Should Stanton Trade to the Bronx Put Pressure on Tribe Brass?

One of the biggest questions of the baseball offseason was answered on Friday when Shohei Ohtani announced that he was joining the Los Angeles Angels after five seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan.

A bigger question, with far more long reaching consequences, was answered in the overnight hours Friday night when the New York Yankees snuck in and completed a deal with the Miami Marlins to bring National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton to the Big Apple.

The moves had both put the free agent market into a standstill, as contenders for the pair of top players made their pitches to the duo. Now, the hot stove should heat up.

But what effect will the moves, in particular the Stanton addition by the Yankees, have on the Indians?

Cleveland has been quiet thus far this offseason, but the same could be said in cities all around the Major League landscape. Even with the lack of movement in the months following the completion of the 2017 World Series, the Indians’ name has been absent from the bulk of rumors circulating around available free agents, including some of their own former players on the open market, including most notably Carlos Santana, Bryan Shaw, and Jay Bruce.

As it stands, an Indians club losing a pair of big offensive weapons and one of the most heavily used relievers in all of baseball over the last few years should still fare well in an American League Central Division that has seen a wrecking ball smash through the rosters of the competition. The Detroit Tigers have put an emphasis on getting younger, building around the aging-but-still-productive Miguel Cabrera. The Kansas City Royals’ playoff run of several years ago appears to be over as a handful of its biggest contributors in recent years – Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Alcides Escobar – all saw their contracts expire and the club is not believed to be able to afford the deals that most of them could command in free agency. The Chicago White Sox are working their way through their own rebuilding process after dumping nearly anything of established value since the beginning of last offseason when the team started its reconstruction by sending star pitcher Chris Sale to Boston.

The Indians do need to worry about the Minnesota Twins, however. They burst onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere last season, shooting well beyond most people’s expectations to fight for the AL Central crown for much of the year and ultimately giving the Yankees a scare in the AL Wild Card Game. The pennant run and postseason experience will only help the club moving forward, but it remains to be seen how much effort the Twins will put into attempting to bolster their roster for a run at the Indians and another shot at meaningful October baseball.

While the Indians finished the 2017 season with the best record in the American League and another Central crown, that team included the services of Santana, Bruce, Shaw, Austin Jackson, Joe Smith, and others who may not be returning. While something could be said about the Tribe getting a full year of use from former top prospect Bradley Zimmer while awaiting returns from other young players like Francisco Mejia and Yandy Diaz, the void in the bullpen is noticeable (and difficult to fill internally) and the missing punch in the lineup is not something easily replaced by the inexperienced options looking to move up from the farm permanently.

The starting rotation is the same and remains one of the top staffs in baseball. Corey Kluber deservingly won the AL Cy Young Award for the second time in his career and Carlos Carrasco earned enough votes to finish fourth in the balloting. Trevor Bauer had a career year, Mike Clevinger looked strong in stretches, and Josh Tomlin is Josh Tomlin, a known commodity that will attack the strike zone and eat up innings while limiting the free pass but giving up big flies with an uncomfortable frequency. And one cannot forget about Danny Salazar, who has the stuff to be a top pitcher in the league, but something (phantom injuries, problem between the ears) has prevented him from getting to and remaining at that level. He has given only infrequent glimpses in the last season and a half of the hurler that pitched his way onto the 2016 American League All-Star team.

The potential losses of Santana and Bruce do damage to the Tribe’s offensive plans. The team is relying heavily on returns to form from Michael Brantley, who performed well (when healthy) but required an expensive and risky option pickup for 2018, and Jason Kipnis, who has become a man without a position after injuries tapped him out for big stretches of last season. The outfield mix, now appearing to include Brantley, Zimmer, Kipnis, Abraham Almonte, Lonnie Chisenhall, Brandon Guyer, Greg Allen, and Tyler Naquin, lacks any sort of big punch to it, with many names on that list serving as career platoon guys or converts to the grass.

Stanton - Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Stanton – Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

The Stanton acquisition does not directly affect the Indians’ path to a postseason berth, but the Tribe does need to be prepared for the talent at that next level if and when it gets there again. While the AL Central should be a weaker division to play in, the Indians need to be more prepared to play the best of the best in the junior circuit – the reigning champion Astros, the Yankees, the Red Sox – and not just ignore the upgrades that those teams may make while not patching the holes on their own roster.

The Stanton move obviously makes the Yankees better while adding another piece to an already crowded outfield that included new face of the MLB Aaron Judge, veterans Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, and Aaron Hicks, and former Tribe top prospect Clint Frazier. The trade gives them the leading home run hitters from each league from the 2017 season and a pair of physically intimidating men in the batter’s box (Stanton is listed as 6’6” while Judge stands in at 6’7”).

Starlin Castro (.300/.338/.454 in 112 games last season) is subtracted from the Yankees infield to make the deal possible, but the team still has some powerful weapons around the diamond. Didi Gregorius hit .287 with 25 homers and 87 RBI while Gary Sanchez hit .278 with 33 jacks and 90 runs knocked in from behind the plate.

In addition to the offensive firepower, New York spent last trade deadline bolstering its pitching staff, bringing in Sonny Gray, and returns the third place finisher in the AL Cy Young voting, Luis Severino, with Masahiro Tanaka and rookie lefty Jordan Montgomery. The bullpen was plumped up last season as well, as David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle were added to a mix that included Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Adam Warren, and Chad Green.

Stanton does not make the Yankees an automatic World Series contender, but he would make any team better, so seeing him land in the AL was bad news for the Tribe. On the way to winning the NL MVP this past season, he set new career highs in stats across the board, including games (159), plate appearances (692), at bats (597), hits (168), runs (123), doubles (32), homers (59), RBI (132), slugging percentage (.631), OPS (1.007), and total bases (377). Several other stats were within one to two spots of being career bests.

He did it all by doing something he had not been able to do in recent years – he stayed healthy. He has always been able to put on a power display at the plate, but in the last two seasons, he was not on the field enough to do so to the level that he can. In 2016, he hit 27 homers and drove in 74 runs, but that production came in just 119 games as he missed more than three weeks with a strained left groin. The season before, he put up nearly identical power numbers (27 homers and 67 RBI) but did it in only 74 games after suffering a broken left hamate bone during a June at bat. He lost the last few weeks of the 2014 season after being hit by a pitch on the face, causing him several facial fractures and lacerations and dental damage.

Some of his injuries have just been bad luck. But that bad luck has kept him off of the field and therefore not producing regularly for the Marlins. The Yankees will be hoping luck is on their side as one of the premier and feared sluggers in the game today relocates to the destination of his choosing to pair with some big boppers already in the lineup in Judge and Sanchez to form one tough middle of the order in the Big Apple.

Cleveland already had its run-in with the lineup sans Stanton in October in its ill-fated playoff collapse from a 2-0 lead in the American League Championship Series against New York. That Yankees team is better now, while the Indians have taken a step back with their own offseason subtractions. Michael Martinez cannot fix that problem.

Will the Indians stand pat, hopeful to out-pitch their opposition in 2018? Or will the financially strapped club scour the trade market during this week’s Winter Meetings for a better bat, one that the team can plug in at first base, third base, or in a corner outfield spot to make up for the departing production, especially that of Santana?

The Indians and Yankees will meet for just two regular season series in 2018 (May 4-6 in New York; July 12-15 in Cleveland) for a total of seven games. Stanton has not faced the Indians pitching staff since 2013 (1-for-11 with five strikeouts) and has played just three games at Progressive Field (2-for-9 with four strikeouts).

Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

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