With the signing of Yonder Alonso, there is no easy solution to massively improve the team. Adding any single player makes a much smaller difference when there are no open positions. For example, even adding a third baseman would likely completely leave Jason Kipnis out of a spot, so the improvement would be less the value of a player who has been a 3.9 WAR or better player in four of the last six seasons.
With that in mind, it would take a huge splash to significantly improve the team in 2018, leading to some extreme trade speculation. An example of one is the following poll from Burning River Baseball’s own Caitlin Boron:
Machado has been on and off the trading block throughout the off-season so far and is likely to command quite the price as the best defensive third baseman in the American League worth at least 6.7 WAR in every full season of his career with the exception of 2017. There have been no real rumors about Machado to Cleveland, but one would have to assume that obtaining a player as talented as himself (or Josh Donaldson, who is also a free agent after 2018 and a top defender at 3B) would require any team’s top prospect or more.
However, as much as an All-Star third baseman would improve the team (a funny thing to say considering that the 2017 starting 3B AL All-Star is already on the Indians), there are two players currently within the Indians system that are more valuable than any addition the Indians could possibly find for the 2018 season. Everyone already knows the names, but of course I’m talking about Francisco Mejia and, more importantly, Triston McKenzie.
While these two are #1 and #2 on every prospect ranking of the Indians farm system (except the 2017 Burning River rankings where we don’t include players with MLB experience), that is not the primary reason why they are untouchable. Yu-Cheng Chang and Willi Castro are also extremely well considered prospects and always placed in the top 10, but to the Indians, are not as valuable. This isn’t an issue of talent or Major League ceiling as much as it is of scarcity.
It isn’t necessarily the case that Francisco Mejia will have a better MLB career than either of the short stops mentioned, but it is the case that he is the only catcher in the Indians entire system who currently projects to be a Major League starter. McKenzie is in a slightly different situation as the Indians have many minor league starting pitchers who could be Major Leaguers, but he is the only one with the stuff and the stats to back it up to believe he could be a Major League ace. Since drafting McKenzie and Brady Aiken both out of high school in 2015 the Indians have been extremely conservative in their pitcher picks, focusing on college educated control specialists. While the pitchers, like Shane Bieber and Aaron Civale are having great success already in the minors, they simply don’t appear to be the type of pitcher who could head a Major League rotation. McKenzie, with an 11.6 career K/9, 2.68 ERA and WHIP under 1.00 across four levels in three years and currently just 20 years old could be.
The importance of McKenzie may not be obviously apparent to many Indians fans (about 70% of Cait’s followers according to the poll) as Corey Kluber is under control through 2021 with Carlos Carrasco (two team options), Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer (both arbitration eligible) under team control through 2020. Between them, Ryan Merritt, Josh Tomlin, Mike Clevinger and the legions of AAA starters ready to make the jump to the bigs or move on, looking at pitchers below AA may seem less important than adding a significant piece to the 2018 run. That was just the thinking back in 1998 when John Hart felt the Indians were just a relief pitcher away from a World Series title and sent Brian Giles to Pittsburgh for Ricardo Rincon. The Indians still didn’t win the World Series in 1999 and Giles was worth 27.1 WAR over the next six seasons.
While this is cherry picking a single bad deal, the reason the doldrums of 2002 through 2006 happened for Cleveland was a combination of multiple bad deals and a decade (that extended into two decades) of poor drafting. In 1998 it was easy to say “the Indians already have David Justice, Manny Ramirez and Kenny Lofton, a right handed reliever is much more important than a fourth outfielder,” but that line of thinking cost them not just an All-Star outfielder who would have been around long after those three were gone, but Richie Sexson (who brought back three right handed relievers), Jeff Kent and others. The Indians minor league system was already barren by the late 1990’s and Hart dealt away the few promising players they had, leaving them in a position where they had to completely start over when Mark Shapiro took over in 2001.
Back to the present, there are very clear areas of strength and weakness in the Indians system. They have short stops and back end starting pitchers by the truck load, but catcher, first base and elite pitchers are represented each by a single man. Because of this, the value of those three (Mejia, Bobby Bradley and McKenzie) to the Indians should be much higher than it would be to any other team. Not only are they talented players, but they are the Indians solitary hope at those positions for the next five years or so.
On the other hand, Francisco Lindor being under team control through 2021 and Jose Ramirez through 2023 should extremely devalue the long list of talented short stops and second basemen in the Indians system. To many teams, Chang or Castro could represent their best short stop or even best overall prospect, but to the Indians, they are blocked by Lindor for the next four years. The Indians dipped into this pool a bit when they sent Thomas Pannone (potential back end starter) and Samad Taylor (lower level 2B) to Toronto for a few months of Joe Smith, but the pool is much deeper. Trading Castro or Chang could eventually look bad if they ever take off in the big leagues, but they would have to be significantly better than Lindor (which they are not) for it to really hurt Cleveland.
The final aspect of using an extremely valuable player like McKenzie, Mejia or Bradley in a deal to improve the 2018 squad is the difference it would make. The fact is, as constructed the Indians should already be able to easily take the Central title again with only Minnesota apparently interested in offering competition. After that, variability could make any further improvements irrelevant. It’s easy to argue that the 2017 Indians were significantly better and healthier than the 2016 Indians, yet one took game seven of the World Series into extra innings and the other lost in the ALDS. This was true in 1999 as well. The 1999 Indians were the greatest offensive team ever to play in Cleveland and were fairly incredibly defensively as well, yet lost to Boston in the ALDS while the inferior version had also went to extra innings in games seven of the World Series in 1997.
Adding one player, even if that player is first ballot Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar, is not enough to guarantee a championship. Trading away your only future ace, catcher or first baseman could be enough to cost the team the chance to compete for one for the next five years, however. Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff have done an incredible job since 2013 in not only creating a championship caliber team, but adding pieces when necessary and not costing the future of the franchise. I don’t believe they’ll change the strategy now by throwing away the pair of athletes who will be that franchise in the near future.