Being an Indians fan means learning to live with the fact that, with rare exceptions, no player will be here more than five years. We may decide to keep Shin-Soo Choo for a sixth year, but as free agency approaches his departure is a matter of when, not if. What we haven’t done all that much is critically analyze what that means to our prospects of developing and maintain a championship-caliber team.
It seems to me that there is a simple standard that the Indians should be held to if they want to be viewed credibly as a team capable of contending: If the players on a 25-man roster are limited to a five-year tenure, the front office must find five new players every year. The alternative is to ultimately reach a point when the entire core of your team is on the verge of free agency or seeking big money in arbitration; the Indians have proven several times that they cannot sustain the payroll that this situation begets, and what follows when they try are several years of prospect auditions during which the rosters of Columbus and Cleveland are basically interchangeable.
It goes deeper than that, of course. Three of those five players must be what we can call core players: starting pitchers, everyday players, or high-leverage relievers. And one should be a star. There are several ways to achieve this other than just producing good players from your minor-league system, which is fortunate for the Indians, to say the least. I would categorize these as follows:
- The Cliff Lee model. Even if that trade didn’t work out, it did net two players on the major league roster (Lou Marson and Jason Donald) and possibly a third (Carlos Carrasco). Another example of this is the recent Esmil Rogers trade, assuming that both guys they got for (Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes) are capable of producing in the majors. These trades generally emphasize quantity over quality, and for the most part they have netted the Indians several marginal talents rather than one or two core players.
- Trading a player who is about to be a free agent for a player whom you can control for more years. Oakland has gotten very good at this, even trading players whom they could control for several more years to get players they could control longer. The Indians really don’t do this much; perhaps trading Mark DeRosa for Chris Perez qualifies, or Casey Blake for Carlos Santana. The success of those two trades should indicate that the Indians should try it more often.
- Signing players who are about to be free agents to contract extensions. This really doesn’t fit the model, but it has the same effect. If the Indians sign Choo to a five-year extension, it has the same effect as trading him for a rookie in terms of roster management. In this case such a strategy would probably be inadvisable as Choo is likely to get a contract that takes him to his mid-30’s and the odds are against him or any player maintaining his peak level of production at that age. The team’s track record on these types of moves should be enough to dissuade them from doing it again—unless you think the past four years of Travis Hafner was money well spent.
- Trading players who are not MLB-ready for players who are. The Ubaldo Jimenez trade fits this mold. This model works only if you are consistently producing prospects; otherwise it will only hasten the depletion of a weak system.
- Signing free agents from outside the organization. The overall track record here is less than sterling: Casey Kotchman, David Dellucci, and a whole slew of middle relievers who were designated for assignment before the All-Star Break. It’s an option, but generally there’s a reason these players are in the Tribe’s price range. Having said that, there has to be reason we said no to Ryan Ludwick and yes to Kotchman last winter. Even when this works out, you find yourself a year later with the same hole on your roster.
To analyze the performance of the Indians front office according to these standards would be closer to a book than a blog entry. The point that sticks out to me from all of this, though, is that a team like the Indians should consider a certain amount of roster turnover to be a core goal of every offseason, and 20 percent seems like a logical target.
So pick five players who are close to free agency or getting too expensive for the production they provide. This year, for better or worse, the Indians have completed three-fifths of the job by casting aside Grady Sizemore, Roberto Hernandez (Fausto Carmona), and Hafner. The follow-up step is to have players ready to replace these guys. I can see Russ Canzler as a full-time designated hitter next year, but most of the pitchers who could conceivably replace Hernandez are already on the major league roster, and the outfield cupboard is bare, even if Choo stays.
A trade like that which was discussed with Pittsburgh last summer—Choo for Starling Marte—is an example of trading for several more years of control, with Marte’s upside providing a reasonable approximation of Choo’s production the past few years. It Pittsburgh still has any interest in this trade or something close to it, the team should make it in a heartbeat. I would also trade Chris Perez for a starting pitcher whom we can control for three or four years, if such a trade were available.
The key for a team like the Indians is to be open-minded. I’m not sure if the Padres decided that they had to trade Mat Latos last year, but they did not make him untouchable, so when the Reds called and offered four good prospects for him, the Padres jumped. Now they have four guys who could be part of their core for at least three years instead of a pitcher who would have priced himself out of their range in another year or so. There’s a lesson in there that Cleveland should learn.
There’s no way know if trading Choo, Perez, Cabrera, or Masterson will ultimately result in the best possible Indians roster for 2013 and beyond. What is certain, though, is that trying to keep all of them will ultimately lead to another years-long rebuilding cycle in Northeast Ohio.