LAS VEGAS — The trade of an All-Star catcher and the rumors of a potential deal involving a two-time Cy Young Award winner have plenty of fans in Cleveland reaching for antacids in hopes that this isn’t the beginning of a rebuild.
As the Indians have repeatedly said this week at baseball's winter meetings, though, deals like this aren’t in an effort to stockpile prospects who won’t step foot in Cleveland until a couple of future presidents have made their way through the White House.
"If we were rebuilding, we'd take a dramatically different approach,” president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said.
The Indians are in a position at which it has become unsustainable to operate as they have the last few years, when their payroll eclipsed the $140 million mark. But as they attempt to find the right deal, which might include Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer as a highly valuable starting pitcher, the goal is to contend in 2019 while also positioning their chess pieces in such a way that will put them in the best spot for 2020 and beyond, effectively extending their contention window.
Finding such a deal might prove to be easier said than done, as the Indians need talented but also controllable assets, which increases their own value. It’s more of a reallocation of resources to different parts of the roster.
“We’re not going backwards,” Indians manager Terry Francona said Wednesday. “We don't want to go backwards. We want to continue to try to give ourselves a chance to win.”
The Indians have used Carlos Carrasco's recent extension as evidence of that sentiment. Within a week that Yan Gomes was dealt to the Washington Nationals, clearing $7 million, Carrasco was extended with a deal that could keep him in Cleveland through 2023. The Indians picked up Carrasco’s 2020 option and committed $12 million in both 2021 and 2022, along with a $14 million vesting option and $3 million buyout for 2023.
“We traded Yan Gomes for a set of young players that feel like help us infuse some of that young talent and also extended Carlos Carrasco to the equivalent of free-agent dollars into the future, so I think we’re making that trade-off all the time,” General Manager Mike Chernoff said.
Francona, under contract through the 2020 season, said he has no fear of the club’s direction.
“Well, I know I have faith,” Francona said. "They're always so supportive. So I kind of just try to be supportive because this is their area and they're good at it. And they've proven they're good at it, and at some times under some challenging circumstances, but they're trying to keep us healthy, competitive for the future. For next year, for the year after that, for the year after that.”
The Indians are fighting a battle on two fronts. They want to contend for a World Series in 2019, which in the short run means addressing their outfield and/or bullpen and likely dealing from a surplus. At the same time, they want to add controllable pieces that might make room for additional moves down the road in 2020, 2021 and beyond.
It’s not as simple as a contending team with money to spend dealing to a rebuilding team only looking for prospects. The Indians are trying to play both sides.
It also brings into question not only what return the Indians receive for a valuable player like Kluber or Bauer, but how their own landing spot affects the Indians’ chances in October. If the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers end up with the best offer for, say, Kluber, the Indians might weigh the consequences of putting him on another team’s postseason rotation.
"So I think we would evaluate whatever the player return would be back on the surface, irrespective of who we were trading with,” Antonetti said. “I think what we would be concerned about is what’s the value of the players we’re trading, what’s the value of the players we’re getting back and that will largely drive the decision. Once we have that information, we will then layer on. Are we making a competitor better and, if so, how does that affect our outlook, especially on the upcoming season?”
The Indians, during this whirlwind week at the winter meetings, have been clawing through other teams, trying to find the right deal to maximize the roster, address their biggest needs and balance the need to win now and beyond next season.
It’s a complicated goal. But the idea behind it is to reallocate, not rebuild.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.