Trading Away Your Best

The ‘Hot Stove’ that is free agency has been rather cold this year, with neither of the top 2 players (Harper & Machado) having signed at the time of writing. But there have been numerous trades and plenty of trade rumours going around. One such rumour has bobbed above and below the surface multiple times this off-season: that the Cleveland Indians want to trade their ace pitcher Corey Kluber.

Most people see this and ask themselves why would a team looking to contend for not only a postseason spot but for the World Series make their team worse. And that is a valid question. Most people will come to the conclusion that the Indians are trying to save some money for the next three seasons in exchange for some good prospects that they can have for 4-6 seasons at a lower salary.

The reason fans believe this because the Indians have already traded away 3 starting players from last season and another who would have featured more this season. Edwin Encarnacion, Yonder Alonso and Yan Gomes, who had the 5th, 6th and 7th most plate appearances for the Indians last year are gone, along with Yandy Diaz . The returning Carlos Santana and newly-acquired Jake Bauers and Kevin Plawecki are the players most likely to take their places.

The overall view on the trades so far is that the Indians have saved about $23m for this season, removed some future guaranteed money and left themselves with an almost identical overall projection for the 2019 season. To me that is good management. They will lose most of that to the new arbitrated salaries, mainly due to Francisco Lindor and Trevor Bauer, but still look likely to have a lower payroll than 2018.

The Indians have spent a lot more in the last two seasons, last season their first above league average payroll since 2002. And although their attendance has gone up, they still haven’t made it into the top 20 for attendance.

I don’t want to sound like a spending apologist for the owners of baseball teams but the Indians are a mid-level team without large attendances or a large TV deal so we shouldn’t expect them to match the top teams when it comes to payroll. We should, however, expect a contending team to do all they can to compete.

With that in mind, we will come back to trading Corey Kluber. The general consensus is that the Indians would be worse off without Kluber no matter what but I haven’t really seen any deep analysis into this. So, does it actually make the team worse? With the right trade can a team actually make their team better in the same season by dealing their best pitcher? Let’s have a look.

The table below has the FanGraphs Depth Charts projected fWAR for each position and each team for 2019. These are based on the rosters as of 17th Jan.

As you can see the Indians are sat nicely in 6th place for overall predicted WAR but a little distant from the 3 powerhouses of the AL (Red Sox, Yankees and Astros). You may also be able to pick out that the Indians look very strong in a few positions and quite weak in others.

The Indians currently rank 1st for SS, 3B and SP which is more first places than any other team. The issue is that they rank below 20th for all other fielding positions and if you were to combine all outfield positions together they rank joint 28th for predicted WAR with only the Giants having a worse outfield.

Corey Kluber is valued at 4.8 WAR in this system so for it to be worth trading him this we have to create at least that much WAR for 2019. This glaring dearth of production in the outfield is what I am going to try and exploit in order to see if it is possible.  

To start off with we have to remember that WAR means above replacement level across the league, not replacement level of the tea. The Indians have a few starters outside their top 5 who could still have some impact in 2019 above replacement level.

,Adam Plutko – Plutko started 12 games in 2018 but with his 5.39 ERA and 5.78 FIP he doesn’t look like he would provide any above replacement performance in 2019 if given the same chance.

Chih-Wei Hu – Hu is an arrival during this offseason from the Rays. His full repertoire hasn’t truly been on display in his limited big league appearances, all of which have come out of the bullpen so far. He is a bit of an unknown but his 4.15 ERA from the bullpen in the MLB and as his 4.66 ERA from AAA means he is at replacement level but not much more.

Cody Anderson – In 2015 Anderson made his debut for the Indians and finished the season with 3.05 ERA across 15 starts. Before the start of the 2016 season people were talking about how similar he was to Matt Harvey (back when he was good). But a terrible 2016 with 6.68 ERA and a UCL injury in 2017 spring training was what followed up. ‘Tommy John’ surgery forced him to miss all of 2017 and nearly all of 2018 with him just pitching 3 innings in the minors.

I have no idea what to expect from him in 2019 but projections have him at 4.30 ERA which if he was starting games would make him an above replacement level pitcher.  

Danny Salazar – Salazar is also coming off a missed season. He sat out 2018 due to shoulder injuries and it is being currently reported that he will not be ready to break camp with the rest of the Indians. He isn’t going to compete for a position to start the season but when he is fit most of the projections have him around a 3.50 ERA with a mixture of starts and relief appearances. This puts him way above replacement level.

