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"Shifting around your problems" with the Indians at the Winter Meetings

 (Soler [left] & Baez worthy, but at what cost?--USATSI)
And here comes the Winter Meetings.

Your Cleveland Indians are heading to this week's Winter Meetings at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee with a list of several needs, likely including a corner outfielder and/or a centerfielder, bullpen depth, and an overall hunt for some sort of offensive production.

Indians' president Chris Antonetti and General Manger Mike Chernoff will be bringing with them their surplus of starting pitching...

What?!?

They have a lot of starters...

What!?!

They have a lot of young, cost effective, elite-ish hurlers...

What?!?

If you're wondering why I'm repeating myself, I have a simple question. When in the hell does anyone have a "surplus of pitching?" Don't get me wrong, I understand the premise of 'pitching surplus,' but lets not confuse having multiple, highly skilled starters with a flippant term like "surplus pitching. But before I get into that, let's take a look at why this term has been making it's rounds around Cleveland for the past two years. 

Corey Kluber won a Cy Young in 2014, and then signed a team friendly five-year, $38.5 million deal, with two club options in 2020 and 2021 that could push the total deal to 7-years and $64 million. Yes, Kluber struggled last year, but was he anywhere near as bad as Jeff Samardzija? I could compare the two here, but past Kluber's 16-losses, he was a far more superior pitcher on several fronts. Samardzija just signed a five-year, $90 million deal with the San Francisco Giants. Samardzija is nearly a year older than Kluber, has far more miles on his arm, and one less Cy Young. While I understand the dynamics of free agency, and why Samardzija's deal is so big, who would you rather have? Kluber, or Samardzija?

Carlos Carrasco won a starting job in 2014, and was as dominant (and some would say more dominant) than his counterpart, Kluber, at the tail end of last season. During that ten-game stretch, Carrasco went 5-3 with a 1.30 ERA, and pitched into the eighth inning in four of his final five starts. With the Player's Union looking over his shoulder with frowning eyes, Carrasco signed a four-year, $22 million deal with the Indians, with two club options that could make the deal worth six years and $40.5 million. Carrasco will be 29 next year. This is a kid that was likely sitting on a King's ransom, should he have asked for it, and gave the team a bargain because he felt he owed it to the team who stood by him through a whole bunch of hard times. Sure, it didn't come without risk, but while watching some of these insane deals that are being thrown around this offseason, I think it's a risk well worth taking.

Danny Salazar enters the 2016 season after a 185 inning campaign that saw him fall five K's short of 200. While Salazar has been looked at by some rather idiotic "experts" as a player with "limited upside" as a starter because of a "limited arsenal," the 25-year old continued to develop said arsenal, to complement his already elite four seamer and splitter. He also throws a slider, and is utilizing a new curveball, which has those that are paying attention salivating at his FOUR-PITCH arsenal. No, I don't think "bullpen" will be a part of this youngster's future. Oh, did I mention that Salazar is a year away from arbitration?

Past the Indians' "Big Three," there are a variety of "upside" starters (Trevor Bauer) to go along with middle-to-bottom-of-the-rotation starters (Cody Anderson, Josh Tomlin & T.J. House) who are already major league ready to be considered a part of that "surplus." To the minor league geeks, there are also a few interesting starters who will be toiling in Columbus this year (Mike Clevinger, Shawn Morimando, Ryan Merritt and Adam Plutko) that could give the Tribe the "surplus" that everyone is talking about so incessantly.

(sidenote: Trevor Bauer has a lot of intangibles that the "Big 3" has. He also has a lot of intangibles that a lot of players that have flamed out have. He needs to earn a return to be mentioned with them going forward)


Manager Terry Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway clearly has an abundance of potentially "elite" starting pitching heading into the 2016 season, and all are cost effective and controlled through the next four seasons, and potentially further. They also have a myriad of choices beneath them to both round out the rotation, fill in for injury, and set up the future pretty well.

