The Cleveland Indians’ hot start nearly shocked the baseball world earlier this season. After a strong April and May — during which the team was 32-20 — the Indians have fallen back to earth, posting a 20-29 record in June and July. Despite their recent struggles, the Indians remain only two games behind the Detroit Tigers for the American League Central lead. With the post-season still within reach, Indians’ general manager Chris Antonetti announced that the team is going to be active around the trade deadline. While making the post-season would go a long way towards satisfying a long-suffering fan base, the Indians need to make sure they don’t jeopardize their long-term rebuilding effort for short-term success.
The reason the Indians find themselves in a position to contend in spite of their recent struggles boils down to their terrible competition. The American League Central has easily been the worst division in all of baseball this season; only the White Sox have a positive run differential this season, and they are hanging on by the slimmest of margins. The Tigers may currently lead the division, but they are just as flawed as the Indians and the White Sox.
While the wins haven’t exactly restored attendance back to the days of Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome, the Indians went from having the worst attendance in baseball to 26th this season. Averaging 21,150 fans per game is nothing to get excited about, but it’s the first step towards re-establishing their fan base. With the team so close to contention, making a splash at the trade deadline would prove to fans that the team is serious about contending and getting back to the post-season.
But the Indians also need to be careful not to ruin the long-term goals of the franchise. Making the playoffs would do wonders for the team in the short-term, but the Indians need to make sure they don’t jeopardize their future. The recent additions of Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall, combined with Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera and Alex White, give the Indians a tremendous young core that is expected to lead this team to contention in 2012 and beyond. While it’s unlikely that the Indians would entertain trading any of those players, it’s an important reminder that this team shouldn’t sacrifice too much talent for a shot at glory this season when they already have the pieces to contend in the future.
With that in mind, the Indians probably can’t afford to move any major pieces in a deadline deal unless they were to pull off something really special. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Indians don’t need a superstar to win this division — a spare part might be enough to push the team into the post-season.
Even though the Indians’ perceived weakness is pitching, it might make sense to try and deal Fausto Carmona. He’s not going to factor into the Indians long-term plans, and he’s the most recognizable name the Indians could part with. While he’s struggled this season, Carmona was solid last year, and still carries the shine of winning 19 games in 2007. Once Alex White returns from the disabled list, he could slot into Carmona’s spot in the rotation.
Cord Phelps could be an interesting option for teams looking for help up the middle. His minor leagues stats are solid — and he showed good plate discipline in his brief major league stint this season — so some team might be willing to see what he can do in a full-time role. With Kipnis’ promotion, Phelps doesn’t really have a future with the Indians anymore.
Given the dearth of talent at short, Orlando Cabrera could actually be a decent trade chip for the Indians. Kipnis’ promotion has put Cabrera on the bench, and both the Reds and Brewers could be in the market for a shortstop. Cabrera might not be a huge upgrade over their current options, but at least he still carries a strong defensive reputation at short.
These players won’t bring back much, but the Indians could acquire a useful fourth outfielder to hold them over until Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore return. They might also try to acquire another starter, in case Josh Tomlin turns into a pumpkin in the second half.
Due to the state of the division — and the Indians’ focus on sustained success — they really don’t need to acquire all that much in order to win this division. One or two solid contributors or role players could go a long way in pushing this team toward the post-season — especially if they can tread water until Choo and Sizemore return. If Cleveland can successfully pull that off, they will have satisfied their fans in the short-term while still keeping their eyes on the future.
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