The Cleveland Indians are a franchise at a crossroads. At this point in 2011, the Tribe seemed to be on a path toward contention by developing a young strong pitching staff capable of striking the opposition out. Justin Masterson and Carlos Carrasco were soon to be joined in the rotation by Alex White and Drew Pomeranz down the road. Then the Indians traded White and Pomeranz for Ubaldo Jimenez and Carrasco got injured; the organization’s direction became blurry and the haze continued over the offseason.
Following the season, Derek Lowe was acquired to provide innings and stability to the rotation and the Grady Sizemore signing was as an indication that the team wanted to have power in the lineup. The Indians continued their pursuit of power bats but failed to sign Josh Willingham, Carlos Beltran, or Carlos Pena. So the organization pulled an 11th hour switch and signed defensive specialist Casey Kotchman, then tried to sell the fans on how vitally important it was to upgrade the defense at first base with a groundball-heavy pitching staff and young middle infielders.
As the trade deadline approaches, the question of what organization the Indians want to be still lingers. The 2011 trade for Jimenezprovided the fans with a framework of when the front office planned on making a push to the postseason but not its plan to actually get there. Will movement at the trade deadline provide some clarity as to the direction that the Indians will follow?
The best strategy would be to build around pitching. The official motto for the State of Ohio reads, “With God All Things Are Possible.” I have a similar motto for Major League Baseball: “With Good Pitching All Things Are Possible.” Good pitching has not been a popular theme in Cleveland this season, as the team ranks 13th in the league in ERA (4.58), 12th in FIP (4.31), 13th in strikeout rate (17.3%), and 12th in walk rate (9.1%). For all the talk about the bullpen, the real problem is the starting rotation, which ranks 11th in both ERA (4.78) and FIP (4.58), 14th in strikeout rate (14.6%), and 13th in walk rate (9.1%).
The upper levels of the Indians minor leagues feature a quartet of interesting arms in Corey Kluber, T.J. McFarland, Giovanni Soto, and Steven Wright, but not one of them projects as a top-of-the-rotation starter and only Kluber has a real proclivity for strikeouts. With the lack of top pitching prospects becoming a pitching rich organization will require some heavy lifting, risk, and patience from a fan base already worn thin.
How can it be done? The answer, though unpleasant, is obvious: trade Shin-Soo Choo.
Trading Choo while he still has a year and a half of team control would bring back memories of the Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez deals before the 2009 trade deadline. But it’s a different situation than it was three years ago. In 2009, management was under intense pressure to move Lee and Martinez for financial relief; this was no secret to other GMs, who used this to their advantage and gave the Indians less than they otherwise would have gotten in return. This time the ownership isn’t pushing management to move Choo, so Cleveland would get a better return.
Choo touches on all five of the tools an organization is looking for in a player. He has the ability to hit anywhere in a lineup with moderate power, and the ability to get on base; once on both he possesses the speed and knowledge to steal bases, and he has a cannon an arm in the field. He just turned 30 years old and thanks to a injury-riddled 2011 season is making only $4.9 million in 2012, which will jump to around a modest $7 million in 2013.
Why don’t the Indians just sign Choo to an extension? There are certainly a number of recently signed players that could in some way serve as a template:
- Carlos Quentin (29 years old) and in his final year of his arbitration eligibility just signed a three-year, $30 million extension with the San Diego Padres.
- Edwin Encarnacion (29) also in the final year of his arbitration eligibility, just signed a three-year, $29 million dollar extension with the Toronto Blue Jays.
- Michael Cuddyer (33) signed a three-year, $31.5 million dollar contract with the Colorado Rockies in the offseason.
- Josh Willingham (33) signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Minnesota Twins this winter.
Unfortunately, none of those four are real comparable for this situation. The first obstacle to signing Choo to a long term extension is that unlike the aforementioned quartet, Choo is represented by Scott Boras. Boras is not known for signing players his to long-term extensions and instead prefers them to test the free agent waters. If Choo were inclined to sign an extension I don’t believe he’d continue to have Scott Boras representing him.
The second reason that I don’t believe Choo would sign a long-term extension is because he will be 31 years old as he enters his first year of free agency. He is a far more accomplished and complete player than Quentin and Encarnacion and will be two years younger than both Cuddyer and Willingham when they hit the market. He owes it to himself to find out what he can get for his services. Will a team reward him with a five-year deal? Perhaps longer: This is his shot at a big contract, and a three-year extension beyond 2013 isn’t something that would be in his best interest.
The Indians would also have to take a leap in faith by signing Choo to a long-term deal as there are some red flags with his injury history. Although he’s been healthy throughout 2012 he did miss time in 2007 and 2008 after Tommy John surgery, a sprained right thumb landed him on the disabled list in 2010, and in 2011 he was sent to the DL three different times with a broken thumb, an oblique injury, and a recurrence of the oblique injury. Even though the hit by pitch by Jonathan Sanchez wasn’t of his doing, it may not be such a random event—he was struck in the exact same spot already in 2012 by left handed flame thrower Chris Sale and if not for a protective shield would have landed on the disabled list again this season.
In order to overcome the desire to test the market the Indians would likely have to increase his 2013 salary (call it a signing bonus) to around $10 million (probably $3 million more than he would otherwise get) and then offer him somewhere in the neighborhood of five years and $65 million. This would take Choo through the 2018 season—at which time he would be 36 years old.
The questions the Indians front office has to be asking themselves are: Do they risk this kind of back-end contract exposure? Do they risk allowing Choo to play out his 2013 season—maybe move him at the deadline next year or let him go as a free agent and get draft pick compensation? Or, do they take advantage of his high value now and trade him to a contender for the pieces they need to build a team around strong pitching?
How much is the past weighing on the present decision? The last time the Indians were faced with high dollar extension candidates they Travis Hafner and Jake Westbrook in July 2007. The Indians signed the then 29-year old Hafner to a four-year, $57 million extension and inked the 30-year-old Westbrook for three years at $33 million. Neither deal worked out very well.
The scars left behind from the Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome free agent negotiations are a constant reminder for the front office of how the organization fares when competing for their star players on the open market. The Indians already have to determine if they want to extend Choo and, if so, they still have the daunting task of trying to get Choo to agree to a deal.
Unless Cleveland does the improbable and win a World Series this year or next, there is going to be considerable pain when Choo leaves via free agency or trade. But if the Indians deal him now, they can get the pieces they need to become a pitching-rich organization that can compete for years to come. Since they are under no direct orders to trade anyone and are currently within striking distance of a wild card spot and the division they hold the upper hand in trade negotiations; they shouldn’t be afraid to use this leverage to their advantage if a team comes calling with a package of young arms.