How did the Indians get to this point? To the point in their history where, after three consecutive division championships, they are entertaining trade offers for Corey Kluber, a pitcher with the highest career winning percentage in franchise history (minimum: 125 starts), the third most strikeouts in franchise history and more Cy Young Awards than any pitcher in franchise history.
Kluber, still in his peak years, is exactly the kind of pitcher every contending team would love to have. The Indians have him, but are willing to trade him.
They are also at a point where they are willing to talk trade with clubs interested in acquiring Trevor Bauer, who last season was every bit as good as Kluber — better, in some categories — is five years younger than Kluber, might have won the Cy Young Award had he not missed most of the last six weeks of the season due to injury and still has his prime pitching years ahead of him.
How did the Indians get to this point?
To the point where they traded all-star catcher Yan Gomes, who will make $7 million next season, which is not outrageous for an all-star catcher who is in the prime of his career.
Assuming whoever employs him picks up his 2020 club option, Kluber can’t become a free agent after next year. Neither can Bauer. Neither (club option) can Gomes.
The Indians are also reportedly willing to talk about Edwin Encarnacion, who over the last two years has more RBIs (214) and the second-most home runs (70) of any Indians player.
That’s where the Indians are now. How did they get here?
By being too good, but not good enough. Not good enough, in that, despite reaching the playoffs three years in a row, they failed to win the World Series in any of them.
Too good, in that now they can no longer afford the elite team they so assiduously built.
Think about that. They are being penalized for their own excellence.
Consequently, the vultures are circling: The Dodgers, maybe the Braves, possibly the Brewers or Phillies. The Yankees? Sure, why not? What if Kluber or Bauer end up in Houston, the team that needed just 27 innings to eliminate the Indians from the postseason this year?
How many O’s are there in “Ouch!”?
Granted, the Indians’ offense could use another bat or two. But that shouldn’t necessitate having to trade one or two of your four best players, which Kluber and Bauer are.
Previously I have written that trading Kluber or Bauer is not an unreasonable strategy, given the Indians’ situation. Then came the jarring Gomes trade, which was a pure salary dump and casts everything in a different light.
The Indians are not exploring potential trades — or, in the case of Gomes, making trades — in order to free up money in order to pursue a big-ticket free agent. They are exploring potential trades because they can no longer afford to merely keep intact the team they have. Since that’s the case, here’s the best way to be able to afford the team you’ve built: don’t build such a good team.
“We don’t want to go backwards. We want to continue to try to give ourselves a chance to win,” manager Terry Francona told reporters Wednesday at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas.
The Indians’ front office was masterful in using all possible avenues to assemble the team: the draft, trades, free agency. For the last three years it’s been a really good team — just not the best team. That should be an argument for keeping it together, not for cutting some fiscal corners. There’s nothing wrong with going to the playoffs every year, even if you don’t win it all.
The multi-year contracts that Gomes and Kluber signed are like most multi-year deals given to younger players: they favor the club in the early part of the contract, but they favor the players in the latter part of the deal.
Trading players once the advantage swings to the player doesn’t bother the player. He’s going to get his money either way. For the ballclub, bailing on such a player may seem to be economically, if not competitively, prudent. But it also can be a slippery slope, since the organization is telling itself that it now must win as quickly as possible, before it can no longer afford its best players.
Losing key players to free agency is one thing. That’s unavoidable. Trading key players IS avoidable.
Ownership deserves credit for funding a franchise-record payroll in 2018. But the maturing contracts of their best players is not a surprise. Ownership knew this day was coming. The response to it should not be “Let’s try something else.”
Yet that, apparently, is where the Indians are now. Reluctantly, one presumes, having to try something else, even though all else hasn’t necessarily failed.
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