The year was 2011. The Cleveland Indians were the Cinderella story of American League baseball. They got off to a 30-15 start, and led the division by seven games on May 23. As good as they were, most assumed that their success would be short-lived given how poorly the team had performed in 2010. Nevertheless, on July 1st, they were in first place in the AL Central with a half-game lead over the Detroit Tigers.
The Indians had pitched very well to that point, but they knew a rotation in which the second-best pitcher was Josh Tomlin wasn't going to carry them. Unexpectedly, a team that wasn't expected to do anything that year (except maybe match their lousy 69-93 record from the season before) made a move for the best starter available, Ubaldo Jimenez.
It didn't work. Jimenez was a disappointment, the team collapsed, and the Indians had little to show for a trade that cost them more than the usual pound of flesh in prospects. Two seasons later, the Indians again need to improve their starting rotation to compete down the stretch. While this team's makeup is much different (and arguably better) than its 2011 predecessor, there are still concerns that the Indians might once again overplay their hand. In fact, the high price they paid in 2011 may prevent it from happening -- and that might not be a bad thing.
Deadline deals are notoriously rough on buyers. Sellers can sense desperation, and use it to their full advantage when dealing with general managers who are willing to sign away the farm for major-league talent. Often these trades seem predatory in hindsight, but they happen for the same reason that most of us will pay $5.00 for bottled water (or $15.50 for a Bulleit Neat) once we have cleared airport security: There simply aren't any other options for survival.
It took four prospects for the Indians to settle their debts with the Rockies for Jimenez: Joseph Gardner, Matt McBride, and Alex White went immediately; Drew Pomeranz followed a few weeks later as the player to be named later. White and Pomeranz were both recent first-round draft picks, going in 2009 and 2010, respectively.
Part of the appeal of trading for Jimenez was his team-friendly contract that ensured that the Indians could have him through 2013 for roughly $10 million total, which made considerable sense for an organization whose team didn't possess much rotation strength. Still, the Indians didn't win, Jimenez has struggled until recently (his ERA as an Indian is 5.05, but only 3.44 in 13 starts since April), and the expense they paid in talent was devastating. That the traded players have not established themselves is less important than that in dealing them the organization emptied its larder: According to Baseball America's annual organization talent rankings, which evaluate the overall value of a team's prospect-eligible players, the Indians dropped from seventh to 29th after that trade, and they've been scrambling to restock their young talent ever since.
Rebuilding a farm system takes time, and just two years removed from the Jimenez trade, the Indians have not been able to do so fast enough. At this point, they have just two players who rank among the top prospects in the game, Trevor Bauer and shortstop Francisco Lindor. Hard-throwing right-handed starter Danny Salazar, who made his major-league debut on Thursday, and infielder Ronny Rodriguez, currently at Double-A, could also attract interest. Lindor, now 19, has been the jewel of the organization since he was drafted him in the first round of 2011. The Indians currently have options at shortstop with Asdrubal Cabrera signed through next season (as is backup Mike Aviles, with a team option for 2015) and teams would certainly be interested given the drought of talent at shortstop across the league.
Francisco Lindor (Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports )
Lindor is hitting .307/.375/.412 at High-A Carolina and is a defensive standout. The Indians could try to move Bauer, the most frustrating prospect in baseball, but he's a much tougher sell this season. Though he progressed quickly with the Diamondbacks, his stubbornness and attitude are what landed him on the Indians roster in the first place. The Indians hoped that they could reform his attitude and refine his pitch arsenal fast enough for him to help this season, but he's thrown just 17 innings in the majors this year. Still, Bauer is not yet a bust, and there are teams that might be intrigued by a wunderkind who can throw upwards of 10 different pitches.
While Lindor may be blocked in the short term and Bauer struggling, the problem isn't that they shouldn't necessarily be traded if the right deal comes along, but that each deal you make forecloses other possibilities -- when the Indians put all their eggs in the Ubaldo basket, they limited their ability to consummate other deals and/or improve the team internally. As the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline approaches this year, the Indians are again in need of pitching, and it's easy to imagine a Jimenez-like scenario arising again.
