The Indians have been one of the majors’ most competitive franchise in recent seasons, winning the AL Central in each of the last three years, going to the AL Wild Card game in 2013, making a World Series appearance in 2016, and achieving a winning record in each of Terry Francona’s six seasons as manager. But after a rather prolonged run of success — albeit one in which they’ve failed to break their 60-year championship drought — it appears that they may be ready to take a step back, according to a report from ESPN’s Buster Olney on Friday:
Faced with market constraints, the Indians will listen to trade offers for some of their veteran players this winter, according to sources. Kluber, Carrasco, Encarnacion, Gomes, etc. Lindor, Ramirez will definitely be held.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) November 2, 2018
This is an interesting predicament, because ignoring the current state of Cleveland’s divisional opponents, this would seemingly be a good time for the Indians to hit the reset button a bit, seeing as Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Michael Brantley, and Josh Donaldson are hitting free agency this winter and are unlikely to be re-signed. It’s always seemed inevitable that the Indians would have to take a step backward at some point, as ownership has never spent big, and even as they’ve achieved significant success they’ve failed to draw fans to the ballpark, never ranking better than 21st in average attendance this decade and drawing an embarrassing average of 19,650 fans per game during their pennant-winning season in 2016.
But when you factor in that previously mentioned context — every other club in the AL Central finished under .500 in 2018 — it’s more difficult to see why the Indians would willingly squander very favorable odds at winning the division in 2019 and beyond. The White Sox and Royals are in the early stages of rebuilds and realistically seem to be a year or two away from seriously competing, and the Tigers and Twins seem to be in purgatory, with former star prospects like Michael Fulmer, Byron Buxton, and Miguel Sano having fizzled out at the major-league level. If Cleveland goes forward with moving key veterans — and doesn’t get established players that are ready to contribute right away in return — it will be a very interesting (and probably hard to watch) season in the AL Central.
Kluber is the most surprising name mentioned by Olney, as he’s under control at a decently affordable price for the next three seasons. The three-time All-Star, who has a strong shot at winning his third AL Cy Young Award later this month, is owed $17 million in 2019, then has club options at $17.5 million for 2020 and $18 million for 2021 (with $1 million buyouts each year). Perhaps it’d make sense to move him if the Indians believe they have no chance of competing for the next few years, but that seems difficult to believe considering that they have two of the most exciting young position players in the majors in Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez.
The 31-year-old Carrasco, who is also signed at an affordable rate for the 2019-20 seasons, is also a puzzling trade candidate, as he’s likely one of the 15-20 best starters in the American League and would be a key cog as they attempt to remain competitive. With Carrasco not being quite the same type of perennial ace and Cy Young candidate that Kluber is, though, it’s a bit more understandable as to why they’d try to flip him if they feel comfortable enough with guys like Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, Shane Bieber, Danny Salazar, and Triston McKenzie as rotation options.
Though Encarnacion still hit 32 homers and drove in 107 runs last year, it makes sense as to why Cleveland would see him as a potential candidate to be traded — he’s heading into his age-36 season, has just one year remaining (at $21.6 million) on his three-year contract, is coming off his least impressive offensive season (115 OPS+, which is still really good) since 2011, and is a defensive liability, even at first base. It’s just that it’d be difficult for the Indians to keep up the facade of making an earnest effort if they moved Encarnacion and got nothing significant in return, letting him go simply to shed his salary — and with there currently being a surplus of power-hitting first basemen and DHs around the majors, that’d probably be the case if they were to move him.
Finally, while Gomes had a really good season in a year where there weren’t many good catchers around baseball, the Indians could probably live without him and the $9 million guaranteed that he’s still owed — and due to the previously mentioned lack of quality catching depth around the majors, they’d probably get something solid back for him. Roberto Perez is one of the league’s best defensive catchers and has started before, so he could comfortably slide back into the No. 1 role, and Cleveland likes prospect Eric Haase and could move him into the backup role if Gomes were to be dealt.