Regular Season Journal: Looking back, looking forward

It’s been a while since I posted anything here. I’ve been content to post whatever opinions I had on the Indians at Let’s Go Tribe (what can I say? old habits die hard), but the events of the past couple of weeks have put me in a more reflective frame of mind, something that a series of comments on a LGT post can’t satisfy.

The losses both in terms of games and key players (Corey Kluber, Jose Ramirez, Tyler Naquin) have turned what was looking to be an exciting divisional race into a desperate attempt to salvage a Wild Card spot.

But this post is not going to be about pre-lamenting a September swoon that may not even happen. It’s going to reflect on this season as one of transition that has, by and large, been managed adroitly by the Tribe front office. Some of the roster issues that Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff faced were self-imposed because of previous moves, others were imposed by the market size and/or ownership’s decree. And if the Twins weren’t on pace to win 100 games, even with those limitations the Indians might still have muddled through to a division title, warts and all.

Last winter the Indians had a difficult path to tread. It seemed obvious from the early-offseason statements given by Chris Antonetti that the payroll was not going to go up (from $138M at the end of 2018), and likely to drop a bit, though not as much as I anticipated (as things stand today, team payroll is $122M). There were several high-salaried players leaving via free agency (Michael Brantley, Andrew Miller, Cody Allen), but large salary increases to arbitration-eligible players like Francisco Lindor and Trevor Bauer would eat up those savings. That would be fine had the roster that remained been solid enough as is, but there were many holes that needed to be filled, particularly in the outfield. In other words, the Indians could make do losing Andrew Miller and Cody Allen (the acquisition of Brad Hand was made to mitigate this loss, and in retrospect it was a more prescient trade now than even last winter), but they didn’t have a player (or even multiple players) in the organization to replace Brantley, at least in the near term.

It is difficult to stay competitive for long periods of time and maintain a payroll that maxes out in the #13-15 range. The way the CBA is structured, good players get close to market value starting with their 5th year of MLB service time, and will get their most lucrative contract in their 7th or 8th year of service time. That means a team like the Indians have a small window to compete with one particular core group of players, and to remain competitive have to be continually develop the next core, as signing core free agents is not really an option. In theory, a successful mid-market organization would have a new core player waiting in the wings to replace every core player who leaves via free agency.

But this past winter, the Indians didn’t have anyone to replace Michael Brantley or even Lonnie Chisenhall. They had spent several first-round picks on outfielders 4-6 years ago (Tyler Naquin, Clint Frazier, Bradley Zimmer), but for various reasons none of those players could be penciled in the Opening Day lineup. Recognizing this, the Indians made a series of minor trades for outfielders that would either be temporary fixes (Leonys Martin), complementary players (Jordan Luplow) or even potential long-term solutions (Oscar Mercado). These trades weren’t prohibitively expensive in terms of prospects (though Willi Castro, who the Indians traded for Martin, has already made the majors and has some promise), but they weren’t trades the Indians should have had to make if their minor-league system was churning out a core player a year. And it still didn’t fix their immediate problem, which was outfield production in 2019. (Naquin would eventually become a viable corner outfielder, but it took a while, and now he’s out with a serious knee injury.)

Given all this, one potential solution to both the payroll problem and the outfield problem was to trade one of their good but expensive starting pitchers for at least one core outfielder. That obviously was not a move a team bent on competing would want to make, but seemed the lesser of evils. Based on reports throughout the off season, the Indians were talking to teams about trading Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer, but never seemed to get the return they were looking for. They did, however, make a series of trades to cut payroll elsewhere. They somehow got the White Sox to take on Yonder Alonso’s 2019 salary, and saved more money in the Edwin Encarancion-Yandy Diaz for Carlos Santana-Jake Bauers swap. And they dealt Yan Gomes to Washington. Those deals seemed to get them to the targeted payroll level, and so they kept both Kluber and Bauer for 2019.

Of those three cost-cutting moves, the one I was vehemently against was the trade of Yan Gomes to the Washington Nationals. I didn’t like the return, and thought it would severely weaken the major-league roster. As it turned out, Gomes would be outplayed by his understudy Roberto Perez, and the players the Indians received have not only helped this year (Jefry Rodriguez) but may also play key roles next year (Daniel Johnson). I think Perez has been wearing down at the plate of late because this is the first time he’s been a full-time catcher over an entire season, but he’s been much better than Gomes at the plate, not to mention his incalculable contributions to a young and inexperienced starting rotation that has at times carried this team.

Ultimately, though, it wasn’t necessarily the moves made during the winter that kept the Indians in contention until the end, but player development decisions made well before that. For although the Indians began the season with an established rotation that was rated as among the best in baseball, that rotation wouldn’t remain intact for long, and all those projected innings would have to be covered by untested youngsters. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger would miss considerable portions of the season due to injury or illness, and Trevor Bauer would have an inconsistent campaign. Of the five pitchers who started the season in the rotation, only Shane Bieber would make all his scheduled starts, and this was his first full big-league season.

Zach Plesac (12th round, 2016), Aaron Civale (3rd round, 2016), and Adam Plutko (11th round, 2013) have combined for more starts than Kluber, Carrasco, and Clevinger, and the Indians have the 3rd-best starting pitching ERA in the American League. That’s the reason why Antonetti/Chernoff felt they could trade Trevor Bauer at the deadline for offense, something they were thinking of doing way back before the season began, the only difference being that back then you would have assumed Kluber/Carrasco/Clevinger would be their normal selves.

The Bauer trade encapsulated the dual priorities that the Tribe front-office has been trying to simultaneously fulfill since the end of last season. There was a financial motivation for making the trade, as Bauer was headed towards another big salary increase via arbitration in 2020, with free agency afterwards. There was also a competitive motivation for the deal, as the Indians were (and still are) in the thick of the playoff race, and needed to improve their lineup. The two major-league players that they acquired also represented a balance between the short-term and medium-term: Yasiel Puig will be a free agent after the season and will undoubtedly sign elsewhere, while Franmil Reyes is under team control until at least 2024. Two of the three minor-league players the Indians received (pitchers Scott Moss and Logan Allen) could help the team next year.

When you manage a mid-market team, there are always going to be difficult decisions to make because the financial rules are stacked against you, but because of the moves made over the past 12 months, this winter’s dilemmas will be mild in comparison with those already dealt with. The Indians will decline Jason Kipnis’ 2020 option, making him a free agent, and he’ll be replaced by someone in the organization. They will release Danny Salazar. They will very likely pick up Corey Kluber’s 2020 option even after the injury-plagued season, given that they’ve already dealt Trevor Bauer. They may try to lock up Mike Clevinger, and will try (with no possibility of success) to lock up Francisco Lindor. Tyler Naquin’s major knee injury means that they may look at bringing in a veteran on a one-year major-league contract. They will be active in acquiring relievers, but not via free agency. In other words, expect the same modus operandi this offseason as the last one, but with a bit less drama.

If you’d like me to address anything Tribe-related in more detail, leave a comment or shoot me a message via the contact link on the sidebar.

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