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Quiet Deadline May Be Real and Ideal for Indians

Quiet Deadline May Be Real and Ideal for Indians

| On 28, Jul 2013

As the July page of the 2013 calendar ends its tenure and August eyes its turn, the Cleveland Indians are keeping an eye on ways to improve their roster, already vastly better than the one the team fielded at this time last year. The problem this season, just like during last year, is that the store shelves are barren of any considerable, acquirable talent.

Too many teams remain in contention. Thanks to the rule change adding an additional wild card team to both the American League and National League pennant chases last season, there are more teams in the fray trying to bolster their rosters than there are teams looking to cash in on veterans on their clubs. With more teams still in races, it means far fewer sellers.

In the microeconomics of baseball, with an increased demand and an unchanging or even decreasing supply, the price to pay will be far more than the norm for teams looking to boost their chances of reaching the postseason.

Prior to Saturday’s action across the country, eight of the 15 American League teams were within three and a half games of either their division race, the wild card race, or both. The furthest back of these eight, the New York Yankees, have already added slugger Alfonso Soriano and are just a half-game behind the Indians in the wild card.

Six National League teams are entrenched in the race, but Washington and Philadelphia have moved within nine games of either the division or wild card and the entire NL West is within nine games of the Los Angeles Dodgers. A hotly contested battle in the NL Central between St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati may come all the way down to the wire.

Changes in the Collective Bargaining Agreement have also eliminated draft pick compensation for pending free agents, which has altered the level of prospects teams are willing to surrender in order to acquire a rental, because the minor league system cannot be restocked with the compensation picks, as had been the case in previous years.

It was at this time last year, just a day after a stunning come-from-behind victory over Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers that the Indians melted away in the summer sun in the most epic of late season collapses. After that win, the Indians were never again above the .500 mark. That team, almost as if they could sense the demise coming, did not make any noteworthy acquisitions to improve the team, and they would go on to drop eleven straight games.

After that four-run seventh inning against Verlander, the team finished the rest of July with an 0-4 record, and their disgusting 5-24 month of August made their 13-17 record in September and October look miraculous. In the final 10 weeks of baseball in 2012, the Indians were 18-45.

So far, the 2013 Indians have avoided the June swoon and the July slide. But it is not for a lack of effort on the field, where fundamentals, offensive droughts, and a suspect bullpen have negatively affected the Indians overall record, which has them trailing the Tigers by three games.

The biggest concern for Cleveland coming into the season was the starting rotation, which has been miles ahead of where many thought it would be. Outside of a few rough patches, they have been durable and consistent. Their effort since the All-Star break has been solid enough that the team has been in every single ball game, despite several one-run losses on their most recent road trip.

“It would have to be the right guy. I think on balance, we really like the group of players we have,” said general manager Chris Antonetti when asked of his thoughts regarding adding a rotation arm during a radio interview with “Bull & Fox” on 92.3 The Fan on July 26, 2013. “I think our starting staff, even on this past road trip, really did a great job. Scott Kazmir has been exceptionally good over the last month and a half. Corey Kluber has been great. [Justin] Masterson has been good. We just got [Zach] McAllister back…For the most part, those guys have given us a chance to win the games they have pitched.”

The bullpen, the perceived strength of the team, has been a disappointment on nearly every level. Any of the slew of left-handers, including Nick Hagadone, Scott Barnes, and David Huff, to pitch in relief have come and gone. The one mainstay all season, Rich Hill, may have settled down some from the ten runs he allowed in 14 May games, but he still has an otherworldly 6.43 ERA on the season, entering play Saturday night.

The right-handers have not fared much better. Only closer Chris Perez has allowed less than a double digit total of earned runs amongst the relievers to appear in 28 games or more, and he missed a significant amount of time with injury and has been haunted by off-the-field issues.

Setup man Vinnie Pestano has lost the job he had cemented so strongly in years past, and seventh inning specialist Joe Smith has blown five different save opportunities while watching his ERA grow each month, thanks to a steadily rising number of runs allowed. Smith has allowed a season-high eight runs, one month after establish five as his new high in June.

“We need a little more consistency out of the bullpen,” said Antonetti, “especially from the left side, so that’s an area we are focused on at this point.”

