I have been on record as saying that I would be comfortable with a 2014 Indians rotation built around Justin Masterson, Zach Mcallister, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer. I was obviously late for the Corey Kluber bandwagon, but his recent emergence certainly means that there are five guys who seem ready to handle rotation spots in 2014.
It would be nice if there was some depth so that we would have a guy stashed at Columbus in case of an injury; right now the leading candidate seems to be Danny Salazar, but he only has seven starts in Triple-A and hasn’t exactly been dominant. Perhaps by the end of this season he will make enough progress that he can be the pitcher–in-waiting next year. If not, let’s hope there is a prospect that can be acquired by trade or a Scott Kazmir-type who can be signed to a minor league deal and be ready if needed. The worst thing could do would be to spend big money on a mediocre “innings eater” who does nothing but stunt the progress of young guys who are more affordable and have way more upside.
It should be apparent that the name Ubaldo Jimenez does not factor into this analysis. The Indians have an option on Jimenez for $8 million next year. At one point this season it seemed inevitable that the Indians would decline the option and take the $1 million buy out, as Jimenez finished April with an ERA above 7. But he has been solid in May and June, pitching at least as well as anyone the Indians could get on the free agent market for eight million. His last start, against Kansas City, was in some ways his most impressive, as he overcame two wild pitches that would have unraveled him last year and pitched into the sixth inning, keeping the Indians close in a game they eventually rallied to win.
So Jimenez has at least made Chris Antonetti’s decision a bit more difficult. At the end of the day, though, I believe the Indians will decline the option and take the buy out. I really don’t have any rational basis for that opinion; it’s just a hunch that will look better if the other five guys continue to develop. Look at it this way: if keeping Jimenez means Trevor Bauer spends another year in Columbus, would you do it?
Given that, you have to wonder if it makes sense to deal Jimenez before the trade deadline. If you look at the starting pitchers who are rumored to be available at this point, Jimenez could be at the top of the list, assuming the Phillies are serious about hanging on to Cliff Lee. That would create a seller’s market where the Indians can play suitors against each other and work for the best deal.
Would a trade of Jimenez net a prospect who can eventually be a core player? Maybe not, but did you really think we would get what we got for Shin-Soo Choo? Not only that, but you could make a case that Jimenez is pitching better now that he was for Colorado when the Indians gave up two first round picks for him. He would not be as attractive now because his contract situation is not as good (he can, in fact, void the team option for 2014 if he is traded), but you don’t know until you have the conversation, and if a deal that helps isn’t there, you just keep Jimenez and decide what to do after the season ends. If there is a team out there, though, that fancies itself a contender and views Jimenez as a better option than its own guys, the Indians have an opportunity to help themselves.
Would this mean the Indians are punting on 2013? Not at all. The models here, as in so many cases, are the Oakland A’s and the Tampa Bay Rays. Over the past few years the A’s have traded several established pitchers, even when the pitchers were not close to free agency, in exchange for pitchers who were major league ready but under team control for longer. Same with Tampa, who turned James Shields into Wil Myers, who may contribute just as much in the short term and will be much more affordable in the long term. Neither of those teams has punted on a season recently; they manage their resources wisely and contend every year with lower payrolls than the Indians.
The logical extension of this analysis is: if Jimenez, why not Justin Masterson? His contract status would make him more attractive than Jimenez in a trade, so why not consider trading him, as well. Perhaps, but I don’t see enough pitching depth that the Indians can trade both guys without impacting this year and next, and if I have to choose I keep Masterson. He pitches deeper into games and seems more likely to maintain his current level of performance.