With only a few days left to go before the July 31st trade deadline, the Cleveland Indians still have plenty of room to improve their roster ahead of a 99.1% guaranteed playoff berth. Even after acquiring Brad Hand and Adam Cimber from the Padres a week ago, it’s impossible to imagine that the Tribe will coast through the remainder of the month without making any more big moves.
Fortunately, there are a host of solid options available that the Indians can pursue (or in some cases, already have). We already ran through an expanded list of players who are theoretical fits for Cleveland, but now we’d like to narrow that down to our definitive wish list. In other words, we’re metaphorically sitting down on Slider’s lap and telling him what we want in our stockings at the trade deadline. If the Tribe can manage to land these specific players, we will be very, very happy fans.
Wish #1: A right-handed-hitting outfielder with 2+ years of team control
Target: Whit Merrifield, Kansas City Royals
It’s not immediately clear whether the Royals would be willing to trade the 29-year-old Merrifield, who isn’t even eligible for arbitration until after the 2019 season and can be controlled through 2022. From a logical standpoint, though, they ought to be highly motivated to explore that option. The cellar-dwelling Royals have already eclipsed the 70-loss mark and are only just beginning to embark on what promises to be a long, painful rebuild; it doesn’t seem likely that the next contending Kansas City ball club will come together within the next four years, and even if it does, is it worth sitting on Merrifield’s trade value just to have him contributing on a fringe playoff team in his age-33 season?
If the Royals do go the smart route and try to trade the versatile speedster this month, the Indians ought to ignore all the usual admonitions surrounding interdivisional trades and jump on the opportunity. After a breakout 2017 season in which he posted 2.9 fWAR, Merrifield got off to somewhat of a slow start this year. But he quickly managed to turn this around, and has now exceeded last year’s fWAR figure with a full two months of the season left to go. Entering Thursday’s game against the Yankees, he was hitting .300/.369/.426 with 19 steals, and has shown great glovework at second base. More notably, he’s been an above-average center fielder in 119 innings at the position in 2018 (though it’s worth noting that UZR and DRS disagree about his career defensive contributions in the outfield).
The Tribe’s currently slated to roll with an uninspiring center field platoon of Rajai Davis and Tyler Naquin while praying that Lonnie Chisenhall and his paper calves can return to right field in time for the playoffs (the alternative being a hideous piecemeal assortment of Brandon Guyer, Melky Cabrera and Greg Allen). Merrifield would plug the hole in center while adding a dynamic hitting and baserunning talent to the lineup. He’d also return in 2019 as the Tribe’s best outfield option, should Chisenhall and Michael Brantley depart in free agency at season’s end. Of course, it should be noted that any trade for Merrifield likely starts with top prospect, right-hander Triston McKenzie, but I’m absolutely okay with that considering Merrifield is far from a rental player.
Backup Plan: Hunter Renfroe, San Diego Padres
The Indians and Padres don’t have to stop at just one trade. If Merrifield is unavailable, too expensive, or goes elsewhere, Renfroe could be a cheaper option with an uncanny ability to mash lefty pitchers. In 217 career plate appearances against southpaws, he’s crushed the baseball to the tune of a 1.005 OPS and a whopping 162 wRC+, in part thanks to 14 homers and an 11.1% walk rate. Thanks to the Padres’ glut of young outfielders, they can certainly afford to deal the 26-year-old; indeed, they considered it this past offseason. Renfroe can be controlled through the 2023 season, and while that implies he wouldn’t come cheap, his struggles against right-handed pitchers and a fierce outfield competition in San Diego suggest he could potentially be acquired without giving up any elite prospects.
Safety Net: Kole Calhoun, Los Angeles Angels
Much was made of Calhoun’s atrocious first-half performance, but it appears as though a two-and-a-half-week DL stint in June (to deal with a right oblique strain) allowed him to sort some things out and get right. Since his return on June 18th, Calhoun has hit like a madman for the Angels. His .275/.336/.598 slash line during that span gives him a cool 151 wRC+. A whopping 10 of his 11 homers on the season have come since his return, and a .284 BABIP suggests he’s actually been slightly unlucky in terms of balls in play falling for hits. Calhoun’s playing on an $8.5MM salary this season, and his contract calls for a $10.5MM payment in 2019 with a $1MM buyout on a 2020 option valued at $14MM. Because of that, it’s likely the Angels would have to pay down a chunk of Calhoun’s remaining contract in order to make it palatable for the Tribe. But if he can sustain anything close to his current production, he’d be well worth a bump in payroll.
