One of the most surreal experiences I have had at an Indians game is to find out about a major trade while at the ballpark. In the age of smartphones and Twitter, fans in the stands know about big events before they are announced on the scoreboard, and the emotions that trades elicit are among the most raw that you can find.
In 2009 the Indians were struggling mightily at the trade deadline and had already traded Cliff Lee for a bundle of prospects. A year and a half removed from just missing the World Series, most fans were still convinced that the team just needed tweaked, not rebuilt. My feeling was that a managerial change would do wonders. The Lee trade seemed justified based on him being eligible for free agency at the end of the year and the expectation that he would draw a salary in excess of twenty million dollars, far more than the Indians could afford. Of course, we all know how that turned out. The second best player in that trade has probably been Ben Francisco, who went to the Phillies with Lee. Some of us still think Carlos Carrasco will be a quality major league pitcher someday, but the evidence to the contrary is mounting.
As we were driving up to Cleveland there were reports on the radio that the Red Sox were interested in Victor Martinez. This had been going on for a week or so, with Martinez listed among a half dozen or so bats that the Sox could pursue to fill a hole in their lineup. At the time it seemed unlikely. Martinez had another year left on an affordable contract, and he didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would command a huge contract even in free agency. Besides, Martinez had embraceded the city, giving the impression that he wanted to finish his career in Cleveland. With Carlos Santana still not ready for the majors, it seemed the Indians would wait until 2010 to decide on Martinez.
We began to overhear conversations as we walked from our car to the stadium. It was not so much what was being said as the overall mood. The faces all looked like they normally do walking out of a game where the Indians blew a big lead and lost. Even in Cleveland, we normally wait to see how the game turns out before we get depressed. We could tell something was up, so my daughter’s boyfriend checked his phone.
Sure enough, it was Martinez for three pitchers. Justin Masterson was the only one I had heard of, and it was hard to get excited about a guy who had been pitching in middle relief.
The real problem, though, was that this trade meant the end of the Sabathia/Hafner/Martinez/Sizemore run that had resulted in a division title in 2007 and should have resulted in another in 2005 if not for an epic choke job. Hafner and Sizemore were still on the team, but between injuries and declining performance it no longer looked like they could be part of a winning core. The Indians were going into full rebuild mode, a familiar sight to Cleveland fans which would no doubt mean three or four years of watching rookies and retreads, with the vague hope that enough of them would turn out to be real players that the Indians might contend in the distant future.
What the trade really meant was that the Indians could not sustain the core of a winning team for more than a year or two. Small market teams like the Indians could only win if they had a guy ready in the minors to replace a core player when that guy got too expensive, and the Indians had failed to do that for a decade. The fans that filed into the ballpark that night looked like a funeral procession, and in a way they were.
Of course, the Martinez trade was probably the best of the three major salary dumps the Indians did in 2008 and 2009. For Sabathia, Lee, and Martinez the Indians have Justin Masterson and Michael Brantley, plus Hagadone and Carrasco in the minors. Brantley is a functional major league regular, but Masterson is an All-Star this year and looks like a bona-fide ace.
Two years later the Indians had miraculously rebuilt their roster enough to challenge the Tigers for the Central division lead.
They had stumbled a bit in recent games due to a team-wide hitting slump, but still sat only two and a half games behind an underachieving Detroit team when the game against the Royals began. In the middle innings a rumor swept through the crowd that Alex White, a former number one pick who had been somewhat impressive in limited time with the Indians, had been traded for Ubaldo Jimenez, the ace of the Colorado Rockies who was currently slumping. It seemed like a good trade, although there was conflicting gossip about whether Jimenez was one year or two away from free agency.
Whatever was happening on the field became a sideshow to the rumor mill. An inning later the story changed. Now it was Drew Pomeranz who was being traded for Jimenez. Pomeranz was, at the time, the crown jewel of the Indians’ farm system, a front of the rotation prospect who looked like he might even be able to help before the end of that season. This looked like more of a gamble than trading White, who was projected as a fifth-starter/middle reliever sort. It also was contrary to the basic philosophy of small-market teams, trading a guy who would be affordable for the next 4-5 years for a guy who you would lose in a year or two. It turned out that Jimenez was under contract at a low salary for at least the next two years, which softened the mood somewhat. He had enough of a track record, after all, that he seemed like more of a sure thing than Pomeranz.
Finally, the official word came. It was Pomeranz and White, plus two other guys, for Jimenez. The immediate reaction was overwhelmingly negative. It was anticipated that in a year or so both Pomerantz and White would be key members of the staff, and Pomeranz was thought to be the best homegrown prospect since C.C. Sabathia.
Meanwhile, Jimenez had had a couple of outstanding seasons but currently had an ERA of 4.46 and was thought to be hurt or a head case. At least that’s what everyone sitting in Section 125 said. I figured that getting out of Colorado would drop his ERA by half a run (oops) and was most interested in finding out how long his contract ran. The truth was that nobody knew anything, but this trade was so different from how the Indians normally operate that nobody could process it.
The thing that struck me was that the Indians got the same reaction when they dumped salary for prospects as when they gave up prospects and added salary. In both cases their logic was solid and you can’t argue with the end result, since Masterson has worked out well as a starter and the prospects they gave up for Jimenez are still, essentially, prospects.
In any event, this trade deadline looks like it will not be nearly as exciting as 2009 or 2011. The Indians seem to be talking about adding a lefty reliever, which will probably not cause anywhere near the anxiety that the Martinez or Jimenez trades did, unless we give up Francisco Lindor to make it happen. If you think that sounds ridiculous, google Ricardo Rincon.