The Indians lost a heartbreaker on Wednesday night, surrendering five runs in the ninth inning (four of them on an Adam Eaton grand slam) to lose 10-7 to the White Sox. It dropped the team to 8-8 in August. They’ve gotten lucky, as their frustrating fortnight has coincided with a Tigers collapse and preserved most of their division lead. They had a 90.2-percent chance to win the AL Central on July 31; they have about the same chance to do so today. Still, this is not what this team had in mind when the front office traded for Andrew Miller. And it might not be happening at all, but for the trade the front office wasn’t able to make.
Roberto Perez and Chris Gimenez have combined to bat .180/.255/.320 during August. In Texas, meanwhile, Jonathan Lucroy is hitting .250/.348/.725. There haven’t yet been serious repercussions, but I believe that the Indians’ franchise fortunes took a nasty, long-term turn for the worse at the very moment when the deal they had put together to land Lucroy fell through.
As a pair, the Lucroy and Miller trades were a bold and brilliant maneuver by the Indians. That combo move figured to accomplish a few things:
1. It shored up their two most glaring areas of weakness, helping to move them winning the division from very likely to virtually certain.
2. It boosted, however marginally, their chances of winning the AL pennant, and even the World Series. October is a crapshoot, but extreme moves like these (adding one of the league’s five best catchers to a team with a bottom-seven catching picture, and adding one of the two most dominant relievers in baseball to a deep but not lockdown bullpen) can still move the needle some.
3. Most importantly, it gave them two elite players (at their respective positions, anyway) who were under contractual control for relatively little (less than $15 million, combined) in 2017. The Indians are a small-market team with real payroll limitations. They are also, however, a team with an exceptional starting rotation whose cost they have managed to keep under control, and one of the game’s very best young players, in Francisco Lindor. They can’t afford to miss chances like this one, and they can’t afford to plan for an eight-year run of dominance. Because of their limited resources and the pitching-heavy core around which they are built, the opportunity they have this season and next is especially precious. Lucroy and Miller stood to solidify that opportunity, making them prohibitive favorites going even into next season.
In isolation, though, the trades were very different. The Lucroy deal was to bring an elite asset with everyday value into the organization, and at a pretty light cost. Francisco Mejia just completed a 50-game hitting streak, and he can catch, and a lot of people like the tools. I’m not here to dismiss Mejia’s value. Nor were the proposed secondary pieces in the nixed deal, Yu-Cheng Chang and Greg Allen, anything to sneeze at. It’s unlikely, but possible, that there were three future big-league regulars packed into that trade. Still, for the Tribe to get Lucroy without surrendering any player with significant star-caliber upside or top-tier industry pedigree would have been a major coup.
It would have been a much-needed coup, too, because it had to help offset the team’s steep payment for Miller. The package of talent the Yankees extracted from Cleveland for Miller simply had way more value than Miller himself had. Again, that would have been fine, if Lucroy had joined Miller in Cleveland. It’s possible to lose a transaction but win a transaction period, as many teams have over the years. Overpaying is not always a sin, if a team is well-positioned to do it. In this case, though, what positioned the Indians well to overpay for Miller was underpaying (however slightly; I still would have liked the Mejia-led package for the Brewers, too) to get Lucroy. As tandem trades, they stood to be more than the sum of their parts. This feels a bit like the bursting of the housing bubble. The sky-high potential value of the Lucroy deal buoyed the value of the Miller deal, making it a luxury the lower-class Indians could (narrowly) afford. When Lucroy foreclosed on the trade, though, the value of the Miller deal sagged, and suddenly, the Indians were underwater on it.
As things now stand, the Indians are in great shape for the rest of this season. They have as good (or nearly as good) a chance to win the World Series as any of the other seven teams who seem overwhelmingly likely to reach the playoffs. If that happens, they’ll profit handsomely from it, and they might well be able to roll some of that money into their 2017 payroll and make another great run next year. If it does happen, though, it won’t be because of Miller. He did have a significant impact on the team’s wins Sunday and Tuesday, registering two-inning holds in each contest, but that just made him unavailable Wednesday, when the roof caved in. Relief pitchers, in general, just can’t change a game that way.
Of course, if it doesn’t happen, focus will shift much more readily to the team’s medium- and long-term futures, and I’m not sure Indians fans will like what they see. The 2017 team looks competitive, but nothing like the juggernaut it would project to be if it had Lucroy at a little more than $5 million on the books. Beyond that, some mixture of progressing salaries, mounting injury risk, and inevitable decline will take the shine off the club’s dominant pitching staff. They do still have some talent in the farm system, but they no longer have either the depth to be sure of a bumper crop, nor the short-term firepower that could make a trade of Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, and others relatively painless.
It’s not entirely clear how hard the Indians tried to make the Lucroy deal happen, after he showed reticence. They were never going to dissolve his 2017 club option. They certainly could have offered to double its value. Should they have? From the sound of things, they could have been more clear about their commitment to using him to his fullest potential. Should they have? I would guess that they should have, but we can’t know for sure, and we don’t know that it would have made any difference, anyway. We don’t know, because the timing of the Miller sizzle and the Lucroy fizzle was so overlapping as to be almost simultaneous, whether Cleveland had any chance to walk away from the Miller deal after the Lucroy one fell through. I believe they should have done so, if they had that chance, but it would be fascinating to know whether they did. Do they believe Miller alone was worth the package they surrendered? It’s possible that they do.
We know they were eyeing Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki as a lesser potential solution to their catching problems. Were the Twins more assertive or aggressive in their asking price after seeing the Lucroy deal come apart? That might help explain why the Tribe turned, instead, to Tampa Bay, electing to reinforce the outfield instead.
Left with so many questions, I’m hesitant to levy harsh criticism against the Indians front office. Maybe they should have worked harder to make sure a Lucroy deal would go through, before building their deadline strategy around it. Maybe they should have worked harder to get the deal done, offering some inducements to Lucroy to ensure they would have two good, hard knocks at the door before their window begins to tighten. Bad luck played at least some role here, though, and two and a half weeks out, all I can say with any certainty is that the dominoes don’t seem to be falling in the Indians’ direction.
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