The Indians' Opening Day payroll for their 25-man roster increased roughly 40 percent between 2016 and '18, but attendance fell this past season and, after reaching Game 7 of the World Series in 2016, the club has played only four home playoff games the past two years.
This is how revenue realities begin to impact the championship window of a club that has used affordable cornerstone players as the backbone for three straight American League Central titles. Those players simply aren't as affordable as they used to be (in-house raises and arbitration cases account for virtually all of the money the Indians have coming off the books in free agency), and the budget for external acquisitions is not going up.
So the front office has to find creative ways to fill its needs, primarily in the outfield and bullpen. That's why you're hearing rumors about the Indians being willing to listen to trade offers for pretty much any player that has a significant salary and is not named Francisco Lindor or Jose Ramirez.
While that list includes All-Star catcher Yan Gomes, power-hitting designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion and second baseman/outfielder Jason Kipnis, it's no secret that the three pitchers at the top of the Tribe rotation -- Corey Kluber (three years, $52.5 million of club control if his 2020 and '21 options are exercised), Carlos Carrasco (two years, $19.25 million if his '20 option is exercised) and Trevor Bauer (who made $6.53 million in '18 and has two arbitration years remaining) -- are the club's most valuable trade chips. The Indians can conceivably move one of them to address other needs affordably and still be prohibitive favorites in the AL Central in 2019.
The trouble, of course, is finding the right trade fit, because we're talking about a trade in which two contenders get immediate impact. That's a difficult deal to orchestrate, especially if one of the clubs involved must take on significant salary.
While there is always the possibility of involving a third out-of-contention team to facilitate a swap, here are five clubs that make the most sense for a direct deal involving one of the Indians' starters. We'll discuss some players the Tribe could target.
Trading for a starter with a shorter term of control would allow the Yankees to bid more boldly on the long-term services of Manny Machado in their infield. And acquiring Machado might also give them the flexibility to move third baseman (and AL Rookie of the Year Award finalist) Miguel Andujar, who is an imperfect positional fit for an Indians team that seems intent on giving 2019 opportunity to Yandy Diaz at the hot corner (with Ramirez at second) but could potentially shift Andujar (who had a rough defensive season) to the outfield.
An unlikely -- but interesting -- proposition would be for the Indians to recover the two key prospects they sent to the Yankees in the 2016 trade for Andrew Miller. Clint Frazier's value is hindered by the concussion issues that cut his '18 season short, and left-hander Justus Sheffield has thrown only 2 2/3 innings in the big leagues. But just because their star has not yet risen doesn't mean it won't.
Here's an interesting club that wants to turn a corner in its rebuild with a proper pursuit of pitching and is willing to add salary this offseason. Any of Kluber, Carrasco or Bauer would legitimize the Reds' effort to rise in the National League Central.
With the Reds having locked in Eugenio Suarez at third base, top prospect Nick Senzel's future could come in the outfield. Though Senzel's 2018 ended abruptly due to a torn finger tendon, he has little left to prove in the Minors and might be deemed ready enough to front a major deal. Like the Reds, the Indians would likely have more use for Senzel in the outfield than the infield right now, for reasons stated above.
An iffy-but-interesting trade chip for the Reds is Jesse Winker, who has an .857 OPS in 471 plate appearances in the Majors but had his 2018 season cut short by shoulder surgery. Or the Indians, who have shown an interest in Cincinnati closer Raisel Iglesias in the past, could target Iglesias as a key piece in a deal involving one of their starters and apply the cost savings to the outfield market in free agency (whether dealing from the big league bullpen makes any sense for the Reds at this stage is another topic entirely).
An impact starting arm and catching help would both make sense for the Dodgers, who could use their big league position-player surplus to their advantage.
Yasiel Puig's post-2019 free agency limits his trade value, but he'd certainly fill a position of need for the Indians and bring some needed right-handed swagger to their lineup. Cody Bellinger has positional versatility and is still a year from arbitration eligibility, whereas Joc Pederson is a first-time arbitration-eligible player this winter. And outfield prospect Alex Verdugo has been a productive player in the Minors and just needs big league opportunity.
Let's just state, for the record, that a straight-up swap of Kluber for Kristopher Bryant, which lines up in terms of years of control and positions of need, would be one of the most fun baseball trades we've seen in a while.
It's also not going to happen, so let's move on.
Before the Cubs signed Tyler Chatwood and Yu Darvish last winter, the Indians made a persistent push for Kyle Schwarber and couldn't land him. But that was when they were more open to dangling Danny Salazar than Kluber or Carrasco. They could certainly land the Ohio-born Schwarber (who has a 1.322 OPS in 37 plate appearances at Progressive Field) in a deal fronted by one of their studs, so the Cubs are worth including on this list. Ian Happ's trade value obviously isn't as high, but he's another player that the Indians have shown interest in previously.
The Cubs, however, aren't in as good of a position to sweeten deals as they were earlier in their run of contention, and they are trying to keep their payroll under control as their core gets more expensive. So these two teams admittedly don't line up as well now as they did a year ago.
The Astros have pitching depth, but with Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton both in free agency, there could be interest in Kluber and/or Carrasco.
And if you're not tempted by the idea of Houston trading for Bauer after Bauer's Twitter spat with the Astros last season, then you just don't love a good story (he can have the locker next to Gerrit Cole).
Kyle Tucker, whose left-handed swing is so eerily reminiscent of Ted Williams that he was cast as Williams' stand-in for an "American Masters" documentary, would have to be the starting piece in any deal involving one of those three pitchers. He'll be 22 next season, had a .989 OPS in 100 games at Triple-A this year and comes with six years of club control. Bullpen arms and/or prospect pieces would be necessary to amp up the offer.