Both the 2008 and 2009 seasons seemed hopeful for Cleveland at the outset (I certainly thought both of those teams would do well), but fell apart rather quickly, with the team trading a homegrown ace (CC Sabathia in 2008 and Cliff Lee in 2009) in both seasons to bolster their farm system. As of this morning, the Indians are at the bottom of the standings, but unlike the previous two seasons, 2010 was acknowledged to be a rebuilding year. The trades of those earlier seasons have significantly added to the team’s young talent, and the real question is how far off Cleveland is from contending after 2010.
Buy or Sell?
The answer is “Sell.” Cleveland may not have the big prizes as in the past, but this is to the organization’s credit, as those prizes have already brought in much of their current hope for the future. Some of their veterans are (realistically speaking) currently untrade-able: Travis Hafner and his contract are in Cleveland to stay, and even if the front office had been inclined to see what they could get back for Grady Sizemore this season (and given his team-friendly contract, it’s not clear that they should), his surgery nixed that option.
He’s not Sabathia or Lee, but Fausto Carmona isn’t a bad trade chip. No one should expect him to return to his 2007 form, but in 2010 he has gotten the walks under control. ZiPS RoS projects a 4.58 FIP for him going forward, and, while not spectacular, that does have value for a contender needing to shore up the middle or back of their rotation. Carmona is only guaranteed the prorated remainder of $4.9 million this season and $6.1 million in 2011, and his contract includes club options for 2012-2014 that could potentially add value to this deal. Worse pitchers go for more money on the free agent market, so if Cleveland feels that a) the young pitching in their system will be ready by next season and/or b) Carmona won’t be good enough to justify his place in the rotation when the club is ready to contend, they can probably get decent value for him on the trade market. He likely wouldn’t bring back a future superstar, but probably something still quite useful.
There are other pieces here, but none that have as much value. Jake Westbrook has similar value on the field to Carmona, but given his past health problems and being owed much more money ($11 million guaranteed in 2010, the last year of his contract), doesn’t have much value on the trade market. While ZiPS has faith in Kerry Wood‘s ability going forward, his past and present health issues, his dreadful performance so far in 2010, and big contract ($10.5 million in 2010) means that he doesn’t have much value, either.
The Indians do have positional role-players that could potentially help teams. Jhonny Peralta isn’t a defensive wizard, and probably has about a league-average bat, but there are teams who could use him, and he has a (you guessed it) very team-friendly contract with a club option for 2011. Smart and inexpensive off-season acquisitions Austin Kearns and Russell Branyan have shown they can both still play, and while they wouldn’t bring much back, Cleveland should at least see what they can get for these two older players who aren’t under contract for next season.
On the Farm
Beyond the Box Score’s pre-season aggregate farm system rankings placed Cleveland’s system at #3 in the majors, and acclaimed catcher prospect Carlos Santana made his debut just this past Friday. Among others, Michael Brantley should be ready to start by next season at the latest, Matt LaPorta should be back at some point this season, and Lonnie Chisenhall is an exciting young third baseman. There is also good reason to think that Justin Masterson won’t be the only young pitcher with promise in the rotation in 2011 or 2012. Prospects fail, of course, and every team could use more depth in the minors, but Cleveland has as much or more talent on the farm than most other teams in the majors.
Cleveland’s payroll dropped significantly from 2009 to 2010, and probably shouldn’t be expected to go higher in 2011. While there are arbitration raises coming, as well as contractual raises for Hafner, Sizemore, and other players like Carmona (if he is still around), big contracts like those of Westbrook and Wood are coming off the books, so there is a chance that the team might have a bit of money to spend on free agents if they decide that their young talent (potentially supplemented by this season’s trades) is ready to make a run in 2011. Cleveland’s present may be bleak, but the front office has set themselves up well for the future, and it will be interesting to see if that future arrives in 2011 or later.