The offense, while improved overall by name and far more productive in the long ball category, has been inconsistent at best. Slumps by Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera to start the season were picked up by Carlos Santana and Mark Reynolds. Nick Swisher took his turn as well, and while he may be breaking out of his, Reynolds cannot even crack the lineup any more.

“Do we think we have a perfect lineup? No, absolutely not,” said team president Mark Shapiro in a radio interview on “Cleveland Sports Night” on ESPN 850 Cleveland WKNR on July 25, 2013. “Certainly we would have liked to have sustained the production that Mark Reynolds gave us or at least had him drop off more subtly than he has. Some of our other guys, we could certainly stand to get a little more consistent production from.”

In analyzing the market of available players, starting pitchers have been the most talked about options in the media, as the uncertainty of the continued consistency of the Indians rotation seems to float around the team like a black cloud. But available options like Matt Garza (already dealt at an immense expense from Chicago to Texas), Bud Norris, Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Edinson Volquez, Cliff Lee, or Jake Peavy, are thought to cost more than just an arm and a leg.

If the prospect price for some of these players was not already prohibitive enough, the contractual obligations of a Lee or Peavy could start to potentially hinder 2014 and beyond.

Available bullpen arms have been just as unheard of. Luke Gregerson and Huston Street have been floated about as available from San Diego and both Kevin Gregg and left-hander James Russell have been rumored to be potential options available out of the Chicago Cubs organization. The White Sox have already moved long-time reliever Matt Thornton to Boston. Names like Jonathan Papelbon have come and gone from the list of presumed players available as Philadelphia has played itself back into the playoff picture.

Rumors of potential hitters available may be even a thinner list. Soriano has already been dealt after being rumored to be available last season. The White Sox’ Alex Rios may be available and is seemingly garnering some attention around the league. Hunter Pence could be dealt, given the thin market and the San Francisco Giants’ place near the bottom of the NL West, but the team would prefer to keep him. Other names, like Giancarlo Stanton of Miami and Toronto’s Jose Bautista, seem far too expensive and untouchable to even talk about with any level of seriousness.

As if the thin market was not already an issue for Cleveland, several of the limited number of teams thought to be in a “selling mode” at the July deadline are division rivals of the Indians in the AL Central. While pulling off trades within the division is not unheard of (Jhonny Peralta to Detroit several years ago, for example), they do not happen often and the price to do so can sometimes be higher because teams do not necessarily want to help their direct competition get better.

With the White Sox and Minnesota Twins being two of the potential sellers in the marketplace, and the Kansas City Royals always one stretch of bad play away from doing likewise, the Indians’ opportunities may be limited.

All that said, the best thing for the Cleveland Indians may be to stand pat, or at the most make a minor move to shore up the bullpen. The cost may not be as prohibitive as a bigger bat or front of the rotation piece, minimizing the potential long term harm of making a big splash at the deadline.

The bench is stable and overall producing well, and the internal candidates for back of the rotation arms, such as Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, or Carlos Carrasco, may be better options than the price to acquire a number three starter or beyond.

“The more challenging dynamic for us is the player value,” said Antonetti. “We are focused on improving the team for this year, but it can’t be at too steep a price for the long term because we want to make sure we are in a position to be successful moving forward as well. We will need to rely upon our young talent to do that.”

“There is no such thing as an untouchable player,” said Shapiro, “yet the scenarios that it would take to trade certain players are not realistic. We never close the door on any situation.”

While the Indians are thought to be able to take on some payroll if it is able to help the team for this year and the team moving forward, the potential impact players available by July 31st may not be worthy of the talent the team would have to relinquish to acquire one or more players.

However, as the market develops further into August as more teams fall out of the races around the league, the Indians could be a player in one of the more challenging, but still possible, August trades prior to the deadline at the end of that month.

“That [July] deadline tends to bring activity and action,” said Shapiro. “Hopefully we’ll be able to consummate something to get better. I do think that this year, because so many teams are in contention right now, that August also is going to represent an opportunity for us. I say that because we could be in a position of a contending team with one of the lower records, which could give us claiming priority.

“Do not look at the trading deadline as the last opportunity to improve the team. There could be an opportunity for us to make August trades, if we stay in contention as well.”

Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer