On Sunday, Cleveland traded rotation mainstay and two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber to the Texas Rangers for reliever Emmanuel Clase and outfielder Delino DeShields Jr. By any reasonable analysis, the swap so favors the Rangers as to be jarring. CBS Sports has since talked to numerous front-office people about the deal, and while it's clear the league is high on Clase -- and why wouldn't it be, given his cutter -- there were other elements at play.
The most common explanation goes like this: Cleveland was in an awkward position with Kluber, who missed most of last season due to injury and wasn't his usual self when he was healthy. Keeping him meant risking the possibility of another lengthy absence or stretch of underperformance, either of which would sink his value. (That seems like a trifling concern now, huh?) At the same time, teams were wary about giving up good value for Kluber so early in the winter. With Cleveland not wanting this to stretch into the spring, the team did as best as it could.
That isn't saying much, of course, but those who felt generous toward Cleveland noted that it will be interesting to see what the front office -- held in high regard around the game for an ability to operate creatively within a tight budget -- does with the savings. Trading Kluber so soon after dealing Trevor Bauer has left Cleveland with a projected payroll of $86 million -- or more than $30 million below last year's Opening Day figure, according to Cot's Contracts.
In theory, applying those savings to the current roster could still leave Cleveland in decent position. The catch is that there's no guarantee of any of that. Foremost, ownership could force Cleveland to spend less money. On top of that, it's at least possible Cleveland gets an offer too good to pass up for Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Mike Clevinger, Brad Hand, or one of its other top trade chips. Projecting the roster at this point is, frankly, a fool's errand.
We're up for the challenge, however, and as such we decided to take a look at four areas where Cleveland should spend its savings if it wants to field as competitive a team as possible.
1. Second base
Depending on the source, Cleveland's current starting second baseman is either Christian Arroyo, Andrew Velazquez, or Yu Chang. Nothing against those fine folks, but clearly Mike Chernoff and crew could stand to upgrade. Fortunately, Chernoff seems to know as much. Cleveland has already been connected to Cesar Hernandez, who was non-tendered by the Philadelphia Phillies due to a projected arbitration prize exceeding $11 million.
Hernandez has hit .274/.353/.396 (98 OPS+) over the last three seasons, and overall profiles as a two-to-three-win player. Jason Kipnis, for reference, hit for an 86 OPS+ and notched a total of 2.4 Wins Above Replacement over the last three years, per Baseball-Reference's calculations. In that sense, Hernandez would be a clear and much-needed step up from what Cleveland had.
With rare exception, non-tendered players usually receive their projected amounts or less. We'll put Hernandez down for a one-year deal worth $10 million, leaving us about $20 million to go.
No unit gave Cleveland more trouble last season than its outfield. Oscar Mercado and Jordan Luplow appear to be solid enough, but they're the only members of Cleveland's grass patrol that can be said about. (Franmil Reyes is a fun hitter who technically owns an outfield glove, yet Cleveland should face sanctions if the club permits him out there more than once in a while.) At present, Cleveland is slated to start some combination of Greg Allen, Jake Bauers, DeShields, Bradley Zimmer, and Daniel Johnson. (Tyler Naquin is out with a torn ACL.)
Cleveland could permit all of those comers to compete for the corner-outfield jobs, or they could restrict that bunch to one spot, while securing a more certain quantity for the other. For our money, someone like Kole Calhoun or Corey Dickerson would make sense: a left-handed hitter who could be paired with Luplow or DeShields.
Say either costs another $8-to-10 million, that gives us around $10 million left to play with.
Here's where things get interesting. Cleveland has been among the best at helping non-elite starting pitching prospects develop. If the team wanted, it could enter next season with a rotation of Clevinger, Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco, Aaron Civale, and Zach Plesac. They could mix in Logan Allen and/or Scott Moss, too, with each coming over as part of the Bauer trade.
Alternatively, Cleveland could add to its collection by signing a low-end free-agent who could benefit from the club's insight and techniques. There are any number of candidates who fit that billing: Taijuan Walker, Alex Wood, Jimmy Nelson, or whomever. The point is Cleveland could add an intriguing back-of-the-rotation option without breaking the bank.
We're going to put down whichever -- say Walker -- for $5 million, his projected arbitration prize.
That leaves us with around $5 million to spend in the bullpen. Frankly, Cleveland's is already in good shape. If Hand is healthy, then Cleveland can surround him with Clase and James Karinchak (two of the best relief prospects in the game), as well as Adam Cimber, Oliver Perez, and unheralded arms like Nick Wittgren and Hunter Wood. (Did you know Hunter Wood has a career 132 ERA+ and 2.70 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 86 frames?)
Cleveland could still fit a modestly priced upside play into the budget -- a Jacob Barnes, a Jason Adam, a Kyle Barraclough … -- to give them extra depth in case of an injury. Pick your favorite and put them down for a million or two, and Cleveland still has a lower payroll come Opening Day 2020 than it did in 2019.
That doesn't necessarily mean the Kluber trade is or will be a net positive -- indeed, it's a clear misstep. It does suggest, however, that Cleveland can walk away without feeling like it has punted on a chance of having a decent to good roster in place for the 2020 season.