Using this info I removed Kluber’s projected 211 innings, distributed them between the remaining starters who weren’t already projected for a full season load, increasing their WAR by the proportion of increased innings. I also added some innings to the relievers at no further WAR gain as these would come from replacement level players.

This is a fairly optimistic projection which suggests that the Indians could get a further 2.5 WAR out of these pitchers by giving them more game time. That would make the Indians only 2.3 WAR worse after the loss of Kluber and not the full 4.8. So if can we trade Kluber and get a 2.3 WAR increase in the outfield it would be an overall positive for the Indians

The Indians outfield is poor. There is a combined 560 PA project for Greg Allen and Bradley Zimmer which equates to 0.3 WAR. Therefore the requirement to improve the outfield is to get a player which is projected at 2.6 WAR or better. If we try and replace Tyler Naquin as well we are looking for 3.4 WAR from two players.

For the next part I will be using the Steamer 600 projections to determine a players potential WAR if they got the chance at a full season. I have adjusted the WAR values down to by 6.6% to bring them in-line with the Indians projections of 560 PA.

How to gain a 2.5 WAR player from a trade only  

There are 31 OF players that are projected 2.6 WAR or more, I don’t really think most of these players are available for trading. However one stands out for me.

Tampa Bay RaysTommy Pham (WAR 3.0)

I am not certain if the Rays would be willing to take Kluber’s contract but they have MLB players the Indians would like to have and the prospects to fill out the deal to be fair on both sides.

The Rays have 3 other respectable OFs in Kevin Kiermaier, Brandon Lowe and Austin Meadows, have added a depth piece in Guillermo Heredia and also recently picked up Avisail Garcia, so they can arguably cover well for the loss of Pham and still improve their pitching outlook. A 1-2-3 of Kluber, Snell and Morton would give them better chances against the Yankees and Red Sox.

Pham has 4 years before he hits FA but is already 30 so he is a late bloomer. I still think the Indians would look at this if the level of the prospects in the deal were good, I would look to get Jesus Sanchez in the deal as well.

How to gain a 2.5 WAR player from a trade and free agency signings

Trade anyone for any prospects that are worth the value, looking at the Padres and Rays as organisations, then sign A.J. Pollock (WAR 2.8) with the money saved on Kluber ($52.5m over 3 years). The FanGraphs crowd sourcing had Pollock at $16m AAV with a 3-4 year contract, so something just below that will probably be accepted.  

How to gain 3.4 WAR worth of players from trades only  

Los Angeles Dodgers ­Alex Verdugo (WAR 1.5) & Chris Taylor (WAR 2.3)

Verdugo is a top 50 prospect who is ready to make an impact in 2019 and Chris Taylor is a great utility player, with 3 seasons of control, who has played more outfield than infield in the last 2 seasons. The Dodgers are not desperate for a starter but adding Kluber would improve them and they have frequently been linked with the Cleveland ace.

This may be a stretch now the Dodgers have offloaded both Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig to the Reds. I imagine they would decline this deal as it would leave them short in the outfield, unless they sign a certain top OF prospect, which would send them over the luxury tax threshold.

Houston Astros Kyle Tucker (WAR 1.8) & Yordan Alvarez (WAR 1.6)

Tucker and Alvarez are both top 50 prospects with most people having Tucker in the top 10, so it would be difficult to pry both these guys from Houston. That being said, Houston are overloaded with OFs right now with George Springer, Michael Brantley, Josh Reddick, Tony Kemp and Jake Marisnick all on the 40 man.

It may be a season too early for Alvarez to play in the MLB but I would rather give him a try than watch Naquin or Allen fail to produce once again. Adding Kluber to the Astros may hurt the Indians if they meet in the postseason as they would add him to their 1-2 of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole to have a brutal top 3 starters.

How to gain 3.4 WAR worth of players from trades and free agency signings

As with the 2.5 WAR method trade for prospects and sign A.J. Pollock but make sure that one of the prospects is ready to go in 2019 and provide slightly above replacement level production.

Or trade completely for prospects and sign Derek Dietrich (WAR 1.8) & Marwin Gonzalez (WAR 1.6). That should be doable for below the value of Kluber’s contract.

So, those were the scenarios where the Indians could be made better with the selling of Corey Kluber. It requires the fringe pitchers pitching more and some interesting trades but isn’t totally impossible.

Do I think any of these are likely? No, not really, but if I was in charge and we didn’t have to move Kluber’s contract just for monetary reasons, I would be having a chat with the Rays right now and with A.J. Pollock’s agent.

Photo credit – Paul Sancya/Associated Press

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