One need not stretch the metaphoric muscles much to come up with some kind of allegory linking the gambling that goes down in Las Vegas with the wheeling and dealing that goes down at baseball's Winter Meetings. That the two will be intertwined at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino this coming week makes for easy cornball copy.
So let's be clear that the pun is honestly not intended when we say that the stakes are pretty high for the Cleveland Indians right now. These Winter Meetings could take place in Dutch John, Utah (not exactly a gambling mecca), and we'd still be saying much the same.
That's because the Indians, who already dealt All-Star catcher Yan Gomes to the Nationals last week, are entertaining some major, franchise-altering moves right now. For reasons we've gotten into before and will get into again below, Cleveland has to be open to concepts that address current Major League needs and shore up the long-term contention outlook.
And yes, that could mean moving Trevor Bauer or two-time Cy Young Award-winner Corey Kluber.
With Patrick Corbin and Nathan Eovaldi off the free-agent board and the starting-pitching market percolating, the Meetings could be the ideal environment for president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff to definitively decide which direction they're going to go. Though the days of drawing up deals on bar napkins are long gone, the efficiency of the Meetings, where the front offices of every club are gathered in one building for four days, still can have the impact of putting deal discussions in a sort of time compressor. Activity can escalate quickly.
So we'll see what's in the cards (OK, that pun was intended) in the coming days. For now, here's where things stand with the Meetings about to begin.
The Indians need tangible help in their outfield (where Michael Brantley's departure from an already iffy alignment looms large) and in their bullpen (where the free-agent departures of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen loom large), but, first and foremost, they need the salary relief it would take to adequately fill those needs (see below for more on the payroll picture). That's why there is so much talk about Cleveland potentially dealing a starting pitcher in a trade that directly (talent) or indirectly (money) influences these areas.
Whom might they trade?
With the club having already dealt from one area of valued depth with the Gomes deal and Carlos Carrasco locked into a new contract extension, all eyes are on Kluber and Bauer, and either would be capable of bringing back a team-altering trade haul. Cleveland has had conversations with clubs about both players, and there is a sense in the industry that the Indians might be more inclined to move Bauer than Kluber. Of course, given the difficulty of making a deal in which two contenders both get better, it's possible neither pitcher is moved. It's possible that the Indians would try to attach Jason Kipnis, who is owed just north of $14 million and is coming off two below-average seasons, to either pitcher in a deal.
Prospects to know
The Indians are far more inclined to dealing from areas of depth on the Major League roster to impact that roster than doing a more traditional prospects-for-big-leaguers deal. With that said, their most valuable chips down on the farm are arguably right-hander Triston McKenzie (No. 1 on the Indians' top prospects list per MLB Pipeline), third baseman Nolan Jones (No. 2) and, given his position and near-readiness, shortstop Yu Chang (No. 6).
Rule 5 Draft
Unlike a tourist sauntering out of the Mandalay Bay buffet after his third piece of pie, the Indians' 40-man roster is not quite full. So they do have the room to add a player during the Rule 5 Draft. The Indians left their No. 23-rated prospect, Oscar Gonzalez, unprotected in the Rule 5, though he is only 20 years old and hasn't played above A-ball, so he wouldn't be the safest bet to stick on a big league roster for the duration of 2019.
The gist of the Indians' winter is that they're suffering significant free-agent losses with very little accompanying salary relief because of in-house raises and arbitration cases. The Tribe has already carried franchise-record payrolls each of the past two seasons, and it is not raising the payroll. That's why the front office is trying to creatively address the needs of a maturing roster, potentially with a major trade.