Imagine if the Detroit Tigers didn’t have to face Corey Kluber in 2019. Or Carlos Carrasco. Or Yan Gomes. Sounds great, right? This dream scenario might not bring the Tigers any closer to contention — especially if they don’t spend any money again this offseason — but it would certainly make our lives as Tigers fans a little better, if not make for a more competitive AL Central Division.
Well, it might happen. The Cleveland Indians “will listen to trade offers” for Kluber, Carrasco, Gomes, and other veteran players this winter, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney. One imagines just about anyone on their roster not named Francisco Lindor or Jose Ramirez — two players Olney specifically mentioned as untouchable — could be available for the right price.
Before we get too excited, let’s recognize this for what it is.
The Indians aren’t tearing anything down. Their swift playoff exit was embarrassing, but they have zero reason to rebuild. They are still the clear favorites to win the AL Central next year, and probably would be even if they traded any of their starters for prospects. If someone gets traded, it will likely be for a big return, one involving talented young players who are close to ready to contribute in the major leagues. There may be a low-level player or two included somewhere, but the Tribe don’t want to wait around for two or three years when their best players (Lindor and Ramirez) are still in their respective primes. It’s a proactive retooling that makes sense given their awful divisional competition and now-barren farm system after a few years of midseason trade deadline upgrades.
A good example of a possible deal is the trade that sent Chris Sale to Boston in 2016. That deal netted the Chicago White Sox four prospects, including two of the top young talents in baseball. Second baseman Yoan Moncada didn’t make his White Sox debut until the following July due to injuries — and probably some service time games, if we’re being honest — but was considered ready to step into a major league lineup. Michael Kopech wasn’t far behind, and he showed flashes of his considerable upside in a 14 1⁄3 inning stint with the Sox this year before undergoing Tommy John surgery in September. The deal hasn’t worked out perfectly for the Sox, but it could pay off eventually.
Like Sale at the time of that trade, Kluber has three years of team control remaining on his contract. It’s not quite as team-friendly as Sale’s deal — Kluber would make $52.5 million from 2019 to 2021, assuming the two team options are picked up — but it’s still a bargain for a two-time Cy Young winner. He would fetch a monster return if traded. Those underneath him, like Carrasco or the arbitration-eligible Trevor Bauer, would also be expensive pick-ups for potential suitors around the game.
Even if the Indians don’t rip off any crazy trades, Tigers fans should still be happy about this news.
Olney mentioned that the Tribe are “faced with market constraints,” which should be music to the ears of other AL Central clubs. The Indians had a payroll just shy of $135 million on Opening Day 2018, by far the highest in franchise history. They were south of the $100 million barrier up until midseason 2016, and will probably sit somewhere in the $100-120 million range in most years going forward.
While the Indians have done a nice job of drafting and developing players to create a nice pipeline of cost-controlled talent, they still operate and spend like a smaller market team. This is similar to the other clubs in the Central, which has resulted in a nice advantage for the Tigers in the past. Sure, some of this was thanks to late owner Mike Ilitch’s drive to win a championship, but even a modest amount of spending could provide a huge advantage. If Detroit pushes their payroll to somewhere in the $150 million range once they return to contention, that will still put them head and shoulders above the rest of the division.
Money still matters, even in today’s game. The team with the largest payroll in baseball just won the World Series, and the team they beat wasn’t far behind. There are always usurpers — the Brewers just made the ALCS with a payroll just over $100 million — but far more often than not, richer teams win more games. The Tigers might not be ready for a free agent shopping spree yet (or ever), but it’s nice to see a division rival start to pinch pennies once again.
And if the Indians want to go out and trade Kluber this winter, I won’t complain about that either.