If you knew there was a left-handed pitcher, under the age of 30, capable of pitching a 5-WAR season, now fully recovered from a shoulder injury, who could be had at likely little cost in terms of talent surrendered with two years of team control beyond 2014, you’d be interested, correct?
So why aren’t the Cleveland Indians interested in LHP John Danks?
The correct answer is likely, “we don’t know for certain that the team isn’t interested in Danks.” The short and sweet answer is likely money. But let’s look at what Danks brings to the diamond, first. The Chicago White Sox lefty returned from shoulder injury in mid-2013 and was unspectacular, with a 4.75 ERA in 138.1 IP. He made 22 starts, but his strikeout rate was the lowest of his career (5.79 K/9 rate, previous low was 6.69 in 2009) and his home run rate was also barely the highest of his career (1.82 HR/9, previous low was 1.81 in 2007). Considering Danks’s salary, it was certainly not impressive.
2014 has been slightly different, however. He’s been healthy again this year, and has made only one fewer start than all of 2014. The K/9 ratio is up (6.32), the HR/9 ratio is down (1.17), but his walk ratio is much higher (3.16 BB/9, though this is not close to his career-high). His BABIP isn’t unsustainable at .290, and he’s been worth 0.8 fWAR this year. It’s a far cry from his career-high of 5.0 fWAR in 2008, and it’s uncertain if he will ever get back to that elite level, but Danks has never been below-replacement in his career, and it’s not insane to think he could get back to his 2011 levels (3.1 fWAR, 170.1 IP, 4.33 ERA).
John Danks isn’t an ace. He’s arguably not even a front-line starter. Let’s get those complaints out-of-the-way. The Indians don’t have the talent to try to trade for an ace, and certainly don’t have the money to pay one. Danks is a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter who can give you glimpses of something better. He’s technically younger than RHP Justin Masterson (only a month
, but whatever), and not inconsequentially, Danks is a left-hander, and the Indians are fairly lacking in Major-League ready left-handed starting pitchers. Sorry, T.J. House. Danks’s 0.8 fWAR puts him tied with Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlin, thought it’s not unreasonable to think Danks is moving closer to where he was in his career (and there probably aren’t too many credible scouts out there who would prefer McAllister or Tomlin to Danks).
As said before, Danks isn’t cheap, especially if you strictly look at his annual salary. Danks is signed through his age 31 season, and he will make $14.25 million in both 2015 and 2016. His salary in those years would place him behind DH Nick Swisher for the most expensive contract on the Indians ($15 million in both years) but ahead of OF Michael Bourn ($13.5 million in 2015, $14 million in 2016). Looking at those numbers, the lack of interest is understandable. Assuming there are no trades or other additions (and that Bourn or Swisher aren’t included in any deal for Danks), if the Tribe were to acquire Danks, it would be paying $42.75 million in 2015 (and $43.25 million in 2016) to three players. Per Cot’s Contracts, the Indians payroll this year is approximately $84.45 million. It’s folly to assume this payroll will stay static, but it’s quite understandable if Cleveland was unwilling to potentially commit almost 50 percent of its 2015 and 2016 payrolls to three players. Yes, this is the same argument against extending Masterson. Here’s what I wrote there, and it arguably applies here:
Assuming Masterson signed for around $15 million a year (which is what he is asking), he, Nick Swisher ($15 million per year) and Michael Bourn ($13.5 million per year) would make approximately $43.5 million, or slightly over half of 2014′s estimated $82 million payroll. It’s certainly possible payroll could increase beyond $82 million in 2015, when a Masterson extension would kick in, but it probably makes the team slightly nervous to commit over 50 percent of the payroll to three players.
Replace “Masterson” with “Danks,” and you have a decent argument for not acquiring the lefty. The key difference here, is Danks isn’t a free agent. His cost is set until 2016, and though Danks isn’t exactly cheap, his salary could end up working in Cleveland’s favor. The White Sox might be forced to eat a bunch of his salary in order to acquire the type of talent Chicago GM Rich Hahn desires. It’s been rumoured the New York Yankees have interest in Danks, so it’s certainly possible Chicago might opt to dump all of his salary and trade him there, but Cleveland could almost assuredly top New York in terms of prospects.
It’s not clear how much of Danks’s salary Chicago would be willing to eat. But assuming the White Sox would be willing to eat up to a year’s worth of salary in exchange for a good prospect (which doesn’t seem unreasonable), the Indians could certainly put together a package for Danks, and almost assuredly without having to touch the likes of top-prospect Francisco Lindor, or even SP Danny Salazar. Chicago’s farm system isn’t as bad as it used to be, but it was still ranked 27th by ESPN.com’s Keith Law (subscription required, but for what it’s worth, the Indians were 17th and Yankees were 20th). Guys who could interest Chicago include
SS OF Dorssys Paulino, INF Ronny Rodriguez and/or OF Tyler Naquin.
The Indians also have a few players on its big-league roster who could intrigue the White Sox (Jose Ramirez and possibly Roberto Perez could both intrigue the White Sox, and the Indians certainly have catching depth), and one in particular could help regarding Danks’s salary. This isn’t the NBA, salaries don’t have to match in trades. But the White Sox bullpen has been kind of a mess, and believe it or not, RP John Axford does have some value. Axford has been inconsistent at best, but don’t underestimate the allure of a reliever with closing experience under team control until 2017. Including Axford in a deal is essentially a way for Chicago (or really, any other team) to “eat” salary (Axford makes $4.5 million this year, arbitration-eligible in 2015 and 2016) and still get a useful player in return. The White Sox would almost assuredly need to eat more of Danks’s salary before a trade to Cleveland could be viable, but including Axford in a deal could help the bottom line get closer to something Cleveland can stomach.
There will almost assuredly be some fans adverse to trading within the AL Central division. I agree with Keith Law when says this notion is outdated and rather silly. If Cleveland feels Danks improves their team, and Chicago feels the Indians are offering the best deal, where is the downside here? That Danks might beat the White Sox in a game or two down the stretch? Don’t think Chicago really cares about losing now.
Assuming Chicago is willing to eat salary for prospects, there’s little reason for the Indians to not inquire about Danks. The free agent market for starting pitchers is pretty bleak after the elite
(expensive) tier, and it’s pretty lacking in lefties regardless. He’s not an ace. But trading for John Danks could be a savvy move to improve the rotation for both the rest of 2014 and the next two years.