Today’s game against the Mariners marked the Indians 81st of the season, also known as the official midway point (as opposed to the unofficial midway point, the All-Star Game). This makes it as good a time as any to go back and look at the first half of the season to see where the team’s expectations should really be. The trade deadline is also just a month away from now and there are as many teams as in any season prior that are possibly looking to build for a pennant run.
Looking at it this way, it is impossible to simply isolate the Indians. While things have opened up slightly over the past few weeks, there are still a ton of teams that believe themselves to be contenders. In the Central Division, the Tigers have a small lead over the Royals and Indians, but White Sox and their new found offense and the Twins still believe they have a chance at a Wild Card. In all, only Houston in the West seems to have thrown in the white flag. Likely by the trade deadline, things will have shaken up a bit more with the pretenders sifting to the bottom as Minnesota, Chicago, Seattle and Boston could all fall completely out of their prospective division races.
The Indians are right in the middle of things. Despite being under .500, they are just 6.5 games behind Detroit, a number that seems very small given they have already made a jump from 10.5 back to just 2 games back in 20 games from May 19th though June 10th. With eight more games against Kansas City and Detroit before the trade deadline, there is no reason the Indians couldn’t potentially surpass the Tigers by then. Of course this is only considering the amount of games and not projecting actual wins and losses.
It is decision time for the Indians. They have a few choices, but essentially they boil down to an overall strategy of going 100% for a 2014 World Series, trying to improve the team while not sacrificing from now until 2017 or blowing things up for a championship run for another generation. With the majority of the team under control through at least 2017 (like Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Corey Kluber, Cody Allen, Carlos Santana and more), that should be considered the pivotal year. Cleveland can continue to put a very similar 25 man out year after year until then and hope that internal improvements are good enough or they can try to add outside help. Destroying the team outright by trading players like Santana, Kipnis or Brantley does not seem a viable option at this point.
Focusing on improvements, there are a large amount of quality minor leaguers that other teams would ask for in trade. Of these, Danny Salazar, Francisco Lindor and Clint Frazier have already been mentioned in trade rumors, while it wouldn’t be surprising to see other names like Jose Ramirez, Tony Wolters, Jesus Aguilar, Cody Anderson and others added to that list in the near future. When considering these names, the Chris Antonetti and the Indians must remember the real expense of a deadline deal involving prospects. While the Brewers certainly enjoyed a few months of C.C. Sabathia in 2008, he is now with New York while Michael Brantley is an All-Star in the making. Looking back, there is no possible way that a few starts by Sabathia was worth years of Brantley.
While some deals do work out, they are often for the lesser known players, like Cleveland’s acquisition of Marc Rzepczynski at the deadline last year. While David Price and Jeff Samardzija may look like great ideas, they would involve a huge load of prospects in addition to a monetary level the Indians are not ready for. If the Indians can’t afford Justin Masterson at $14M per year, how could they possible afford Price’s final year of arbitration in 2015? There are too many possible trade targets to go through, but what the Indians should really be looking for is a slightly above average starter who could fill out the rotation and one or two more hitters, preferably one who could play outfield. It would depend on the player, but giving up a top prospect for a known Major Leaguer could possibly be a good deal depending on the talent and contract situation coming in.
Going out, the Indians still have to decide on what to do about Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera, the two major upcoming free agents. The main options with both will be to trade, make a qualifying offer after the season or sign before the season is over. Since the Indians appear to be uninterested in signing either long term (they could have had Masterson relatively cheaply during March and declined), trading seems the most likely solution. Of course, if the Indians were to make a qualifying offer, then have the player decline it, whoever signed that player would have to give the Tribe a first round draft pick in 2015. The problem with this, is after what happened to Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales, there is a good chance that Cabrera would accept the qualifying offer and with his current state of production, it wouldn’t be a very team friendly deal. Masterson on the other hand, is just about guaranteed to demand more than the ~$11M, so he would certainly elect free agency.
Because of this, trading Cabrera is more paramount to moving Masterson and with Mike Aviles, Ramirez and Francisco Lindor in the wings, Cabrera is more than expendable. With that being said, there are likely few teams that would be possible suitors and the return could be much less than satisfactory. Due to a slew of recent errors, even average baseball fans can see what sabrmetritians have always known, Cabrera is a below average defensive short stop, possibly the worst in baseball. What Cabrera does bring is a much more potent bat than the average short stop, so a team lacking in power could be interested in taking a chance, thinking he will provide more runs than he will allow. Another team could also move him back to second, where he started his career, making his limited range a smaller factor and making him more valuable.
With all those factors taken into account, don’t expect any major moves this July by the Tribe. They may unload Cabrera or even Masterson, but the return could be slim and if they go after a starter, it will likely be someone considerably below Price’s level. Even if they make no moves, the Indians are set to be a better team later in the year than they have been to this point. They have yet to get everyone rolling at the same time and there are players mired in season long slumps that must break out or be removed from the lineup. There is as good of a chance of everything coming together as there is of it all falling apart, so there is no reason for Antonetti, the Indians or their fans to give up on the team just yet.