In the past 24 hours, we have learned that the Indians are open to at least listening to offers for both Asdrubal Cabrera and Justin Masterson. We can debate the merits of trading Masterson, but moving Cabrera is a slam dunk decision. On the whole though, the willingness to listen on two players who are nearing free agency and may fetch something juicy on the trade market shows that Cleveland is very much conducting their offseason properly.
During the course of the offseason, the market can change drastically. With the free-agent pitching market brought to a near-standstill at the moment, the trade market is blooming. Since the Winter Meetings started, we have heard a number of trade rumors, be they credible or not. That is somewhat the nature of the beast at this time of year, but with last week’s flurry of transactions taking a number of “sexy” options off the board, it seems that trade rumors are all we have until Masahiro Tanaka either is concretely posted or not posted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles. As such, putting it out there that the Indians are happy to listen on Cabrera and Masterson is a great idea.
With Cabrera and Masterson both only a year away from free agency, trading them both now would make a lot of sense from an organizational perspective. You don’t need me to tell you that. Soon they may lose them for nothing. But there is a difference between a team on the cusp of contention actually taking the steps to balance short-term and long-term goals and actually seeing it first-hand. And with the free-agent market what is right now, perhaps they could fetch something nice in return.
Let’s start with Cabrera. Putting Cabrera on the block is a pretty easy call to make. For one, Cabrera’s skills have declined since his breakout in 2011. He’s solid offensively for a shortstop, but he’s nothing special. He also is very much not special defensively. And that’s where the Indians are in prime position. The defense of prospect Francisco Lindor is so well regarded that if he is everything he is projected to be, the Indians might not have much drop off at all, holistically speaking. If you examined Cleveland’s 2014 ZiPS projections yesterday, you saw this:
Cabrera: 609 PA, 2.8 WAR
Lindor: 539 PA, 1.8 WAR
And that is with a very conservative .281 wOBA projection for Lindor. Steamer has him at a .293 wOBA, so they are both in the same ballpark. But if Lindor hits even close to the mark that he has in the minors, he will blow away those projections. Lindor has progressed from LoW-A, to A, to High-A and then Double-A, and his wOBA has increased at each stop: .323, .328, .363 and .376, respectively. Also, he was 19 when he reached Double-A. Here’s a list of players to reach Double-A at the age of 19 (or younger) in the last three seasons: Lindor, Rougned Odor, Xander Bogaerts, Jurickson Profar, Manny Machado, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. Obviously being in that company doesn’t guarantee that Lindor will hit well when he reaches the majors, but I like his chances. Cleveland could probably call him up for Opening Day and not miss Cabrera one bit. If they wanted to let Mike Aviles keep his seat warm for a little bit, they’re probably not going to lose a ton of value that way either.
There’s also the matter to consider that Cabrera may have a pretty decent market. At this time, the only starting shortstop still on the market is Stephen Drew, and he has a draft pick attached to him. And there are likely a few teams who will see the combination of not having to give up a draft pick plus Cabrera’s past success and see him as more desirable than Drew. Cabrera is also three years younger, and might be seen as a more durable player than Drew as well. I suppose you could squint and see Clint Barmes as a starting shortstop, but the Pirates started platooning him last year, and there is little reason to think his status around the game has somehow elevated in the interim. In other words, the market may be lining up just right for the Indians to take advantage of that one team still desperate for a shortstop.
Trading Masterson is a different animal altogether. For one thing, he was the best pitcher on what was technically a playoff team a season ago. For another, he’d likely be that same pitcher again this season, depending on how bullish you are about Danny Salazar. For a third, he’s also still pretty young, at least relatively speaking. Of the potential free-agent pitchers who don’t have a club option for 2015, the only three pitchers younger than Masterson are Brett Anderson, Homer Bailey and Clayton Kershaw. Anderson is a giant question mark, and I’ll be pretty surprised if Kershaw pitches for anyone other than the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2015. That leaves Bailey. There are actually some pretty good options on the market next season aside from those guys, but age is always a big factor, and Masterson has that on his side. He’s also been pretty durable, and pretty consistent. In his four full seasons in Cleveland, only 25 starting pitchers have tossed more innings than has Masterson. And while Masterson isn’t the best pitcher alive, he compares pretty favorably to those currently on the market.
Take a look at this custom table I customized all by myself. What, you don’t want to? Fine, I’ll simplify it and pop it right here for you:
Now, to be fair, if you’re using ERA- and RA9-WAR to evaluate, Masterson doesn’t come out looking all that great here. But if you are of the belief that Masterson has generally pitched better than his ERA, it’s hard to see much separation between him and the rest of the remaining-non-Tanaka-free-agent pack. Masterson is projected to make $9.7 million this year in arbitration, and in a world where Phil Hughes is making $8 million a year, Masterson’s arbitration salary figures to be lower than what these guys will get in free agency. Of course, you’ll have to part with some prospects to get him, but for a team that wants to contend this year and is skittish about handing four-plus years one of the free agents, parting with a prospect or two for Masterson might seem a lot more palatable. Especially since teams will have to part with a draft pick in order to sign Garza or Jimenez.
Either way, it’s in the Indians’ best interest to find out. Trading Masterson without getting a major league starting pitcher in return would leave them pretty thin in the rotation, but it probably wouldn’t be a disaster. Salazar, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister are going to keep the team in a lot of games, and they may be able to take the money saved from dealing Masterson and re-invest it back in the market. Perhaps they will be able to wait out Jimenez and get him at a bargain because no one else wants to give up a draft pick. If they could turn Masterson into Jimenez and a prospect or two, that’d be a pretty nice trade. Especially if Jimenez continues to be the pitcher we saw in the second half.
Asdrubal Cabrera and Justin Masterson, as things currently stand, figure to be an important part of the Indians in 2014. In 2015 though, they may be long gone — in Cabrera’s case, almost certainly so. And since the Indians expect to contend, parting with them in July is less likely to happen. But shopping them around now — when they could get more value for them, especially given the state of the free-agent market — could end up netting them some nice pieces. Trading them could set the Indians back a touch in the short-term, but whether they do or not, in the long-term this type of strategic thinking should keep the Indians in good position.