Indians baseball is back in Goodyear, Arizona.
As I gaze out my window in the heart of the snowbelt Lake County, Ohio the classic Spring Training cliche (and I love me a good cliche) “Hope springs eternal” comes to mind. This thought rings true each February even though there is over 2 feet of snow in my yard and the temperature might reach a robust 40 degrees this weekend.
But I digress…
When looking at the 2015 Cleveland Indians there are a lot of positives on the surface. The team is getting a lot of run from national media outlets. This is a good thing obviously, even though it holds not weight because they still need to play the games, obviously. In the perfect world where everyone plays at expectation and stays healthy this team looks primed to make a run at the Central Division and even an elongated postseason run. So, that is unlikely to happen. Even though everyone in camp is in “the best shape of their life” (told you I love a cliche) guys will get dinged up, players will have ups and downs, more or less baseball will happen. And when baseball happens, aside from being a beautiful thing, it is also an unpredictable thing.
This Cleveland Indians team is a little deeper than teams of the past. In theory they should be able to weather the storm so to speak if injuries start to test this said depth. Let us look at this depth and see how it applies to the next few years.
Playwright and Political Activist George Bernard Shaw said “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must man be of learning from experience.”
So I’m not talking about history in the sense of Michael Bourn‘s bulky hamstring, or Nick Swisher‘s creaky knees. I’m not even talking about Trevor Bauer‘s or Carlos Carrasco‘s mind getting in the way of their talents. I’m actually talking about history in terms of four players.
So obviously these four guys do not play baseball anymore. But they were all members of the Indians during their juggernaut teams of the 90’s. They were also in their pre arbitration years and they were traded during that time. Over their careers all four were very productive players.
When you look at the players that were acquired for these four it is enough to bring a grown man to tears. Outside of Dave Burba for Casey and Bob Wickman in the Sexson deal most of the players Cleveland got in return were not equal value.
In 1996 Jeromy Burnitz played all three outfield spots and had some pop in the bat. At the time this was the transitional period where Carlos Baerga was eating himself out of the game so the club felt a need to move him for Kevin Seitzer. Okay, I guess it made sense. However, after this season Albert Belle was as good as gone. Eddie Murray would be done with the Tribe as well. The team hadn’t traded Kenny Lofton for Marquis Grissom and David Justice yet so there was going to be room for Burnitz in 97. Seitzer was at the end of the line career wise.
Sean Casey was blocked by Jim Thome so it was unlikely he would get an opportunity in Cleveland. His hit tool was off the charts and Dave Burba in return was a solid contributor to the Indians staff during his tenure with the club. This one at the time made the most sense of the four trades.
While Ricardo Rincon was a decent bullpen piece, Brian Giles was becoming one of the best players in baseball. In 1998 he was already a good player. In the years he played with Pittsburgh (all of which were cost controlled) he was one of the best players in baseball. Pittsburgh stunk though so that sort of gets lost.
Something else that I think gets a little cloudy in the minds of Cleveland fans is that these teams never had that ace starter. Whatever the reason, the team just could not seem to either sign a front line starter or pull of a deal for one. That doesn’t excuse this monumental blunder of a trade. Maybe in their eyes they thought that by strengthening the bullpen they would be able to mask the warts of the rotation. Paul Assenmacher was playing out the string so to speak and there was no other lefty reliever to take the reigns.
Richie Sexson was traded in 2000 for Bob Wickman, Jason Bere and Steve Woodard. At least they got some pitching in this deal. Not good pitching, but pitching nonetheless. Sexson hit 31 HR in 1999 and had 16 HR when traded to Milwaukee where along with Burnitz were punishing HRs together for many years.
I don’t like to play revisionist history but it just seems like these trades were forced events because they just didn’t know what to do with these players. These four players had a combine career WAR of 112.2. So the reason I am bringing this up is because the Indians are approaching, quicker than you might think, an identical scenario to the one they faced with these four players.
Here is a list of outfielders that are either on the current roster, the 40 man roster or will need to be rostered soon either because of rule five status or they’ll force their way onto the 40 man.
Michael Brantley, Michael Bourn, Brandon Moss, David Murphy, Ryan Raburn, Nick Swisher, Tyler Holt, Zach Walters, Carlos Moncrief, James Ramsey, Clint Frazier, Bradley Zimmer, Tyler Naquin, Anthony Gallas, Bryson Myles.
Some of these guys are not considered priority prospects, I get that. But they are still players that have potential and that is the important thing in this case. Now more than anytime since the late 90’s do the Indians have players that either project into MLB contributors or at least have the potential to become that in the future.
In terms of contracts, Bourn, Moss and Swisher are only tied to the club for the next two seasons. This affects Holt, Walters and Moncrief more than the others mentioned. But there is a domino effect so to speak when talking about who is going to play with the big club. Now there are only three outfielders that can play of course and Brantley is locked into this outfield probably for as long as he wants to be in Cleveland. Raburn and Murphy are probably done in Cleveland at some point this year and if not during the season they won’t be on the club in 2016.
Point being the Indians are going to need to find out what they have with these guys. And soon. How do you balance that and trying to win the
division World Series? Good question, but as an organization like the Indians will always face the dilemma that they cannot afford to miss on guys. They have to know what they have before they cut ties on players or trade them away.
The situation is equally muddy on the infield going forward.
Walters is a dual option in both scenarios so of the group of players he is most likely in my opinion to have some staying power. Or at least there won’t be any question marks around him once he either sinks or swims in Cleveland. When Lindor is ready he is going to play. It is assumed that he will not fail. Ramirez probably should be playing somewhere once Lindor takes SS from him. Urshela is going to force them into doing something with him if he continues his torrid winter and AAA season again in 2015. Kipnis is going to play somewhere because he is probably still a good player and they are paying him money. It should probably be assumed that he will continue to man 2B going forward. Aviles is probably done in Cleveland after this year, while serviceable this will not be a big loss. The combination of Ramirez, Walters and Gonzalez should meld into that utility roll at some point. Los isn’t going anywhere at 1B and much like the Casey/Thome relationship Santana directly hurts Aguilars potential for playing time.
Some of these players are going to get cut at some point. And most probably won’t become anything if that happens. That is just how baseball is usually. For every Jose Bautista DFA success story or Johan Santana Rule Five Draft pickup turned Cy Young there are thousands of former players that now sell insurance for a living.
What the Indians cannot afford is to trade a player like one of the four mentioned for nothing of real value in return, hopefully proving George Bernard Shaw wrong, at least this time.