Front offices throughout baseball have a variety of ways to fill out their 25-man roster. Whether it is through the draft, free agency or trades, small markets teams are forced to pick and choose their spots carefully in order to put the best 25-man roster on the field. The Indians have long been lauded for being a team that has been able to turn other teams’ minor league prospects into Cleveland’s own major league talent. Despite a few hiccups along the way within trades that received a great deal of attention (peering in the direction of Jason Knapp & Matt LaPorta), the Indians current roster has been formed by a number of trades that when they occurred didn’t really move the needle, but looking back really deserve a tip of the cap. Compared to the rest of the American League Central, the current Indians roster is comprised of a much higher percentage of players that were brought in via trade.
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The 44% of players that came to the current Indians roster via trade consist of Mike Aviles, Michael Brantley, Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Carrasco, Yan Gomes, Corey Kluber, Justin Masterson, Zach McAllister, Josh Outman, Marc Rzepczynski, Carlos Santana & Bryan Shaw. Of the twelve players listed, exactly one (Cabrera) of them is currently outside of his team-controlled years. Granted, the Indians have parted with some great players (Shin Soo Choo, Victor Martinez, C.C. Sabathia) to obtain these guys, they have also parted with some pretty inconsequential talent along the way too (Austin Kearns, Esmil Rogers, two months each of Casey Blake & Jake Westbrook). While the Cliff Lee trade is often thought of as a complete failure (a fact that is difficult to argue against), there really are a number of trades that are completely at the other end of the spectrum for the Indians. The three trades that jump out as the real gems from Shapiro & Antonetti are:
3. Zach McAllister for Austin Kearns
Austin Kearns was a beacon of light towards the beginning of the 2010 season. In a season that resulted in 93 losses & a lineup that saw Trevor Crowe, Lou Marson, Luis Valbuena & Matt LaPorta each receive 300+ at bats; Austin Kearns was a solid if unspectacular player who was rewarded by the Tribe the following year with another one-year contract. During that second year with the Tribe, Kearns struggled and the Indians traded him (.589 OPS) to the New York Yankees for a 6’6” 230+ pound pitcher who was having a rough year at Triple A Scranton, but at 22 was four years younger than the average player in his league. Zach McAllister came to the Indians & has been a steady #4 starter since. Despite some recent struggles in his previous few starts, McAllister’s peripheral statistics still dispute what his ERA says so fans can expect a leveling of the numbers to a more respectable ERA.
2. Yan Gomes & Mike Aviles for Esmil Rogers
Would you take Mike Aviles for Esmil Rogers? How about Yan Gomes for Esmil Rogers? Well, since the resounding answer to both of those is yes…how about Mike Aviles & Yan Gomes for Esmil Rogers? Through their first 267 games played with the Indians, Gomes & Aviles have hit .275 with 27 homers & 106 RBI while filling in two vitally important positions of catcher & super-utility man. That is a pretty nice hull for a guy who has a 5.03 ERA in his time since the trade.
1. Corey Kluber for Jake Westbrook
The acquisition of Corey Kluber can be traced back to before the Indians last appearance in the World Series. Prior to the 1997 season, the Indians acquired David Justice from Atlanta along with Marquis Grissom for Kenny Lofton and Alan Embree. The Indians parlayed David Justice into Jake Westbrook three years later in a trade with the Yankees. A decade later, the Indians acquired the services of Kluber for Jake Westbrook. The next time you see the 1997 version of Kenny Lofton make sure you thank him for the 2014 version of Corey Kluber.
Small sample sizes be damned - a return of two of the top 10 pitchers in baseball through the first month & a half of the 2014 season for Jake Westbrook & Austin Kearns trumps any negativity from Tribe trades that left a little to be desired.
Compared to the rest of the AL Central, the Tribe really steers clear of free agent signings more than any other team besides Kansas City.
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Free agency is often a sore spot for Clevelanders. While the Indians don’t often allow themselves to totally lose out on their players via free agency due to the fact that they have a penchant for trading players prior to their obtaining free agent status, the Indians don’t exactly have a history of taking flashy dips into the free agent pool. The Tribe currently only has four players on its roster that were considered traditional free agent signings. Outside of the 2012 free agent signings of Nick Swisher & Michael Bourn and the 2013 free agent signings of John Axford & David Murphy, the Indians do not have a typical free agent signee on their roster. Where the Tribe has proved to be quite adept is with players that sign minor league deals with invites to spring training. Nyjer Morgan, Scott Atchison, Jason Giambi & Ryan Raburn have all been major contributors to the Indians’ success either last season or now this season & were all brought in originally as spring training invitees.
The most important aspect of acquiring players for a small market team is through the draft. Every asset obtained in the draft can make the other two methods of acquiring talent easier to achieve. Simply put, the more players that are playing in their pre-arbitration years the easier it is to sign other free agents or part with your own young prospects in an attempt to complement the Major League roster. Unfortunately for the Indians, they currently only roster four of their own draftees (Kipnis, Chisenhall, Tomlin & Allen). One silver lining to the Indians lackluster drafting is that they do have three roster spots filled by amateur free agent signings (Ramirez, Lee, Salazar). Even with those three, the Indians still have the lowest percentage amongst AL Central foes of players that are homegrown & have spent their entire careers with the club.
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In order for the Indians to remain competitive in the years going forward, they need to gain a better balance over the three methods of acquiring players. If they could see an uptick of their own draftees within the construction of their 25-man roster, that would free up money for more potent free agent signings & negate the need to rely on other teams trading their prospects to the Indians. The Indians need to stop relying so heavily on other teams & start relying more on themselves.