A few weeks ago, there seemed to be a great deal of optimism surrounding Cleveland at the deadline. The Indians were seen as legitimate contenders who needed only a piece or two to make a serious run at the playoffs. We heard names like Carlos Quentin, Josh Willingham, and B.J. Upton tossed around as likely trade targets, and it wasn’t really a question of if the Tribe would make a deal, but rather for whom.
But things have changed. The Indians have fallen back to .500. They’re four games behind in the AL Central, and with the Tigers and White Sox (both of whom are generally seen as better than the Tribe) tied for the lead they would have to take down two first-place teams in order to win the division. Hope is not lost, but the 2013 playoffs look like a more realistic goal than the 2012 postseason, and this team isn’t likely to make a major upgrade for the final two months.
Now that the Indians are unlikely to be buyers, there’s a growing sentiment that they should totally change course and start selling. Our own Brian Heise makes a compelling argument that we should at least consider dealing almost every veteran on the team—not to rebuild, but to “reboot”—and Steve Kinsella has made the case for trading Shin-Soo Choo. Judging by the general tone of the blogosphere, it seems many fans are sympathetic to the idea of punting 2012 and building for the future.
But with respect to my colleagues and skeptical fellow fans, this is not the time to clean house. Selling for the sake of selling may seem like habit for the Indians, but right now trading established players to build for the future doesn’t make any sense.
There are two things one must keep in mind when considering Cleveland’s present situation. The first is that the 2012 season is not yet lost. The Indians have suffered through injuries, game-changing blown calls, and an entire rotation full of underperformers in the first half-plus of the season, yet they’re still at .500. Four games back with 64 to play hardly sounds like an insurmountable deficit, especially with a combined 16 games left against their current superiors in the AL Central. Despite their underestimating the Tribe’s true-talent level relative to the Tigers and White Sox, Baseball Prospectus has the Indians at better than 1 in 6 odds of playing into October. That’s not a great chance, but it is a real, concrete, significant chance.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, Cleveland is supposed to compete in 2013. This isn’t a great team right now, but even the most cynical fan has to see that the Indians are just a couple pieces and a little bit of experience away from from being serious contenders. The Tribe’s core players might not be the building blocks for a 1990′s Yankees-esque dynasty, but there’s no reason to think that Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall won’t have a couple division titles under their belts by the end of their arbitration years.
With that in mind, let’s consider what the Indians selling would look like. Two guys who would surely be on the trading block are Jack Hannahan and Casey Kotchman. Both are veterans signed to relatively cheap one-year deals (though Hannahan is under team control through 2014). Neither is a game-changing impact player, but as Brian noted their superb gloves and veteran experience would make them attractive options to a contender looking to shore up some depth. They’re classic examples of the kinds of players who typically change hands at the deadline.
But what happens to the Tribe once Kotchman or Hannahan is gone? Rightly or not, Jose Lopez (another possible trade chip, but it’s questionable if he would have any value at all) would be the clear heir apparent at either corner infield spot, and that certainly wouldn’t make our lineup better. Without Kotchman or Hannahan—or worse, both of them—the Indians’ pitch-to-contact starters will get knocked around even more than they already have. They mean more to Cleveland than they would to another team, which would make for an odd trade situation.
What could the Indians get for Kotchman or Hannahan anyway? Probably not much of anything. One is a first baseman who hits like a catcher and the other is generally seen outside of Cleveland as unfit to start. If the front office decides to punt 2012 then dealing Kotchman makes sense no matter how little the return. But Hannahan? He’s under team control through 2014, and even if Lonnie Chisenhall takes over at third base next year Hannahan’s glove still means a lot to this club. Is there any way that the C-grade prospect we’d get for him would help the Tribe more than Hannahan would?
What about someone like Shin-Soo Choo? As Steve said, the Indians have virtually no chance of keeping Choo around long-term, and we could get a lot more for him now than we could if we deal him next July or let him walk after the 2013 season. That’s true. But there’s a reason why teams would be willing to give up a lot to have Choo play for them, and that applies to the Indians too.
If the Indians lose Choo, the 2012 season is over. Kaput. In addition to being the Tribe’s offensive spark and best overall hitter, he is the only player on the roster who can capably man right field every day, and one outfield hole is enough. Unless the return package in a Choo trade included a good right fielder—in which case the rest of the haul would be of a lower pedigree and the deal wouldn’t make any sense for the other team—there’s no way Cleveland would make the playoffs after that. Some fans might be ready to punt this year, but I’m not one of them.
But the damage wouldn’t just be in the short term—we’d also be losing Choo for 2013. Even assuming the Indians can easily obtain a respectable right fielder by next April, how would they replicate Choo’s production? They’d have to sell the farm to trade for a star player because there’s no way they could afford a similar talent on the free agent market. The only way a Choo trade wouldn’t kill two years of playoff hopes is if we get multiple high-ceiling MLB-ready prospects whose positions correspond to our roster holes in return, and I’m not sure that’s a realistic possibility.
This isn’t to say that the Indians should stand pat. It very well could be in the team’s best interest to move some established players. Say, Chris Perez. If he could snag someone like Peter Bourjos from the Angels or Brandon Belt from the Giants, I’d be all for that. Such moves could be interpreted as “selling,” but while the Tribe would lose a recognizable face without seeing much benefit in 2012, dealing from a position of strength to shore up a weakness both for now and in the years to come isn’t waving the white flag. That’s just trading.
No one really knows how the Indians are planning to approach the trade deadline, and I suspect that Chris Antonetti & Co. haven’t fully made up their minds either. But while this team has some great trade chips and Tribe’s recent cold streak may signal to perennially heartbroken Cleveland fans like all hope is lost, it’s too soon to give up on 2012 and it doesn’t make any sense to blow the whole thing up. This team can win, if not this year then next. Focus too much on selling high and maximizing value and you won’t see the forest for the trees.