquee names, and the farther you go, the more marquee it gets (until the last two, Buehrle and Johnson. Silly Blue Jays). Ubaldo Jimenez to the Indians is ranked at -36.51. So it seems that top-of-the-rotation starters should draw significantly more than "surplus value" in a trade, unlike other players. It's not enough to shrug and say "Well the Shields trade was just an outlier." Sure, it was extreme, and it shouldn't set the expectations, but it's not as extreme as Cameron would suggest. Of course, Cameron is biased. As a Mariners fan, he doesn't want to trade Walker for Price. (Cameron also ridiculously overvalues Polanco, his example of a prospect, in that article. No prospect is worth $90 million in trade value; at most, the best are worth $70 million. Polanco, probably ranked around #10-15 overall, is probably worth 45 million at most).
DRaysBay argues for $75-100 million in surplus value for Price. Shields had about 21.5 million in surplus value, according to this; according to the chart at DRaysBay, the Royals overpaid by 71 million; so that arrives at a package worth over $90 million for Shields. Of course, Rays fans are also biased; they want to maximize the return for Price. But it should be kept in mind that while we're not dismissing the Shields trade, it was extreme, just as was the most recent Fister trade where the Tigers' return was widely panned. I would set $60-75 million as the target for a Price trade.
The Indians have two possible centerpieces to a deal - Francisco Lindor or Danny Salazar. Maybe also Yan Gomes, I'm not sure what his value is - but the Rays just resigned Jose Molina and traded for Ryan Hanigan, and they already have Jose Lobaton, so I don't expect them to be interested in Gomes. Trevor Bauer, Zach McAllister, and Clint Frazier are also valuable, but not enough to be the centerpiece of these deals. Frazier can't be traded till June anyway.
Now, the Indians have little pitching depth in the organization. Trading Salazar for Price would be as stupid for us as it would be for the Mariners to trade Walker - maybe more stupid, because we have fewer promising young arms behind Salazar. Salazar shouldn't go anywhere. And by the way, neither should Corey Kluber - these guys are cheap, midrotation arms that can help a team win now, which is exactly what we want to do. McAllister is more a good #4-5 type - valuable, can help win now, but not irreplaceable. He'll never have more trade value than he has now, so I'm okay with including him in a deal.
No, instead of Salazar, a deal has to be built around Francisco Lindor. Using the Rays' site, elite young shortstops at his level are worth $65 million in trade value. That pretty much gets us to our desired goal right away, but the Rays will undoubtedly want another player or two.
The Indians have been counting on Lindor to replace Asdrubal Cabrera, but perhaps, if Lindor is traded, they would extend Cabrera. (Sure, he had a bad year, but he's had three good years, and Oliver projects 11.4 WAR over the next five years for him. If he'd take an extension after a down year, we could afford that level of production from him for a few more years). More likely, they would let Cabrera walk, and allow an internal option - Jose Ramirez, Ronny Rodriguez, or Mike Aviles - to take over for 2015. Aviles doesn't have Cabrera's upside, but he could produce 1-2 WAR, enough to be a decent stopgap. He probably wouldn't be less productive than Cabrera was this year, and might be better.
DRaysBay had a discussion with other SB Nation blogs to gauge interest in Price. Ryan offered McAllister and prospects, including Paulino, Rodriguez, and Ramirez. According to DRaysBay that's about $44 million in total value, and McAllister makes up half of it. Lindor was off limits. But should he be? Let's think about some things about the Indians' situation.
Fact: the Indians won 92 games in 2013 and a wild-card berth. They are real contenders. Unlike last offseason (and unlike this year's Mariners, or last year's Royals), they don't have to pin their hopes on the feat of gaining 20 wins from the previous season. Adding Price could put them right back over the hump of 90 wins and in the playoffs. These are the most important wins to add.
Fact (if we're worried about adding Price's salary to the payroll): the new national TV money will give $25 million to each team. I'm not demanding that the payroll increase by that much; perhaps this was fully anticipated by last offseason's spending, and there's hardly room for anything more this year. But as Jason argued, this seems like a time when it would be worthwhile to go over budget. (That last sentence was opinion, not fact). Besides, we might be able to trade Stubbs's contract, which would help a little.
Fact: The Indians have a hole in their rotation. They have lost two starting pitchers to free agency; one spot can be adequately filled internally, but that leaves one vacancy and little depth in the organization to cover that vacancy. Kluber, Salazar, and McAllister have been bumped up to #2, 3, and 4 in the rotation, which makes it weaker than if they were #3, 4, and 5. Adding Price would even bump Justin Masterson down a notch, and could turn the rotation from a weakness into a strength.
Fact: As Jason noted, of the top four pitchers in the rotation right now, "Masterson is the only one who’s ever thrown even 150 MLB innings in a season." Sure, they have a chance to be good. Steamer's projections for them look pretty good, seeing 10.3 wins; Oliver's is less optimistic with 8.3. Adding Price (at around 4.5) would put the rotation at about 12.5-15 wins; adding Price but subtracting McAllister (trading Lindor + McAllister) would put the top four at about 10.5-13.5 wins, with the fifth spot being a total wildcard.
