On Tuesday night, the Cleveland Indians surprised the baseball world by dealing Shin-Soo Choo as part of a three-way trade with the Cincinnati Reds and Arizona Diamondbacks. In addition to Choo, the Tribe traded away Jason Donald, Tony Sipp, and Lars Anderson in exchange for Drew Stubbs, Trevor Bauer, Bryan Shaw, and Matt Albers.
Losing Choo is rough. He’s been one of my favorite players since he first came to Cleveland in 2006 (yes, I liked him before it was cool) and with apologies to Asdrubal Cabrera and Chris Perez he’s been the face of the franchise for at least two years now. But sentimentality aside, this was a fantastic trade and it’s incredible that Chris Antonetti was able to pull it off.
It’s important to understand that, as a baseball asset, Choo really didn’t have as much value as Indians fans might have liked to think. After reigning as the undoubted most underrated player in baseball in 2009 and 2010, his value started to wane in 2011 as his plate discipline, power, and defense began to decline, and though his offense picked up again in 2012 he still wasn’t his former self. FanGraphs put Choo at 2.6 wins above replacement this season, making him a very slightly above-average player—quibble with the dramatic -17 UZR if you like (he clearly wasn’t a very good fielder, though), but it’s telling that WAR put him in the company of such illustrious names as Alcides Escobar and Darwin Barney.
More importantly, Choo has only one more year of team control remaining, and he’s made it clear that he intends to maximize his paycheck on the open market next winter. Beyond that, Choo is arbitration-eligible for the final time in 2013, and MLBTradeRumors projects a $7.9 million salary for him—a team-friendly deal for sure, but hardly a bargain. So, to recap: Choo is a good-not-great outfielder with one year of team control that won’t provide much surplus value. It sounds callous to reduce one of the most popular athletes in Northeast Ohio to that, but it’s true.
Beyond Choo, Cleveland didn’t give up much. Jason Donald has no real tools but his versatility, and the Indians have Mike Aviles and Cord Phelps for that. FanGraphs has had Tony Sipp below replacement level three years in a row, and the Tribe got two better relievers as part of this deal. And Lars Anderson never really seemed to fit into the Indians’ short- or long-term plans.
With that established, let’s take a look at the Tribe’s haul. First and foremost is Stubbs. A right-handed center fielder with a good glove and all kinds of speed, his bat hasn’t developed as well as the Reds had hoped but he’s still been able to manage about a league-average offensive line throughout most of his three-plus seasons in the majors. Last year his numbers were pretty crummy—he hit .213/.277/.333—but that was largely due to an uncharacteristically low .290 BABIP and he still swiped 30 bases. More importantly, Stubbs was so good in the field and on the basepaths that he still managed a respectable 1.3 wins above replacement despite his ineffective bat.
Stubbs will probably never reach his full potential, but even if he continues to hit as poorly as he did in 2012 (which is unlikely given his previous track record and generally high ceiling) he’ll still be one of Cleveland’s three best outfielders. Plus he’s a center fielder, meaning Michael Brantley can move over to left field, where his glove plays far better. Best of all, Stubbs is entering arbitration for the first time this winter so he still has three years of team control remaining. I wouldn’t have advocated it because (obviously) the Indians would have been settling for less than the maximum return, but honestly I’d probably have been willing to trade Choo for Stubbs straight up.
The real prize of the trade is Bauer. Despite a rocky first few starts in the majors, the 21-year-old right-hander went 12-2 with a 2.42 ERA in the high minors in 2012—his first full year in professional baseball. Baseball America ranked him as the ninth-best prospect (fifth-best pitching propsect) in the game before the season, and his stock may have actually risen since then. Indians Prospect Insider’s Jim Piascik calls Bauer “the sort of top-flight starting pitcher Cleveland has not had since the CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee trades.” And he’s under team control through 2018.
Pitching prospects are inherently risky and the Diamondbacks have reportedly soured on Bauer over his conditioning habits—it always raises a red flag when a team is willing to part with one of its most prized prospects—but that doesn’t change the fact that the Indians turned a one-year rent-a-player into one of the best prospects in the game. Even forgetting the rest of the package, just turning Choo into Bauer was a phenomenal feat for Antonetti and the front office.
As if that isn’t enough, the Indians also snagged a pair of relievers. Shaw, 25, has a 3.18 ERA in 87.2 MLB innings and has five years of team control remaining; he’s a relative afterthought in this deal, but he could end up being a key part of the Tribe’s bullpen for years to come. Albers, who turns 30 next month, isn’t anything special—he posted a 2.39 ERA in 2012, but his .226 BABIP suggests that his success is unsustainable—but even if he never throws a pitch for Cleveland this would still be a phenomenal return package for the Tribe.
Essentially, the Indians traded one year of Choo and three players who the team either didn’t need or could easily replace for a solid outfielder, a promising young relief pitcher, and one of the best prospects in the game. Sad as it is to see Choo go, major kudos to Antonetti for pulling off what may end up to be the best trade Cleveland has made since Bartolo Colon.