Notable Omission: Shin-Soo Choo, Texas Rangers
Choo is having a career year at the plate. The former Indians outfielder enjoyed a 52-game on-base streak (which the Tribe brought to an end last week), and he’s hitting .284/.398/.484 on the season to go along with 18 homers- four short of his career high. But as much as we’d all love to see Choo return to Cleveland, he’s playing on a massive contract that’s set to pay him the pro-rated version of $20MM this year, and $21MM in each of 2019 and 2020. Even if the Rangers paid down a significant chunk of those dollars, the Indians would still be stuck paying a ton of money to an outfielder in his age-37 and age-38 seasons. His production is a near certainty to decline during that time period, if not outright fall off a cliff, and the Indians don’t have much margin for error in their payroll in the coming seasons. Not to mention, they need someone who they can count on to be a fixture in the outfield for the next couple of years, not a player that comes with great risk.
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Wish #2: A low-cost, reliable right-handed reliever
Target: Jared Hughes, Cincinnati Reds
Hughes is having a spectacular season for our cross-state rivals, owning a 1.53 ERA that would be a career best by far. He’s not flashy with the strikeouts (6.96 K/9), but his good control (2.72 BB/9) and incredible ability to keep the ball on the ground almost two-thirds of the time (65.8 GB%) give him an attractive skill set. ERA estimators like FIP and SIERA suggest his true talent is closer to that of a low-3’s ERA pitcher, but even that would be a great asset to a Cleveland relief corps that could still stand to add another right-handed arm.
The back end of Cleveland’s bullpen suddenly looks pretty damn intimidating thanks to the addition of Hand and Cimber, and the emergence of Oliver Perez as a viable option in high-leverage situations. But after refusing to allow a run in 17 straight relief appearances, Neil Ramirez has seemingly turned back into a pumpkin and coughed up eight earned runs in his past seven innings pitched. His ERA on the season has now swollen to 4.32, and his FIP indicates he should actually be a run worse (5.36). Meanwhile, Zach McAllister and Dan Otero are having their worst seasons with the Indians; both own ERAs north of 5.00 and can’t seem to avoid hard contact.
Hughes would allow the Tribe to cut one of the aforementioned players loose while giving them an anchor arm capable of handling an above-average workload; he’s managed to throw 53 innings across just 46 appearances on the season. He’s also playing on a very affordable contract that’s set to pay him just over $3MM in remaining guaranteed money through the end of 2019. Part of that is a $250K buyout on a $3MM option for the 2020 season. The Reds are still rebuilding in a tough NL Central division, and they’d likely be open to selling high on a reliever who’d been roughly replacement level prior to this year.
Backup Plan: Sergio Romo, Tampa Bay Rays
Romo’s been somewhat of a symbol for the Rays’ innovation this season, having been deployed as baseball’s first “opener” as well as a traditional closer and even a third baseman at one point, but his contract expires at season’s end and as such he could certainly be dealt. Romo’s ERA and FIP are identical at 3.63, and while that doesn’t jump off the page, it certainly makes him useful. He also comes with an extensive track record of success at the major-league level. He doesn’t come with significant splits, either, making him a great weapon that can be used to get three or four outs at a time (something he’s certainly done for Tampa Bay). The righty’s wOBA allowed to left-handed hitters sits at .302 on the season, while his wOBA against righties is .293. Romo’s playing on a $2.5MM contract for 2018 and wouldn’t cost much at all in terms of prospects.
Safety Net: Fernando Rodney, Minnesota Twins
Rodney’s more likely to be traded than either of the above players, with his contract set to expire at the end of the year and Twins fans having no particular reason to be attached to him. In his age-41 season, the right-hander’s posted a 3.44 ERA while racking up 21 saves as Minnesota’s closer. He’s managed to strike out more than a batter per inning and holds his best walk rate since 2012. Rodney’s got less than $1MM remaining on his $2MM 2018 salary, making him a palatable option for the Tribe who won’t require them to give up any significant minor-league talent.
