Cleveland has won the AL Central for three consecutive years, and unless something goes horribly, horribly awry, they’ll win it again in 2019. Cleveland doesn’t face much competition in their division. They also have one of the most dominant rotations in baseball, and if they wanted to, plenty of payroll space to add contracts before they reach the competitive balance tax threshold.
The thing is, they don’t want to do that. In fact, they want to do the opposite as evidenced by reports that Cleveland is willing to deal one of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Carlos Carrasco.
Kluber is under guaranteed contract with two club option years following. He stands to make an average of $17.5 million. That’s six million a year less than what Patrick Corbin will make, and regardless of your opinions of Corbin, Kluber is the much better value.
Bauer has two more years of arbitration eligibility before he reaches free agency at the end of the 2020 season. MLB Trade Rumors puts his projected salary for next year at $11.6 million. That’s a steal considering he pitched to a 2.49 DRA and was worth 6.1 fWAR last year.
Cleveland also projects to have a payroll of $119 million next year which is $16 million less than 2018’s payroll. They could afford to add another contract the size of Bauer’s and still come under where they were for 2018.
Why would a team that’s just about assured of a playoff spot want to deal away an arm like that? Shouldn’t a team that’s mostly assured of a playoff spot try to hold onto a top-10 starter so they can try to end the longest championship drought in all of major North American sports instead of saving their billionaire owners some money?
It doesn’t seem like a good idea, but Cleveland is in a unique position. They don’t need Bauer or Kluber to win their division. Teams would pay out the nose in prospect capital for him. Losing Bauer will hurt, but even without one of their top three pitchers, they would still have the other two plus Mike Clevinger, and Shane Bieber is projected by ZiPS to be nearly as good as Carrasco and Bauer.
Cleveland’s rotation is deep and talented, but the same cannot be said of their outfield. If Cleveland were to get someone back like Alex Verdugo of the Dodgers, which Ken Rosenthal mentioned as a possibility ($), Cleveland could strengthen their outfield and extend their window a bit.
If Philadelphia wants to go after Bauer or Kluber, Cleveland may target Adam Haseley. Haseley was the Phillies first pick in the 2017 draft, and he’s the highest ranked outfielder in the organization and the only one that FanGraphs lists at 45 FV or above. Cleveland may also look at Adonis Medina, whose name was mentioned in the Madison Bumgarner trade rumors.
The Yankees, who also lost out on Corbin, might have to send Clint Frazier back to Cleveland if they want Bauer or Kluber. Such a deal would be easier to swallow for Cleveland fans since Frazier is major-league ready.
The Reds have also expressed interest in Bauer and Kluber. Ordinarily, it’s the last place team sending a Cy Young caliber pitcher to the first-place team, but if the Reds had a capable rotation, they might actually be competitive. Cincinnati was 11th in DRC+ last year at 99, right behind the division winning Brewers and ahead of the Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates. Adding Bauer or Kluber isn’t going to give them a good starting rotation but replacing Homer Bailey with a 5 or 6 win pitcher is a mighty fine start.
The Reds have plenty of 45+ FV outfielders they could send back. Taylor Trammel is ranked 17th overall by MLB Pipeline. Jose Siri, TJ Friedl, Stuart Fairchild, and Mike Siani all rank well on the FanGraphs prospect board. The Reds certainly have the pieces to get a deal done, and with a few other free agent signings, the Reds could be right back in contention.
There are ways for Cleveland to manage this trade in a way that doesn’t make them much worse even in the short term. Depending on the return, it might actually make them better. Unless, of course, Cleveland also tries to dump Jason Kipnis along with their starting pitcher, which is a possibility Buster Olney put forth.
As soon as Patrick Corbin picks his team, the losers in his bidding could be in better position to focus more earnestly on the Indians' starting pitchers who are available -- with some dollars attached...Cleveland might ask a team to take contract of Jason Kipnis as part any deal— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 4, 2018
If they were to do that, the move would lack any pretense of this being a wise baseball move to extend their window. Packaging Kipnis would negatively impact their return even if a team like the Phillies could take on the contract and utilize Kipnis. It wouldn’t do anything to alleviate their attendance issues either. Selling off All-Stars when payroll was just barely above average last season isn’t a great way to get people to the ballpark.
Cleveland dealing one of their talented starters doesn’t have to be just about cutting payroll. It could be about dealing from an area of strength to address a weakness. This could also just be another instance of teams convincing fans that prospects are just as valuable as top major-league talent. It’s not impossible that Cleveland comes away from a potential deal better, but it doesn’t seem likely.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score, McCovey Chronicles, and BP Wrigleyville.