(I haven't even gotten into the minor leagues beneath Columbus...tasty)

It's a surplus, right? I mean, the definition of a surplus is "an amount of something left over when requirements have been met; more than what is needed or used; excess." In baseball, you can go deeper when discussing trading players. If you have multiple players at a position that can excel, you often deal from that strength to bolster another position.

Hence, this continuous discussion about the Indians and their pitching depth.

All of this was enhanced during the trade deadline period in July in which Carrasco was rumored to be heading to Chicago and L.A. and ultimately Toronto. Several phone calls were made, and while I'm sure discussions for the Indians' righty went a lot further than was discussed openly, nothing was ultimately consummated.

So why does this "surplus" BS irritate the hell out of me?

When the hell does any major league rotation have a surplus of starting pitching?

Never.

In 2015, the Indians' rotation was fairly healthy. Only six players made at least ten starts, but 11 starters toed the rubber in a big league uniform for a variety of reasons. In 2014, eight Indians' starters made at least 14 starts thanks to some injury issues, and some struggles. The list goes on-and-on. In any major league season, in general, a good rotation will need in the vicinity of 8-10 starters throughout the season, and preferably, those starters would be serviceable.

I could get into the question-marks surrounding all of those starters beneath the big three, but if you've read this far, you likely know them already. Bauer has a list longer than my 3,000 word opuses here at EHC. If you asked most people about Josh Tomlin prior to this year, you would be laughing if he was mentioned in a piece for the 2016 rotation. I'm actually pretty high on Cody Anderson, after watching him dominate up to High A Carolina, struggle for a year, then return to domination in Double A, Triple A, then the Big Leagues, but there really isn't a lot of elite, unless you look closely. T.J. House struggled with injury after his "break-outish" 2014 campaign, so who knows where he'll be this year.

My point here is simple. In an era where everyone overthinks everything with stats that often don't really equate to anything until after the fact, don't ever say or think the Indians have too much starting pitching...ever. They don't. It's one thing if you have three top 50 MLB prospects at first base, in which only one spot is available. It's another thing altogether when you have eight guys fighting for five spots at a position in which attrition is a big deal.

I haven't forgotten the 90's, in which the Indians couldn't find an elite starter. Yes, they need to acquire offense, but as was mentioned in that Stark article, you don't necessarily shift your team problem from having a few elite starters and hoping your offense meets expectations, to adding a bat, having one less elite starter, and hoping your offense meets expectations.

If I'm to dive into this a little further, the Indians need to acquire a stud offensive producer, and to make matters worse, it should be either in center or right field. In other words, if you're going to be dealing from an area of perceived "surplus," like a potential Cy Young award winner, you need to bring in said stud. This stud should be a fairly sure-thing, and should be the type of player that is moderately slump free, and can change the dynamics of your offensive team.

I do realize that there are some issues with that mentality. How many teams would be interested in giving up a player that is out on the field on a daily basis, for one that will step on the mound, at best, 35 times? The flip side of this conversation are the monstrous salaries that have been given out to David Price, Zach Greinke and Samardzija, with a future monstrosity to be given out to Johnny Cueto. The Indians have four guys who have pitched substantial Major League Innings who are controlled through at least 2019 (and with club options, 2020 or 2021), who won't make $206 million combined during that time period, and if you look at their current contracts, have a chance to make less than $100 million...TOTAL).

That's the balance/counter-balance to the discussion. While every day, elite offense is as rare as elite starting pitching, a team in need is clearly willing to spend a lot to acquire such talent, on either side of the equation. If there's a fit, a deal can be made.

That's why the curious case of Shelby Miller has been of keen interest to me this offseason. John Hart is trying to deal away his ace-in-the-making, and he's trying to bring in a stud offensive player. At the top of his list was a player that the Indians have been tethered to, the Arizona Diamondbacks A.J. Pollock. The Diamondbacks didn't bite, and have listed their pretty elite center fielder as being "almost untouchable." I could get into the semantics of that statement, but why bother. It's clear that the Diamondbacks are leveraging Pollock as an elite player (they should), and are trying to maximize his return (they should). While waiting for a bigger haul, the DBacks went out and signed Greinke to the biggest MLB contract in the history of the game, and are still volleying for a deal for Miller. While I won't discuss the financals there, I will say that they are playing their cards right in trying to acquire an abundance of elite pitching, while keeping their elite, sure-fire offense. 

