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For The Cleveland Indians: A Most Compelling Off-Season

Corey Kluber didn’t win the American League Cy Young Award on Wednesday, but he was in the hunt. For the last 70 years the Cleveland Indians haven’t won the World Series, but in recent years they have been in the hunt.

However, even with his non-win this year, Kluber has been better at winning Cy Young Awards (two) than his team has been at winning the World Series (none since 1948). That’s the dilemma now for Indians officials: if their team can’t win a World Series with arguably the best pitcher in the league over the last five years, what’s Plan B?

Do the Indians keep trying to win it all with Kluber? Or do they use him to acquire some pieces that could help them win it all? Team officials know what the famously consistent Kluber brings to the table. That’s why everything will be on the table, in evaluating what direction the team will take this off-season.

Indians president Chris Antonetti and General Manager Mike Chernoff said as much after the Indians were swept in three games by the Houston Astros in this year’s Division Series. Cleveland’s two top baseball decision makers said the team would try to “get creative” in re-shaping the roster for 2019.

Using Kluber as a trade chip would be about as creative as it gets. The veteran right-hander, who will turn 33 shortly after opening day next year, has finished in the top three in the Cy Young balloting in four of the last five years, winning the award in 2014 and 2017. In 2018 he won 20 games, led the American League with 215 innings pitched, and finished third in the Cy Young voting, behind Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell and Houston’s Justin Verlander.

The Indians have shown they are not averse to trading Cy Young Award winners. In 2008 the Indians traded 2007 Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia to Milwaukee. In 2009 they traded 2008 Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee to Philadelphia. However, both of those trades were for packages of prospects, with an eye towards the future.

This Indians team’s future is now. Cleveland isn’t rebuilding, it’s reloading. Reloading by unloading a two-time Cy Young Award winner might be risky business for a franchise whose window of opportunity is directly tied to the ticking clock on superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor’s march towards free agency.

Or is it? The argument could be made that it’s specifically because each new season brings the Indians one year closer to Lindor’s exit, that the team should, if not sell out, at least “get creative” _ very creative _ in trying to win now. That’s where they are now. And that’s why this could be a very interesting baseball winter in Cleveland.

Lindor can become a free agent after the 2021 season. He’s eligible for arbitration for the first time. That should result in his salary, which was $623,000 in 2018, jumping to an estimated $10 million in 2019. The Indians will take periodic runs at trying to sign him to a long-term contract, but rare is the player of Lindor’s stature who succumbs to such financial wooing, once the free agent carrot appears on the horizon.

The elephant in the room, of course, is always the Indians’ payroll restrictions. The ballclub’s $135 million payroll in 2018 was the highest in franchise history.

They do have some key players, with pricey salaries, coming off the books, with the expected loss of free agent outfielder Michael Brantley, relievers Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, and third baseman Josh Donaldson. But that found money will be lost to the raises due returning players on multi-year deals, plus anticipated increases for arbitration-eligible players.

Then there’s the eminently expendable Jason Kipnis, whose batting average and OPS have declined for three consecutive years. He’ll turn 32 in April, and he’s lost his second base job to MVP finalist Jose Ramirez. Yet in 2019, the last year of his contract, Kipnis will be the Indians’ third highest-paid player, at $14.6 million. Indians officials will not only accept all inquiries on Kipnis, they’ll probably try to coax them.

Kluber’s 2019 salary is $17 million, up $7 million from 2018, and the Indians hold team options for $17.5 in 2020 and $18 million in 2021, which, for a Cy Young Award-caliber pitcher, makes him a bargain.

Nevertheless, if Antonetti and Chernoff were of a mind to “get creative” regarding their ace, who with one more Cy Young season would likely punch his ticket to Cooperstown, the return would have to be enormous, centered on a twenty-something middle-of-the-order outfield bat, plus a productive, dependable reliever, and an elite, near major league-ready position player prospect.

Leverage? Antonetti and Chernoff have it. For them, it’s win-win. They either get exactly what they want, or they bring back a four-time Cy Young finalist, two-time winner, on a club-friendly contract, and hope the planets finally align in 2019:

That Kluber wins his third Cy Young Award, and the Indians win their first World Series since the Truman administration.

Cleveland Indians pitcher Corey Kluber finished third in the 2018 Cy Young Award voting, behind Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell and Houston’s Justin Verlander. Kluber won the award in 2014 and 2017. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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