With a mere week left until MLB’s trade deadline, teams are largely preparing themselves for two distinct types of futures. The first big transaction of this deadline, which occurred Thursday and was executed by the Minnesota Twins and Tampa Bay Rays, perfectly exemplifies the type of strategic positioning that teams find themselves needing to make.
The teams struck an agreement to ship slugging designated hitter Nelson Cruz to Tampa Bay in exchange for two pitching prospects. The Rays, coming off of a World Series appearance in 2020 and currently in position for a Wildcard birth are making plans to once again threaten in October. On the other side, Minnesota is coming to terms with a disappointing 2021 season. Finding themselves at the bottom of the American League Central division, their dreams for their fourth playoff appearance in six years can be considered dashed at this point. Inspired by a faltering pitching staff of aging veterans (the Twins have the 2nd oldest pitching staff in baseball per Baseball-Reference), the Twins move to acquire younger hurlers Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman is clearly a deliberate one. This is a trade that also sacrifices immediate success for the potential of the future in Minnesota. Cruz himself is 41 years old and his return to the Twins was questionable in the off-season. That his imposing bat will no longer be in the middle of Minnesota’s order shouldn’t be a surprise, even if it means the Twins are likely to win fewer ballgames for the remainder of 2021 and even into 2022.
These two teams had their trade deadline positions solidified by the nearly four months of baseball that has already been played. But what if after those same four months your team’s position in the league still remain less clear? That is the dilemma of the 2021 Cleveland Indians.
The Indians find themselves at 48-47 on the season and while in second place, they are a good 9.5 games behind the division leading Chicago White Sox. Those White Sox, who have been in sole possession of first place since early May, are if anything, likely to improve upon themselves in the closing third of the season as they not only could they make their own deadline acquisitions but they have key players set to return from injury. Additionally from the Indians perspective, they find themselves out of the second Wildcard spot by a more approachable but still significant 6.5 games.
With that type of positioning on the standings tables, and with the return of the 5-team per league playoff format and the single Wildcard play-in game, it stands to reason that perhaps the Indians should consider themselves sellers in the next week.
The team has plenty to sell if they want to go that route. In part, veteran free agent signings like second baseman Cesar Hernandez and left-fielder Eddie Rosario were likely brought onto the roster on their current 1-year deals strategically by the front office knowing that in case this season didn’t pan out they would provide certain but modest returns in trades. Relievers like Nick Wittgren and Bryan Shaw are also veterans that could provide stability to playoff bullpens. They very much fit the bill as trade candidates as well.
Still, if the Indians wanted to get more ambitious and start hunting for big-time prospects, they definitely have the ammunition. Jose Ramirez may have the most appealing non-rookie/non-arbitration contract in all of baseball. He is a multi-time Most Valuable Player finalist with two upcoming club options averaging out at $13 million a year. Shane Bieber may be nursing injury, but the reigning Cy Young Award winner is still on his pre-arbitration contract and would certainly yield a king’s ransom. Young, pre-arbitration relievers Emmanuel Clase and James Karinchak would also likely bring quality prospects in return, though not as plentifully as Ramirez and Bieber.
In short, if the Indians wanted to go to a full rebuild right now and attempt to build a young core from the ground up in 2022 they could certainly do that, and would probably do it effectively. But is that the way that a team that’s above the .500 mark in late July should operate? Regardless of their current playoff chances, the answer in most cases is probably not. The Indians do not have futility slapping themselves in the face in the same way that it has struck the Twins.
In fact, if you squint your eyes and turn your head to the side, you could still see this Indians team as a true playoff contender. On July 20th of 2017 the Indians found themselves at the same 93-game point in the season that they entered coming into Thursday night’s tilt with Tampa Bay. At that point in 2017, the Indians found themselves at the same 48-45 record as this season. That Indians team went on to make the playoffs, albeit with the help of a record-breaking 22-game win streak in August and September.
This Indians team, while not perfectly constructed, has certainly not benefited in any way from the devastating injuries that the starting rotation has suffered. Bieber has not pitched in over a month due to a strained throwing shoulder, yet he still has the pitched the second most innings of any Indians hurler as the team has struggled to find pitchers to throw deep into ballgames. Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale have also missed extended time. Ten different Indians have taken a start on the hill. That’s three more starters than had started for that entire 2017 season. Additionally, offensive contributions have been hard to come by. Admittedly, that offensive lethargy is at least in part a product of the roster and the financial limitations that the front office has faced. However, the loss of DH Franmil Reyes for several weeks with an oblique strain as well as the unexpected struggles of the usually very productive Rosario (before getting injured himself) certainly were contributing factors as well.
While better luck may not make up the 9.5 game chasm that has appeared between the Tribe and the Sox, it could have brought the Indians closer in both Wildcard races. While an argument can be made to strip this roster to the ground and start fresh, it also seems like that with Bieber and Civale scheduled to return in August, this team could still make a push for the post-season. Perhaps with the addition of some offensive help in the form of an outfielder like Starling Marte, Joey Gallo or Bryan Reynolds they could even find themselves playing October baseball.
Unfortunately, in exploring both ends of the trade deadline spectrum, both options eventually seem like a stretch. The Indians aren’t a bad squad, but at the same time, it appears that the post-season isn’t in the cards for 2021. A more nuanced and moderate approach is the most likely on the horizon for Chris Antonetti and his staff. For fans, this approach should be familiar at this point. The Indians are likely to make moves that will maintain their youth and the ability to harbor cost-controlled talent in exchange for veteran pieces that don’t stand to be part of their future.
Veterans like those already mentioned only serve a purpose if the team is legitimately contending. Without that contention, they are only filling a spot in the lineup that could be providing an opportunity to learn about Andres Gimenez, Daniel Johnson, Nolan Jones or many other youngsters that could contribute to a potentially playoff-bound 2022 roster. At the same time, Antonetti and co. will likely want talent that is near Major League ready in any deals that they make. That was their MO in the trading of individuals like Corey Kluber (for Clase) and Mike Clevinger (for Josh Naylor, Cal Quantrill and Owen Miller, who have all played in the Majors this year). Remember, this isn’t a rebuild. Its a reload. And with the value of a Hernandez, Rosario, Wittgren or Shaw being lesser than Kluber or Clevinger due to their production or position, good offers for near MLB-ready talent will be harder to come by. But once again, these veterans are no good to the Indians, even actively hurting their future prospects (double entendre) by remaining in the lineup. In a way, they really must go. Some of them most certainly will, even if its for cents on the dollar.
Expect them to be traded. Expect to be underwhelmed. But also expect that all this is happening for the right reasons. And hopefully expect 2022 to be a healthier, more productive season and even playoff-bound season.
Feature image: Covering the Corner