Orbiting Cleveland: Gauging trade deadline priorities

Try as we may, it’s impossible to get a read on this Cleveland Indians squad.

That’s not exactly a good thing either as the MLB Trade Deadline looms less than a week away, and now is the time that the Indians front office should be positioning itself to improve the club. Improving a team is easier said than done though, and there still remains the question of what exactly the team should look to improve.

Make no mistake about it, this team is far from perfect.

The team plays splendidly at home (30-19, 3.86 ERA) yet stinks on the road (23-29, 4.45 ERA). The team has shown it’s capable of going on nice runs — but it’s also shown it’s capable of enduring momentum-killing tailspins.

So where does that leave us?

With the Indians’record at 53-48, the team currently trails the Detroit Tigers by three games in the American League Central. Three games is hardly a significant margin, and there is still plenty of time for the Indians to close the gap and even possibly win the division. Sixty-one games remain for the Indians, so this team is far from out of it.

Of course, like most contending teams, the Indians could best be served by seeking some additional help before the trade deadline, but gauging what kind of help the team needs is somewhat of a difficult task.

For weeks, it appeared as if the Indians were one dominant starting pitcher away from being a legitimate contender. However, it seems as if a case can now be made that that notion should be dismissed.

Below are the statistics for the Indians’ current starting rotation over the past two months (June 1st to now):

Justin Masterson: 9 GS, 3-4, 60.1 IP, 23 BB, 62 K, 4.33 ERA

Ubaldo Jimenez: 10 GS, 4-2, 52.2 IP, 31 BB, 47 K, 3.42 ERA

Corey Kluber: 9 GS, 4-2, 56.2 IP, 16 BB, 55 K, 3.18 ERA

Scott Kazmir: 10 GS, 3-2, 59.2 IP, 20 BB, 49 K, 3.17 ERA

The other member of the Indians’ rotation, Zach McAllister, has been injured, but here are his season statistics:

Zach McAllister: 12 GS, 4-6, 70.2 IP, 25 BB, 50 K, 3.57 ERA

So take a look at the staff and their performance over the last two months, and is there really anyone that you think the Indians should look to replace? Furthermore, is there any starting pitcher out on the market right now that could be considered a legitimate upgrade?

The simple answer to that is probably “No.”

Masterson’s numbers over the last two months are distorted a bit just because of a few rough starts where he was rocked for seven, six and six earned runs. However, there’s no denying that he’s been the team’s most consistent performer and is probably the closest thing this team has to an ace.

To be blunt, Kluber and Kazmir have both been outstanding over these past two months and have pitched at almost an ace-like level. There are still some concerns, especially with Kazmir since he just hit the 100-inning mark, but neither of these guys should be removed from the rotation given their performances over the past couple months.

Yes, there is a real fear that Kazmir’s arm may not hold up, but what if it does? So far, it seems as if his arm is doing more than just holding up, and the Indians have to ride Kazmir’s hot streak for as long as it lasts.
Perhaps the most probable candidate to look to upgrade would be Jimenez. In his last 10 starts, the right-hander has averaged just over five innings per start, which is far from what would qualify as “quality.”

But while he’s been unable to go deep into games, Jimenez has still given the Tribe a chance to win more often than not. Also, while a guy like Jake Peavy would certainly be an upgrade, would the high cost validate the actual effectiveness of the move? Sure, a rotation of Masterson, Kluber, Kazmir, McAllister and Peavy would be nice, but it also won’t immediately power the Indians into the postseason.

The point is that if the Indians do indeed fail to qualify for the postseason, it won’t be because of this rotation. While it’s true that there is no true ace in the bunch, it’s evident that the rotation has gotten better as the season has worn on, and this does appear to be a group that can win some games.

But if the rotation’s not the problem, then what is?

The two biggest areas of need appear to be the bullpen and the need for a true, professional hitter.

Long-time setup man Vinnie Pestano still has struggled with his consistency (4.18 ERA in 32 1/3 innings of work), and the Indians have had absolutely no success with any left-handed reliever they have attempted to trot out there this season.

There are options that the Indians could pursue. Chicago Cubs righty Kevin Gregg would immediately give the Tribe a nice late-innings arm, and he certainly could move into the setup role.

The Cubs’ James Russell (2.68 ERA in 37 innings) would also be an enticing option, and he would also immediately solidify the team’s left-handed relief woes. It also makes sense for the Indians to explore a deal with the Cubs because after trading names like Alfonso SorianoScott FeldmanMatt Garza and Scott Hairston, it’s blatantly obvious that this team is in complete sell mode.