My point here is simply that teams are giving up elite offense for Miller, which is likely why the Indians have been so quite thus far.

Now it's time to have a bit of fun. Carlos Carrasco and Corey Kluber are superior starting pitchers than Shelby Miller, and in the end, so is Danny Salazar. Bare minimum, all three of the Indians big three hold as much (or more) value than Shelby Miller, at least in some respects. In Kluber, you have an established Cy Young winner, with that valuable contract. In Carlos Carrasco, you have an elite arsenal, and that valuable contract. In Danny Salazar, you have one more year of control than Miller, who has a similar trajectory. If you get into projections, it gets really fun, and I've seen some projected WAR estimates that have both Kluber and Carrasco in the top five of all pitchers next year. When you combine that with where the current free agents have landed, teams hunting for elite starters are few and far between.

So with the Winter Meetings gearing up, and utilizing the Shelby Miller case study, it's likely that the Indians aren't ready to deal their "surplus" pitching, because they both understand that "surplus" is a misnomer, and equally understand that they have to get a massive return to deal away elite, and really, who's left who has that kind of capital?

The Dodgers are on the outside looking in with regards to David Price and Zach Greinke, but are the front runners for Johnny Cueto. The Cubs were considered the likely destination for Price, and had to "settle" for 37-year old John Lackey, to pair with Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. The fact that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have kept their core young talent fairly intact has been special to watch.

My rather long-winded response to all of this is simply that the Indians aren't likely to deal away a starter for a "throw-at-the-dartboard" type of players that are likely going to be available. I mentioned the Dodgers earlier, who clearly would love any of the Indians Big Three, especially Carlos Carrasco. The problem there is that the return would likely net the Indians either Yasiel Puig or Joc Pederson. I know, I say "problem," but both would offer up a likely improvement to what the Tribe already has in right field. Puig is a mercurial talent, who at this point, I'm not willing to take a gamble on with a potential Cy Young award winner. The Indians would need more, but would Puig and spare parts do it?

I'd be willing to listen, but not sure much more than that.

Joc Pederson would be higher on my list, but I'm just going to go ahead and say it: he's not worth a straight up deal for Carrasco. Yes, he's a top rated slugger, young and controlled. He roared out of the gate last year, then faltered. BUT...I would take Pederson, and spare parts, if the parts resembled a really good relief pitcher.

In the end, I don't think either deal happens simply because the "spare parts" would have to be pretty good major league players for the Antonetti/Chernoff duo to even budge.

Then you have the Cubs, who are trying to keep Jorge Soler, but still dangling him out there for other teams to come sniffing around. The Indians would love Soler, who has an excessively team-friendly contract. He has tremendous upside, but most consider a lesser player than Yasiel Puig. This is no knock on Soler, since Puig has "best-player-in-the-game" potential, but point being that like Pederson, I don't think Soler for Carrasco would ever be a thing, straight up. There's also been scuttlebutt that Epstein/Hoyer wouldn't deal Soler straight up for Shelby Miller.

So while you are pondering that conundrum, I will say that I think it's distinctly possible that the reason why the Cubs won't part with Soler yet is simply because they have other guys they like better, such as Carrasco. With the Winter Meetings gearing up, this could be something that comes to fruition in the coming days.

But seriously, what would it take, if not Soler straight up?

In a conversation I had on Friday night with a friend of mine that happens to also be a Cubs fan, he mentioned Javier Baez as a potential straight-up deal for Carrasco. This seems to follow in the mold that most Cubs' fans have taken with Carrasco, that's he's not as good as any top prospect in the Cubs' organization.

