Last week, in response to Steve’s suggestion that Cleveland shop Shin-Soo Choo before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline and Brian’s advocating for the Tribe to hold a fire sale, I argued that the Indians would be better off holding onto their core players: Most of the team’s potential trade chips are under team control past 2012, and besides it was way too early to give up on contending this year.
But things have changed. When I made my case, the Indians were over .500 heading into what seemed like a fairly easy upcoming schedule. But after an embarrassing three-game sweep at the hands of the Minnesota Twins, they now find themselves two games under .500. They’re in third place in the AL Central and currently sit 5.5 games beyond the division-leading White Sox, plus five games (and many teams) back in the wild card race.
And so, a new consensus is starting to emerge about the Tribe’s approach to the trade deadline. While a full-on fire sale is unlikely, it seems increasingly likely that Choo will be traded. Even Cleveland’s ace Justin Masterson is reportedly on the block. Nothing is known for certain and these kinds of rumors are often overblown, but the more the Indians lose the more likely it is that they’ll start selling pieces off.
But is that really the right move? While liquidating valuable players seems like a more attractive option than it did last week (to the extent that rebuilding is ever an “attractive option”), the Tribe’s recent cold stretch hasn’t undermined all the reasons why selling seemed like a questionable idea last week.
Let’s start with the immediate concern: 2012. The argument for selling now (at least, among those who weren’t aboard the bandwagon before the Indians forgot how to score runs) is predicated on the assumption that this team no longer has a real chance of making the playoffs. Call me a naïve optimist, but I’m not convinced. Overcoming a 5.5-game deficit with 60 games to go is a tall order, but it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility in the weak AL Central when the Tribe has 15 games left against the Tigers and White Sox. The odds of Cleveland hosting baseball in October aren’t very good, but Manny Acta shouldn’t be making vacation plans just yet. This team is still in the race, and to sell now would be to give up on (or worse, to ignore) that possibility.
But there’s another, more important issue in play: the future. I have yet to hear a single rumor this year about Cleveland trading a player who will be a free agent at the end of the year; all of our interesting trade chips are under control through 2013, if not later. Even those who’ve given up on 2o12 must acknowledge that contention is a realistic possibility for at least the next couple seasons.
Shin-Soo Choo is one of the best right fielders in baseball, and is of huge importance to an organization that already has one big hole in the outfield. Justin Masterson is having a down year but is still at worst the Tribe’s second-best starting pitcher. Both would surely command a package of high-pedigree young players, but there’s no way a small-market team would be able to replace either man’s production next year. Thus, the Indians selling one or more of their stars would mean waving the white flag not just on 2012 but also on 2013, and maybe 2014 too.
And if we’re giving up on 2013, why stop at just Choo and Masterson? Trade Ubaldo Jimenez too. Asdrubal Cabrera is under contract only through 2014, so you can probably put him on the block. Joe Smith wouldn’t be around to see this team compete. Don’t worry about getting MLB-ready players in return for Chris Perez—they wouldn’t be of any use for a while anyway. To borrow an analogy from Jeffrey Sachs, dealing only one core player while leaving the rest of the team intact would be like the city of Cleveland transitioning to driving on the left side of the street by starting with only blue cars. If you’re going to go the road of rebuilding, you have to go all-in.
I’m not saying the Indians shouldn’t look towards the future as they approach the trade deadline; swapping Chris Perez for Peter Bourjos might not help much in the short term, but it would be a great move if the Tribe can swing it. Nor am I saying that Cleveland’s core players should be untouchable if the right offer comes along. But the odds of the Indians getting more out of trading someone like Choo than by keeping him for next year seem pretty slim.
As hope starts to fade for a playoff berth in 2012, it makes sense that the conversation is starting to be steered towards the Tribe liquidating their flashiest assets. But building for the future includes 2013, and selling now isn’t consistent with the idea of contending next year. If the Indians want to complete next year, they shouldn’t make any drastic moves; if not, they should just blow the whole thing up.