Notable Omission: Brad Ziegler, Miami Marlins
Ziegler lost his closer job early in the season with a disastrous showing, and although he’s rebounded somewhat since, his 4.11 ERA is barely passable while his 4.65 FIP would hardly make him a better option than Otero, McAllister or Ramirez. What’s more, Ziegler’s inability to miss bats (6.26 K/9 on the year) makes him prone to catastrophic meltdowns, as we’ve seen from him in the past two seasons. He’s in the second year of a two-year, $16MM contract, and while the Marlins would surely love to pay most the remaining money in order to unload him, the 39-year-old is below average in the best-case scenario and a dumpster fire in the worst.
Wish #3: One more solid bat who won’t cost major prospects
Target: Andrew McCutchen, San Francisco Giants
The Giants acquired Cutch from the Pirates this past offseason, adding him to a core of aging veterans in hopes that they could make a run at the NL West pennant. Plans changed when significant injuries to Evan Longoria, Johnny Cueto, Madison Bumgarner, Jeff Samardzija and a handful of others derailed their season. They now sit in fourth place with a roster that simply doesn’t look like it can compete with the likes of the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Rockies for the division title, marking a likely end to the club’s consistent “even year” playoff berths.
McCutchen has continued his decline this year, but a .257/.348/.411 hitter would certainly prove useful to the Indians. He’s also flashing some very positive signs that point to the possibility of an upcoming surge in production. The former NL MVP is hitting the snot out of the ball, amassing a 45.7% hard contact rate on the season, and his 20.5% chase rate would be his lowest since 2010. He’s also hitting line drives at a 26.2% clip while sporting the second-lowest ground ball rate of his career (37.2%).
There’s roughly $5MM remaining on McCutchen’s contract. It’s certainly plausible that the Giants would be willing to eat some of that money, but it’s also worth mentioning that the Indians took on $4MM to acquire Jay Bruce last season. Point being, the money probably wouldn’t be a significant obstacle in striking a deal with San Francisco. There’d be room for McCutchen in the Tribe’s depleted outfield even if they managed to acquire one of the more controllable options mentioned above, and he doesn’t even have to be an everyday player; having that kind of bat come off the bench is plenty valuable in its own right.
Backup Plan: Asdrubal Cabrera, New York Mets
The Indians have already been connected to Cabrera, and his return to Cleveland could be reminiscent of the club’s 2016 reunion with Coco Crisp. The former Tribe shortstop would return to find himself without a full-time position in the infield, but there would certainly be ways to fit his bat into the lineup most days. Jason Kipnis could potentially shift to the outfield a few times a week, and he’d also act as a contingency plan in case Kip’s struggles resurface. Cabrera would add yet another switch-hitting presence to a lineup that already boasts Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, which would create a maddening puzzle for opposing managers to navigate when utilizing their bullpens. And while he’s been somewhat of a liability in the field, he’s flashing more power than ever before; the 32-year-old is on pace for a career-high 27 home runs. His salary isn’t prohibitive, and the Mets have already started selling off assets.
Safety Net: Josh Donaldson, Toronto Blue Jays
The fact that Donaldson’s spent most of this season on the disabled list and has scuffled at the plate even when healthy makes dealing for him plenty complicated. The difference between his upside and downside moving forward is gargantuan, and he’s playing on a record $23MM arbitration salary that could make many teams leery of taking a chance on him, especially the cost-conscious Indians. All this considered, Donaldson might be more of an August trade candidate. He’ll likely pass through revocable trade waivers at the beginning of the month while he’s still on the disabled list, and that’ll give him more time to prove he’s healthy to contending teams. If can return to his former AL MVP form and the Jays pay down a portion of his remaining $8MM salary, the Indians should definitely check in on him and see if they can get a deal done.
Notable Omission: Adam Jones, Orioles
A trade for Jones has significant roadblocks in the form of his significant remaining 2018 salary (about $6MM) and his ten-and-five rights which give him full no-trade protection. But beyond any of that, he hasn’t even been any good this season. Jones has been below average with the bat, as his 96 wRC+ would indicate. Not only that, he’s been a liability in the outfield as well; both DRS and UZR peg the long-time Oriole as being about 16(!!) runs below average in 811 innings on the year. Rajai Davis has actually been worth more in terms of fWAR than Jones, so there’s no real reason to engage with Baltimore on this front.
Photo courtesy of Keith Allison, via Flickr