So far, the Indians' blend of veterans and young stars has worked exactly as they had hoped -- the club is averaging 4.79 runs per game on offense, which is good for third in the American League. They hit for above-average power, and have the third best OPS+ in the league, a big improvement over last season when they were near the bottom in all of those categories. Yet, unless they add pitching, the run support may not be enough for the playoffs. Though Jon Heyman reports that if the Indians "don't find that special someone, they just might pass in light of the fact their rotation depth isn't a concern at the moment," their self-assessment is far from certain given they've received a mix of inconsistent pitching from both the bullpen and the rotation. Their ERA+ is 88, which ranks them 14th in the American League (only the Astros are worse). It's hard to imagine Scott Kazmir as the No. 3 starter should the Indians make the playoffs, but that's his spot in the current rotation -- an indicator of the team's lack of depth.
Justin Masterson has rebounded from last season's general pounding. Jimenez, in the final year of his contract, has been good for eating innings, but his 12.4 percent walk rate is the highest among starters in the majors. Kazmir is risky, though, because he has a home run and extra-base hit problem this season -- 46 percent of all hits he's allowed have been for extra bases, and his 4.1 percent home run rate is the highest on the team -- and of course he's five years removed from his last sustained run of good pitching. Corey Kluber, who joined the Indians in 2010 as part of a deadline trade for Jake Westbrook, has great fastball speed, an improving cutter, and he has the best strikeout-to-walk ratio on the team.
The final spot in the rotation has been a consistent problem. Zach McAllister pitched well in 11 starts; however he has been on the disabled list since June 8th with a finger injury. In his place, they've tried Carlos Carrasco (who has been creamed in most of his appearances), and Trevor Bauer, a top prospect who, oxymoronically, has been even worse. When Bauer faced the White Sox on June 28th, he was pulled from the game after allowing five runs in just two-thirds of an inning, and was immediately returned to the minors. In his first major-league appearance on Thursday, Salazar showed that he might be a viable solution -- he gave up just two hits and one run to the Blue Jays and struck out seven -- but it will be hard for the Indians to determine what he can contribute long-term based on just a few starts before the deadline.
Not only could the Indians use rotation help this season, they could use stability entering next season as well. They'll potentially have two open spots in the rotation as Jimenez and Kazmir enter free agency. There's a chance that Bauer or Salazar could be ready for a full-time spot in the rotation next spring, but the Indians could also look for a veteran at the deadline who might have a couple of years left on his contract so as to provide some certainty for next season as well as this one.
As in 2011, the Indians are rumored to want to go big or go home, aiming for a top-tier pitcher like Matt Garza or Cliff Lee, but this time around it seems like they've walked into a Porsche dealer when they can only afford a Kia. Aside from being the best available, neither seem to fit the mold of what the Indians should be pursuing. Garza will be a free agent at the end of the season, and though Lee has three seasons left on his contract, he'll cost at least $78 million through 2016 (presuming an option for that season vests), when he'll be in his age-37 season.
The Indians might be more inclined to pursue Astros righty Bud Norris, who isn't the same caliber pitcher by any stretch, but is still in his arbitration years and won't become a free agent until 2016. There may be more pitchers available as teams sort themselves into buyers and sellers over the next two weeks, but there are still only a finite number of good pitchers out there and they will be costly and disappear quickly. Given their lack of depth, it's possible the Indians will be crowded out by teams that have much better chips to trade than they do.
The Indians have a master plan for their organization, and that's carried them to the final years of their rebuilding plan. Unlike 2011, this season's success isn't a fluke. Their young talent is in the majors, the team is playing well, and they've found the right manager, but the organization has hit a crossroads quicker than they expected. They could make a push for the playoffs with another Jimenez-like trade that would wipe out their farm system again, or they could gamble on their current rotation and minor-league talent for the rest of the season. If they want to keep their prospects, given the contracts coming off the books they could get again try to get stronger with free agent signings, but that route is tougher than ever with the paucity of good talent making it to the market.
We can only speculate about how they plan to ratchet up their roster, but when a team is staring down a pennant, as history has shown, sometimes the master plan takes a backseat to winning now. That is right and proper, but when the gamble doesn't pay off, the decision can have repercussions not just for that season, but for seasons to come.