Earlier today, Chris Antonetti (President of the Cleveland Indians) was asked if he would consider trading one of Cleveland’s starting pitchers for help elsewhere. His reply? “Not something that we’d like to do, but if there’s a real opportunity to improve other areas, we will examine it”. Could this represent an opportunity for the pitching-hungry Blue Jays?
To evaluate the possibility of a fit, let’s look at three things: Cleveland’s needs, budget and timing.
The Steamer projection service has projected the 2016 Wins Above Replacement for each of the Cleveland position players for 2016. In summary:
Steamer projections are notoriously conservative, so you can generally say that any position for which Steamer projects a WAR of 2 or greater is not an area of pressing need. It follows from the above that the areas where Cleveland could most use an upgrade are designated hitter, third base, centre field and (to a lesser extent) right field.
Cleveland’s 2015 payroll was $83 million – 5th lowest in baseball, and lowest in the AL Central by a considerable margin. This was the highest payroll for the team since they spent $93 million in 2001. Clearly budget is an issue, as evidenced by the 2015 trade of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to Atlanta for Chris Johnson and $10 million.
The Indians finished 2015 with an 81-80 record. Their pythagorean (i.e. expected) win total would have been 84 wins. It is unlikely, barring major changes, that they will be serious contenders in 2016. But that may not be their expectation. Most of their better players are relatively young and still have multiple years of team control (including their excellent young rotation). So it is easy to see the 2015 Indians in a light similar to the 2013 Cubs – a young, exciting team building to become serious contenders in 2-3 years.
So what does this mean?
Based on the above, it is logical to assume that the Tribe are not looking for a player like Edwin Encarnacion or Jose Bautista, with a single year remaining on their contract. Neither are they (probably) looking for a Troy Tulowitzki type, with multiple years remaining but at a high (for Cleveland) annual salary. Rather, they are looking for inexpensive, controllable talent that fills their areas of need and will be contributing at a high level around 2018-19. Or, alternatively, the salary flexibility to pursue those options on the free agent market or elsewhere.
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Do the Blue Jays “fit”?
The Jays have several options that might prove a good fit for Cleveland.
Johnson is owed $17.5 million over the next two years of his contract, but is projected to provide limited value over that period (Steamer projects him at -1.1 WAR in 2016). The Jays could assume Johnson’s contract as part of a deal for Cleveland pitching.
The Indians need a good, young, cost-controlled centre fielder. The Jays could offer Pillar – coming off a 4.3 WAR, highlight-reel-defense season. Or, alternatively, they could offer Dalton Pompey – rated the Baseball America #30 prospect prior to 2015, and winner of the Rawlings Minor League Gold Glove in 2013 as the best defensive centre fielder in all of minor league baseball.
The Indians need a good, cheap DH. Cola put up a .321/.367/.520 line in 2015, albeit with an unsustainable .411 BABIP. Most baseball people expect him to regress, but even if his 2015 wRC+ of 142 dropped to the 120 range he would still be valuable. And Cola brings two other possible advantages. Prior to 2015, he had a positive UZR/150 at first base. 2015 was a bit of a train wreck, as he was moved between left field (where he [ahem] “did not excel”) and first. But with Carlos Santana‘s contract ending in 2016 (with a team option of $12 million for 2017), having a less expensive 1B option waiting in the wings could be very valuable. And (and this is admittedly a long shot!) Colabello played 116 games at third base when he was in the minors. If he could play third for the Indians, even on a part-time basis, his value would skyrocket.
Prior to his freak sprinkler head injury in 2015, Saunders was coming off a breakout 2014 in which he put up a .273/.341/.450 line (a 126 wRC+) with an excellent +8.9 UZR/150 in the outfield, primarily in right. The Condor will be a free agent in 2017, but Cleveland might see him as a relatively inexpensive extension candidate.
Alford has been shooting up the prospect lists, ranking #39 on Keith Law’s 2015 midseason list. He could well be in the majors in 2017-2018, and projects to be stay at centre field due to his plus-plus speed.
What’s the deal?
I see there being three levels of pitching deal that the Tribe could offer.
The gold standard would be a deal for Kluber (highly unlikely) or Carrasco. That would take multiple pieces (to give you an idea, the Jays and Cleveland were apparently very close on a deal of Daniel Norris, Jeff Hoffman, and Dalton Pompey for Carrasco earlier in 2015). Would something like Pompey + Colabello for Carrasco + Johnson do it? Or would the Jays need to add something like a Sean Reid-Foley or Jon Harris – or a Drew Hutchison or even an Aaron Sanchez? Or would it take an upgrade of Pompey to Pillar?
The silver level would be a trade for Danny Salazar. Not quite at the Kluber/Carrasco level, but still valuable. And at 25 years old, still cheap and controllable. Would Pompey for Salazar + Johnson be an overpay?
And finally, the bronze level targets would be pitchers like Trevor Bauer, coming off a 4.55 ERA in 2015 (with a 4.20 SIERA and a 4.28 xFIP). A solid #4 starter with some upside. Well worth having, but not at the same level as the previous three. And not really at the level the Jays are looking for. Would you do Pompey for Bauer, even-up?
The bottom line: There appear to be options available to the Jays in making a pitch for Indians pitching. It could be a difficult competition, as many other teams will be looking longingly at the Tribe pitchers as well. Will the Shapiro connection prove to be an advantage, or work to the Jays’ detriment? In any event, it is a line of conversation that the Jays should definitely keep open.