What do you after winning three division titles in a row, dominating your rivals and even making a trip to the World Series? Sell off your ace, apparently.
If the Red Sox look quirky for potentially shopping some of their better players this offseason, Cleveland looks downright kooky for marketing two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and emerging star Trevor Bauer.
Call it a case of trying to thread the needle. Cleveland wants to retain its supremacy atop the AL Central. But it also wants to get younger and gain financial flexibility.
- 2018 Result: 91-71, first place in AL Central
- Key free agents: Michael Brantley, Josh Donaldson, Lonnie Chisenhall, Rajai Davis, Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Brandon Guyer, Josh Tomlin, Oliver Perez, Adam Rosales,Melky Cabrera
- Needs: Outfield, relief pitching
Last season, the Lindors carried the fourth-oldest collection of position players and sixth-oldest group of pitchers in the majors. Kluber turns 33 just after Opening Day. He’s also still contending for Cy Youngs and is signed for the stupendously attractive price of $40.5 million over the next three seasons (assuming his employer picks up two club options at the end of the deal). An aggressive, pitching-needy team could restock Cleveland’s base of young talent with one stroke of a pen.
Bauer turns 28 next month, and offers two years of team control. One of the headiest students of the game you’ll ever find, Bauer was all in on concepts like spin rate long before they became buzz phrases throughout the industry. His combination of natural talent and higher-level work finally fostered a huge breakout last season, with Bauer posting a stellar 2.21 ERA, making his first All-Star Game; if not for a DL stint, he might’ve made a run at a Cy Young of his own. He too could command a king’s ransom from the right trade partner.
Cleveland gets to play with such decisions because it’s become a perennial pitching power. Mike Clevinger quietly grew into one of the best pitchers in the league last season, punching out 207 batters and flashing a 3.02 ERA across 200 innings. Fellow right-hander Shane Bieber’s rookie campaign looked a lot like Clevinger’s season immediately preceding his breakout; with strong strikeout-per-inning results and one of the tidiest walk rates in the league, Bieber could the team’s next pitching star in 2019.
All that, and we haven’t even mentioned Carlos Carrasco. The first long-term deal Carrasco signed with Cleveland was a below-market pact, one rumored to have stemmed from Carrasco’s own concerns (and his agent’s) that his arm might not hold up long term. Whatever his reasoning, Carrasco just inked another extension that’s way below market value, raking in a relatively modest $47 million over the next four years. This for a pitcher who ranked sixth among all AL pitchers in Wins Above Replacement…but third on his own team.
Aside from the generic basket of prospects many sellers shoot for, the Lindors will aim for win-now help in their starting nine. Franchise mainstay and ultra-smooth hitter Tyler Naquin, Greg Allen, and Leonys Martin (with Jason Kipnis occasionally manning center) would be one of the worst in the league. Shuffling deck chairs in the form of an Edwin Encarnacion-Carlos Santana-Yandy Diaz-Jake Bauers deal does nothing to address that gaping hole. Trading Kluber or Bauer could., and the currently projected outfield of
If Cleveland doesn’t go the trade route, free agency could always be an option. Shopping below Bryce Harper or even A.J. Pollock level, Marwin Gonzalez, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis would all constitute upgrades of varying degrees. That’s not counting relief pitching, a pressing need with Cody Allen and Andrew Miller both free agents. That’s an easier path, though, given that this might be the deepest free-agent market we’ve ever seen for relievers.
You can still see the downside if the Lindors just settle for good enough, though. The Twins could easily shake off their 2018 doldrums and return to the playoff-caliber club they were a year earlier, which could challenge Cleveland’s AL Central rule. Longer term, the White Sox have collected that could make them a serious threat for years to come. With Brantley, Encarnacion, Melky Cabrera, and traded catcher Yan Gomes all either gone or likely to be gone, the only two above-average hitters remaining from the 2018 roster are the two five-tool stars, Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez.
So the focus shifts to the dramatic. The Yankees were thought to be potential suitors for Kluber and Bauer, but the latest reports have them unlikely to land either of the two right-handers. The Phillies have already made some Hot Stove noise and could greatly benefit from another ace to complement Aaron Nola…but it’s not clear that any of their litany of potentially available outfielders would add all that much, with the oddly stagnating Odubel Herrera the best of the bunch. The best fit could be the Mets, who’ve looked eager to make a splash from the moment that new GM Brodie Van Wagenen took over, and have tailor-made trade bait in potent lefty-swinging outfielders Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto.
With Harper, Machado, and other enticing names still dotting the free-agent market, some of the best offseason action could extend well past New Year’s. Doubly so if Cleveland pulls off the blockbuster it very logically wants.
Jonah on the MLB offseason