However, in a perfect world, how much is a relief move really going to improve the Indians in the long haul? Let’s say they acquire Russell or Gregg. How many wins above replacement do you expect either player to be worth? The absolute best-case scenario would be 1.0, but even that seems incredibly unrealistic.

Knowing that, a conclusion can then be made that the most important move for the Indians to make is to pursue a proven professional hitter. Mark Reynolds has absolutely had a crippling effect on the offense, and it seems imperative that the team does something to rectify the situation.

Consider Reynolds’ performance since May 17. Since that point, Reynolds has gone 34-for-193 (.176) with zero doubles, zero triples, four home runs, 13 RBI, 22 walks and 79 strikeouts. His OPS is also a putrid .506. Even worse, Baseball Reference estimates that Reynolds has been worth -1.0 wins this season while FanGraphs has him at -0.3.

Regardless, it’s clear that the Indians cannot keep inserting him into the lineup. What seemed to initially be just a bad month for Reynolds has quickly transformed into a bad year.

So who should the Indians look to as possible replacement options?

Two names come to mind.

One of the most popular names discussed is Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Michael Young. Young does not have much in the power department, but he does qualify as a proven professional bat. Also, since he would be just a rental and is 36 years old, the price may not be too extreme.

On the season, Young boasts a .278/.342/.405 line with 18 doubles, three triples, seven home runs and 31 RBI. There would definitely be a dropoff in the power department from Reynolds, but the Indians would also gain so much simply by Young’s ability to put up quality at-bats.

Young would also be a boost because like Reynolds, he could spell Lonnie Chisenhall at third base. Everyone knows Chisenhall’s struggles against left-handed pitching, so it would make perfect sense for Young to start at third against lefties, and the Indians could also use another right-handed bench bat (Ryan RaburnMike Aviles,Yan Gomes) to fill the designated hitter spot on those days.

No, a move for Michael Young does not ensure the Indians make the postseason. Heck, it doesn’t even ensure the Indians are a contender.

But what cannot be denied is that a move for Young does make the Indians a better team. The Detroit Tigers have been underwhelming all season and given Young’s experience and ability, he could be a player that helps the Tribe close the gap.

The other player to consider may be a bit more difficult.

With their record at 43-56, the Minnesota Twins figure to once again be trade sellers at this year’s deadline. Of all their trade assets, perhaps the most intriguing is first baseman Justin Morneau.

While Morneau is in the midst of a catastrophic July (.187/.282/.333 line in 20 games this month), the overall numbers on the season are still quite respectable as the left-handed hitter has compiled a .269/.328/.395 line with 24 doubles, seven home runs and 52 RBI.

While it’s always tough to make a deal within the division, Morneau also fits the bill as a professional hitter, and he might come somewhat cheap given his horrendous month. Now, a case can be made that it would be silly to replace one slumping player with another, but Morneau’s track record seems to suggest that he’ll be okay.

The one downside may be that Morneau is a left-handed hitter, but the Indians’ many bench options should make up for that. Also, Morneau still owns a .255 lifetime average against left-handers, so he’s hardly a slouch in that department.

A move to the Indians would also allow Morneau to take on the role of full-time designated hitter, which might be a wise decision considering the numerous injuries that have plagued him in recent years.

Like Young, Morneau is not a player that would immediately punch the Tribe’s ticket to the postseason, but he does represent an upgrade. Also, perhaps the best thing about both potential moves is that they would come at a relatively cheap cost.

Given that the Indians’ farm system seems to be becoming more and more plentiful by the day, many fans have been hesitant to pull the trigger on a move that would require the Indians yielding one of its top prospects. The beauty of these moves is that probably either Morneau or Young could be acquired for some second-tier guys.

The bottom line is that the trade deadline is less than a week away, so time is quickly running out for the Indians to make a move.

Take a moment to ponder this question: What poses the greatest danger to the Indians this season?

Many will probably answer the Detroit Tigers, and that seems to be a logical answer. Yet, the reality to that answer may actually be Mark Reynolds and the Indians deciding to keep him in the everyday lineup.

It’s never good when a player is beating himself, and that seems to be exactly the case every time that Reynolds steps into the batter’s box. When a player starts to beat himself, then a team starts to beat itself, and that’s never a good recipe for success.

Simply put, enough is enough and it’s time for a change.


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