Offseason Journal: The cone of uncertainty

There’s been no moves to speak of since the Indians finalized their three-way deal with the Mariners and Rays, and followed that by dealing Yonder Alonso to the White Sox. For some offseasons, a flurry of trades like that could have represented the end of major transactions, but a cursory look at the Tribe’s projected roster will tell you that this winter is not “some offseason.”

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Although the Indians have made several major moves, the only player they acquired that would be a good fit in a corner outfield slot is Jordan Luplow, who they received from the Pirates in the Erik Gonzalez deal. And if that happens, Luplow would be a major downgrade from Michael Brantley*, who signed last week with the Houston Astros. Jake Bauers theoretically could end up playing some outfield, but after trading both Edwin Encarnacion and Yonder Alonso, he projects to share 1B/DH with Carlos Santana. And that’s not even addressing the projection of Tyler Naquin as the team’s starting right fielder. As things stand now, the Indians would be getting a total of 1.0 win above replacement combined from their corner outfielders, which would certainly place them among the worst in baseball at those two spots. In other words, something has to happen.

Compounding the uncertainty on the current roster is all the rumors about Corey Kluber. Depending on which baseball reporter you follow on Twitter, Kluber is going to the Dodgers, the Reds, or even the Padres, and that’s not counting the teams that were reported to “have interest.” And there’s also the underlying questions about what the team’s payroll will end up being by the time the team takes the field in frigid Minneapolis in late March. My assumptions have been all along that the 2018 ending payroll would be a good approximation for the 2019 beginning payroll. For many reasons, the Indians front office isn’t going to give out specifics about what the actual budget is, foremost among them is to deny clarity to the team’s rivals. But for a casual fan’s perspective, that kind of uncertainty is going to make him hesitate before pulling the trigger on a ticket package, especially with the Kluber rumors swirling about.

In other professional sports (like the NBA), all the major moves could happen within the span of a week. But in baseball, those moves can be spaced out over three, even four months. The two biggest free agents of the winter, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, still haven’t decided where they will sign, and because of that, many other teams and free agents are stuck in limbo. Once the two marquee free agents sign, the teams that lose out will immediately put their Plan Bs and Cs into action, which could include other free agents or trade targets.

That’s why I think the Indians haven’t made their final set of moves, as the Dodgers are one of the front runners to sign Bryce Harper. There’s probably a trade package for Kluber they’d be willing to offer if Harper signs, and a different package if Harper signs elsewhere. And until the Dodgers make their final offer, the Indians can’t finalize a deal, if there is a deal to finalize. And given that it’s extremely likely that a starting corner outfielder is going to come from any Kluber deal, they haven’t acquired in a separate deal. And you can keep the transaction dominoes falling until your head hurts.

Over the course of the summer, while following Hurricane Florence as it barreled towards the Carolinas, the phrase “cone of uncertainty” popped up multiple times. Its origin came from the National Hurricane Center’s forecast maps; they release them several times a day when there’s a chance that a tropical storm will make landfall:

The cone represented all the potential paths that the center of the storm could take over the following days, with it getting ever wider with time. The MLB offseason has its (much less serious) cone of uncertainty while its biggest signings have yet to be made, and the Indians, because of what they need to accomplish, are more subject to it this year than in the recent past.

*Given what Brantley signed for (2/$32M), I think the Indians whiffed here. Had they re-signed Brantley at that amount, they still would have had room to sign a couple relief pitchers, and probably kept Kluber as well. Of course, that assumes that both Brantley and the Indians wanted to strike a deal, but from the outside it looks like a gigantic missed opportunity.

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