When the figurative buzzer sounded at 4:00 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, it appeared that the MLB non-waiver trade deadline had passed without the Indians making a deal. But about 20 minutes later, news started to trickle out that Cleveland had indeed pulled off a deadline deal, sending minor league pitcher Steven Wright to the Boston Red Sox for first baseman Lars Anderson.
On the surface, it looks like a solid move. Wright is 27 years old and is pitching in Double-A. Anderson, on the other hand, was once regarded as a top prospect and is still only 24. He’s a nice pickup with a high ceiling, and in an organization without an heir apparent at the position Anderson presumably becomes the favorite to be the Tribe’s first baseman of the future. But on further reflection the deal looks a questionable one—at the very least, it’s difficult to see why the Indians did it.
For starters, Anderson doesn’t look like he’ll be a real option in the majors in the near future. After destroying opposing pitching in the lower minors—he OPSed .934 between High-A and Double-A in 2008—he’s managed a solid but relatively disappointing .262/.359/.414 in three seasons at Triple-A; his 33 home runs and 183 RBI in that span sound promising, but keep in mind that that’s in 1,440 plate appearances. He’s displayed great plate discipline in that span, drawing a walk every 8 plate appearances, but he has no other tools that really stand out.
A 24-year-old can be excused for not yet reaching his potential (though if he’s still stuck in this same position a year from now it could be a problem), but Anderson hasn’t shown any real sign of improvement either. He saw his walk rate take a big jump last season, but other than that his performance over the last three years has been fairly flat. His stat line in 2012 looks basically the same as it did last year, just with a few more strikeouts thrown in. This isn’t to say that he’ll never take the next step—a fresh start with new coaches in a different organization could be just what the doctor ordered—but for now it seems that his development has stalled.
But the biggest reason why acquiring Anderson is a head-scratcher is that the Indians already have a powerful yet disappointing first baseman in Triple-A: Matt LaPorta. The centerpiece of the 2008 CC Sabathia trade is terrorizing Triple-A pitching to the tune of a .275/.361/.503 triple-slash with 17 home runs and 49 RBI in just 352 plate appearances. LaPorta doesn’t share Anderson’s elite plate discipline, but what he lacks in patience he makes up for in power. It’s also worth noting that, despite Anderson’s advantage in walking, LaPorta actually has a (very slightly) higher on-base percentage this year.
In a vacuum, taking a flier on a former top prospect when his value is down sounds like a promising premise for a buy-low trade. But the Indians already have LaPorta. He’s better than Anderson (at least for now), he’s already in the organization, and as an added bonus he’s right-handed (Anderson’s left-handedness isn’t a big deal in the scheme of things, but the team and especially the Cleveland media been concerned about the Tribe’s dearth of righty hitters all year). For more than two months I’ve been advocating for LaPorta to get a real shot at winning his job back. If the Indians don’t want to give him a chance, why even bother acquiring a similar but worse player?
Especially when it cost them Steven Wright. Many Tribe fans may not know his name, but until he was dealt Wright was one of the most intriguing prospects in the Indians’ system. Wright started experimenting with a knuckleball last season, and so far the results have been terrific: this year he’s 9-6 with a 2.49 ERA with 101 strikeouts and just eight home runs allowed in 115.2 innings for Double-A Akron. He’s still a work in progress—specifically, his 4.8 BB/9 rate indicates that he doesn’t have much control over his newfound knuckler—but he’s well on his way to forging a path to the big leagues.
Wright was far from a sure thing and there’s a good chance the Indians won’t miss him, plus as our own Steve Kinsella noted there’s a chance they could bring him back next year as a minor league free agent. But unless the team has reason to believe that Wright can’t sustain his success (maybe the front office is betting on being able re-sign him this winter, but if that were a sure thing why would the Red Sox trade for him now?), there’s a good chance this deal could end up coming back to bite the Tribe.
Anderson is a nice addition to the organization, but with LaPorta already waiting in the wings and some other intriguing first base options coming up the pipeline it’s had to see what we really get out of this deal. Are we better off now that we have Anderson than we were when he had Wright? We’ll find out in the coming years, but for now I’d say it’s doubtful. If the Indians unearth something in Anderson or if Wright is never heard from again—both of which are definitely possible—I’ll happily admit I was wrong. But in the meantime, this trade is a bit of a head-scratcher for the Tribe.