This simply isn't true, but I understand why a cursory look at Carrasco would provide that outlook. Carrasco's days of being a "top prospect" were over years ago, and his own erratic journey to "ace" status has been long-and-winding, to say the least. That said, most scouts covet Carrasco for a variety of reasons, starting with his developed make-up, and elite arsenal. Remember, those projections for Carrasco as a top 5-10 starter in the league aren't an unknown resource to most GMs, and to stat geeks like Epstein, Carrasco's name is likely posted on his bathroom mirror, as a reminder to just how good a rotation of Arrieta, Lester, Carrasco, Lackey and Hammel would be.

So back to Baez, for a moment. Is he even a fit? He's mostly an up-the-middle prospect, who has shown some decent pop in the minors, although a lot of that pop has been in the PCL. For Baez to work for the Indians, he would have to be able to make the move to third base full-time. Can he?

Yep.

But please, don't take my word for it. Talk to Joe Maddon, the Cubs manager who said, "He falls out of bed, he can play defense. It's incredible to watch how smooth he is. He's just different. I don't know if I've had anybody quite that comfortable on the infield, especially at that age."

He's 22.

So if not a straight-up deal for Soler, or Baez, how about both. That's when gauging player value becomes hard. Both Soler and Baez have been top 50 prospects, are coveted by the Cubs, and are likely worth more than I think, in the same way that Carrasco is worth far more than most Cubs' fans think. So if we weight on or the other, Carrasco likely has more value. If we weight both, they have far more value. So, what could the Indians do?

Over the past three years, I've heard two pretty interesting rumors circulating about some interesting Indians' players, both regarding Epstein and Indians' players. Earlier this offseason, the Chicago Sun-Times Gordon Wittenmyer noted that the Cubs "covet Cleveland utility man, Lonnie Chisenhall." Epstein and Hoyer have also contacted the Indians about Jose Ramirez in the past, and I'm pretty sure that as a utility player, most teams on the planet wouldn't mind having that kind of spark plug roaming the infield in a utility, or starting fashion.

Would a package of Carlos Carrasco, Lonnie Chisenhall and Jose Ramirez bring back Jorge Soler and Javy Baez, solidifying both right field and third base? For those screaming about Giovanny Urshela, I hear you. Just remember, Baez is a middle infielder, so he could just take over the JRam slot, and be a better third baseman for the injury prone Urshela in the utility role, or just take over third. Baez has also been experimenting in center field.

Please understand a few things about Baez. He's one of the best fielding position players in the Cubs system, and also brings with him a canon of an arm, and has that type of baseball IQ that you've heard me bragging about on several occasions.

That's the kind of deal that you make for a player who is as good as Carlos Carrasco. Yes, giving him up, including the bench of Chisenhall and JRam would be a ton, but if they acquired, at best, a starting defensive wunderkind at third base (or center), and offensive power and potential in right field, I'm all in.

Of course, we have some internal top prospects that could also be involved, if the talks were serious.

Just for kicks, I typed Baez, Soler, Chisenhall and Carrasco into Google search, and the esteemed August Fagerstrom from fangraphs discussed this very possibility this weekend.

Taking all of this into account, would a deal like this make the Indians a better baseball team, or would it simply shift around the weaknesses?

That's a hard question to answer. Do the Indians have enough starting pitching entering 2016 to survive losing a stud of the caliber of Carlos Carrasco, by improving their offense, or will they be robbing Peter to pay Paul?

The gap between the Indians starting offensive core, and their weak spots is pretty vast. If they can raise the level in center, right and third base offensively, they should be improved. If Carrasco is gone, they'll need Cody Anderson to continue his ascension, and need Trevor Bauer to actually be worthy of all of his minor league hype. They'll need players to continue to meet their projections, and most importantly, they'll need to stay healthy.

(sidenote: I recall listening to a minor league game this year in which Kris Bryant, Baez and Soler hit back-to-back-to-back jacks against Bauer...just sayin')

In other words, there is no surplus regarding starting pitching, in Major League baseball, just shifting of talent to where it best fits.

When talking about the Indians shifting from elite starting pitching, you better hit a home run. If you don't, the loss of a cost controlled superstar pitcher could hurt the team in a dramatic fashion for years to come.
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