Fact: The Indians have few pitchers on the near horizon in the minors. In BP's top 10 Indians prospects, the only pitchers are Cody Anderson (eta 2015, projects as a #4 starter), and Dace Kime (eta 2016, projects as #5, long reliever, or who knows what). That's it. Internal help for the front of the rotation is not arriving in the next two years, unless Bauer figures out his issues; but who knows if he will? Too much of a lottery ticket to count on, IMO.
Fact: Free agents won't be any cheaper after next season, so if they stand pat with the current rotation for 2014, they might not be able to land a good starter for 2015 either. They'll have to extend or replace Masterson just to keep up. (I'd try something like 4/52 right now, and go as high as 5/75 or so if necessary).
Fact: The Indians have Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn signed to big contracts, suggesting that their purpose is to win now. A couple seasons of waddling in mediocrity - caused by an inability to acquire good starters who would turn the rotation into a strength - would defeat that purpose and waste their contracts.
Fact: Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn are projected to be worse players in 2016 and 2017 (the last two years of their contracts - that is, if their vesting options for 2017 kick in) than in 2014 and 2015 (the next two years). Of course this seems obvious - they're in their thirties, they will decline - but the point is, our best shot to take advantage of having them around is probably going to be in the next two years. By 2016, Swisher will be 35, Bourn 33. Oliver likes Bourn's future better than Swisher's, projecting for Bourn 3.5, 3.1, 2.8 and 2.6 WAR over the next four years, but only 1.8, 1.4, 1.0, and .5 WAR for Swisher. But Steamer likes Swisher better next year (2.9), though it doesn't have multiyear projections out yet.
Fact: Middle infield is an organizational strength. We have Cabrera, Kipnis, and Aviles in the majors; besides Lindor, we have Ramirez, Rodriguez, Erik Gonzalez, Wendle, and Paulino in the minors. Losing Lindor would be a big blow obviously, but the organization should be able to handle it. Lindor isn't essential to contending in 2014 or 2015; adding a pitcher probably is.
So, the package would include Lindor, and who else? I'd try to get them to agree to something like Lindor, C.C. Lee, and Joe Wendle. That would probably be about $70-75 million overall. Or maybe Cody Anderson, Tyler Naquin, or Francisco Mejia could be involved somehow; I'm guessing Naquin will be a top 100 prospect and Anderson or Mejia might sneak on too. If absolutely necessary, I would consider sending McAllister along with Lindor. We should still be able to acquire a fifth starter, like maybe Brett Anderson. (That rotation would have insane potential: Price, Masterson, Kluber, Salazar, Anderson).
Going a step further
I haven't mentioned the Rays' current shortstop situation. They have a good shortstop in Yunel Escobar, at only $5 million next year with a team option for $5 million in 2015. So they wouldn't really need Lindor until 2016, but they should still be interested in him because he's such a good prospect and it would allow them to make Escobar a nice trade chip next offseason.
But what if the Indians would go after Price+Escobar in this deal? Escobar just turned 31 and had 4.7, 2.7, and 3.3 rWAR (Baseball Reference) in the last three seasons, or 3.7, 1.5, and 3.9 fWAR (Fangraphs). You can probably count on him for about 6 the next two seasons. At $6 mil/WAR with $10 mil in salary, that's $26 mil in surplus value. So you might look for $100+ million in surplus value for the two of them, to convince the Rays to trade both. If the Indians send Cabrera and Lindor in return, the Rays and Indians would be swapping shortstop situations: better short-term value for the Indians (though Cabrera could match Escobar's production next year if he rebounds), but much better long-term value for the Rays. Both Steamer and Oliver see Cabrera as a 2+ win player next year, so with a salary of $10 mil Cabrera should have about $2 mil surplus - maybe $4-5 if he's around 2.5. So if the Indians send Lindor ($65 mil), Cabrera ($2-5), McAllister ($20), and Naquin (guessing ~$10-12 if he's in the 76-100 range according to Wang/PiratesProspects - the DRaysBay number seems high for players in that range), and throw in a promising bullpen arm like Bryan Price or C.C. Lee, that should reasonably do it.
The difference in Cabrera's and Escobar's salaries would make it easier to add Price at probably around $13 million. Since Escobar is under contract for the same two years as Price, he would boost the goal of winning during the next two years with Price. (Of course we want to win in 2016 and beyond, but we'd worry about that when we get there. We should still have a good core for those years even after the departures of Price, Escobar, Raburn, Murphy, and Aviles in this scenario).
This all depends on the Rays not being overwhelmed by an offer from the Mariners, Diamondbacks, or some other team, with a top prospect like Walker or Archie Bradley (whose value we can more than match), and a lot of other goodies that we can't match.
So that's all I have. Eat it up, or tear it apart - whatever.