Indians Can Deal From Depth
Bob Toth | On 07, Dec 2014
When the regular season ended and the focus turned to 2015, it was clear that the Cleveland Indians would not be major players in the free agent market.
With financial limitations and a significant amount of money tied up to the large contracts of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn and other dollars earmarked for young players who had been extended in the last year, it looked far more likely that if the Indians were to make any significant changes to the roster, it would have to come in the trade market.
This week’s trade rumor involving the Oakland Athletics’ Brandon Moss should then come as little surprise. While he would provide another left-handed bat, if acquired, to a lineup notably devoid of right-handed pop, the short right field walls at Progressive Field favor the lefties in the league and Moss has had three straight 20-homer seasons, including an injury-slowed 25 homer 2014 All-Star season.
For many years, repeatedly unproductive draft classes drained the Indians farm system of any talent that would garner attention in trade negotiations. Instead, Cleveland often had to deal from the talent that they had at the Major League level, trading free agents to be like CC Sabathia and Shin-Soo Choo and the controlled Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez, devastating the fan base at that time (and still to some degree in the present).
That present is a bit different and a little less gloomy. Recent drafts have yielded better results at the top ends of the crop and the Indians have a few pieces that would be attractive to other clubs.
The most notable area of development for the Tribe has been right up the center of the diamond. Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis both provided All-Star seasons as middle infielders. Francisco Lindor is knocking on the door to Cleveland, and while the Indians may not quite be ready to answer, he will likely receive their attention a few months into the season. Kipnis, meanwhile, signed a six-year, $52.5 million extension before the 2014 season and will provide one half of the keystone combination for the Indians for years to come.
This creates a bit of an organizational logjam for any of the young middle infield prospects within the Indians’ minor league system, allowing the team to move several of them without sacrificing much from the present or the future. There was such a crowding at the position that at the beginning of the 2013 season, the team converted one-time shortstop prospect Tony Wolters into a catching option.
Jose Ramirez cracked the Indians roster for the second time in his career last season, playing second and short. The 22-year-old speedster was ten of eleven stealing bases, providing a dynamic piece to the roster, but once Lindor is ready to take the seat at the six spot, Ramirez will become at most a utility piece off of the bench for Terry Francona. He has shown a proficiency to bunt with ease, leading the league with 13 sacrifices in just 68 games in the Bigs, and could eventually be expendable with Mike Aviles already on the roster.
Joe Wendle’s name has come up plenty this week as the target of Billy Beane’s pursuits in a potential Moss deal. Wendle has been exclusively a second baseman the last two years after playing 21 games at third base in his debut season at Mahoning Valley in 2012. His path to the Majors is presumably blocked by the presence of Kipnis first and Ramirez second. He lost time last season to a broken hamate bone that required surgery, but was the Indians’ 2013 winner of the Lou Boudreau Award for the team’s top offensive minor leaguer. He is a career .292 hitter in the minors.
Twenty-three-year old Erik Gonzalez was a bit of a surprise addition to the Indians’ 40-man roster prior to the start of last season. He has logged six years of work in Cleveland’s minor leagues, reaching Double-A last year. He has appeared in games all over the field, but for the first time last season he was used exclusively as a shortstop. He spent the bulk of his 2013 season at Lake County playing third base and worked the corner infield spots at Mahoning Valley in 2012. Like Wendle, his path to the Show is blocked, thanks to the hype surrounding the former first round pick Lindor.
Ronny Rodriguez split time in 2014 at first, second, and third bases. The 22-year-old hit just .228 in his second season of Double-A ball. Last season was the first time in his professional career that he did not do the bulk of his work at shortstop, playing 40 games there for Akron after seeing no fewer than 71 games of work at the position in his previous three minor league seasons. His power numbers have declined from a career high of 19 home runs and 66 RBI in 2012 to just five home runs and 34 runs driven in during play in the pitching-friendly Eastern League.
The young Dorssys Paulino is further away than the above mentioned prospects. He spent a second season at Single-A Lake County last season as a 19-year-old. While his batting average and on-base percentage climbed a bit, his strikeout rate increased and his power has yet to develop. Defensively, he was considered below average at short and spent three times as many games in left field last season for the Captains.
The Indians’ minor league outfield depth has improved, especially through the last few draft classes, and could provide the team with trade options. Clint Frazier, Tyler Naquin, Bradley Zimmer, Mike Papi, and Carlos Moncrief make up the list of the club’s top prospects at the position, as well as former St. Louis Cardinals top prospect and Futures Game participant James Ramsey, but the team would likely balk at dealing those on the list that could be traded. Other options, including Tyler Holt and Zach Walters, are in a crowded mix as bench pieces for the Major League club or as Triple-A outfielders.
Several teams are going to be willing to break the bank for the likes of Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields, some of the biggest names on the free agent shopping list. But don’t look to the Dolan-led Indians to do so.
If the Indians upgrade the rotation, it would far more likely be an inexpensive veteran arm, similar to prior acquisitions of Aaron Harang last offseason and Scott Kazmir the season before. The leadership this new arm could provide to a very young and inexperienced rotation could be invaluable.
However, to do so, the Indians would need to move one of the names already in a crowded mix in the rotation.
American League Cy Young winner Corey Kluber is a lock. So too would likely be Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer, who both are out of options and in no way would pass through to Columbus unclaimed if not on the 25-man roster to break camp after Spring Training. Danny Salazar, with options remaining, has been too frequently considered part of the Cleveland future to be parked in Columbus again for a substantial portion of time.
Veterans Josh Tomlin and Zach McAllister are question marks for next season based on subpar performances this season. Tomlin flashed his potential with a one-hitter against Seattle in June but tired shortly thereafter and was relocated to a bullpen role. McAllister, in his fourth season, dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness, but found something in a bullpen opportunity in September, where he was 1-1 with a 2.84 ERA in the month, including one start, and had five scoreless outings to end the season. After allowing six home runs over six starts before his demotion to Columbus in August, he did not allow a ball to leave the yard in eight appearances and 19 innings in September.
T.J. House also impressed as the lone southpaw on the staff, earning a 5-3 record with a 3.35 ERA in 102 innings pitched. He provides the Indians with a little more flexibility with options remaining, so he could start the season in Columbus, freeing up some rotation wiggle room for the front office.
The Indians have options, at least in terms of depth, regarding ways in which they can supplement the current roster in a contentious AL Central. Since free agency is not the way for this team to go this season, one of the names above may have to relocate if Cleveland can find the right deal. It could be the rumored Moss deal. It could be something not even being whispered about at the present.
This week could be a big week though, as representatives from around the league meet in San Diego for this season’s annual Baseball Winter Meetings.
Photo: Lianna Holub/DTTWLN photographer