ARLINGTON -- Brad Hand struck out Indians catcher Yan Gomes in the All-Star Game on Tuesday in Washington. The left-handed reliever followed that by inducing a groundout off the bat of Cleveland's Michael Brantley to end the eighth inning. Now, those three are teammates.
On Thursday, the Indians pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Padres to acquire Hand and right-hander Adam Cimber in exchange for highly touted catching prospect Francisco Mejia. Hand and Cimber immediately boost a bullpen that has been a trouble area for the Tribe this season, while San Diego nets Cleveland's top prospect in return.
"Trades like this are always difficult to make," said Chris Antonetti, the Indians' president of baseball operations. "We parted with a guy that we think has a chance to be a really good Major League player in Francisco. But we feel we're adding players to our bullpen that will not only impact our team for 2018, but for years to come."
The Indians optioned Mejia to Triple-A after Sunday's game against the Yankees and will option righty Adam Plutko to the same affiliate, vacating two spots on the 25-man roster for Hand and Cimber. Antonetti noted that there will likely be a "series of moves" prior to Friday's game against the Rangers.
There are two main motivating factors behind the Tribe's willingness to part with Mejia, who ranked No. 1 among the Indians' prospects and No. 15 overall, according to MLB Pipeline. First and foremost, Cleveland's bullpen ranked 29th in the Majors in ERA (5.28) heading into the All-Star break as manager Terry Francona has cycled through 19 relief arms. Beyond that, the Indians might lose a wave of players in free agency this offseason.
Hand -- one of the game's elite back-end arms -- is under contract for 2019 ($6.5 million) and '20 ($7 million) with a club option worth $10 million (or $1 million buyout) for '21. Cimber is a rookie this season, so he is under control through at least '23. After this season, Indians relief ace Andrew Miller and closer Cody Allen are among the team's impending free agents.
"That was really an important element of it," Antonetti said. "We were seeking to not only impact this year's team, but to help better position us moving forward. We know we have some guys in our bullpen who are approaching the end of their contracts and we are going to have to remake our bullpen in some fashion for 2019. And this trade gives us two really good options."
The Hand deal could be just the first of many for the Padres. A source tells MLB.com's Mark Feinsand that San Diego has drawn significant interest in right-hander Kirby Yates and, to a lesser degree, righty Tyson Ross.
The Indians, who could benefit from upgrading in center or right field, may not be done dealing, either.
"One of the things this trade allows us to do," Antonetti said, "is continue to have the flexibility to improve other areas of the team. We remain engaged with teams right now on other trade concepts that we'll continue to weigh as we approach the [July 31 non-waiver Trade] Deadline."
This season, the 28-year-old Hand has turned in a 3.05 ERA with 24 saves and 65 strikeouts against 15 walks in 41 outings (44 1/3 innings). His 35-percent strikeout rate ranks 11th overall among MLB relievers. Over the past three seasons for San Diego, which claimed the lefty off waivers from the Marlins in April 2016, Hand has posted a 2.66 ERA with 280 strikeouts vs. 71 walks in 213 innings.
Cimber, 27, has a 3.17 ERA with 51 strikeouts and 10 walks in 42 appearances (48 1/3 innings) this season for the Padres. A side-arming righty, he has limited right-handed hitters to a measly .482 OPS. If the Indians take on the Yankees or Astros in the playoffs, Cimber could come in handy against some of their right-handed sluggers.
"It's a guy with a little bit of a unique look," Antonetti said of Cimber. "He's a very low-slot right-handed reliever that's dominated right-handed hitters and has improved against left-handed hitters. We think he's a guy we can leverage in key situations in games to get some of the best right-handed hitters out."
Francona uses Allen as his primary closer, but the manager is also flexible with how he utilizes his late-inning arms.
Hand is most likely headed for a setup role with Cleveland, but he could just as easily share save chances with Allen depending on matchups. Miller, who works as a high-leverage weapon for the Tribe, is still working his way back from the 10-day disabled list (right knee). The veteran lefty logged a rehab outing for Triple-A Columbus on Tuesday, striking out two in one clean inning.
"[Miller's] outing the other night was really encouraging," Antonetti said. "His fastball velocity and shape to his pitches is starting to creep back to where he is when he's at his best. We'll continue to allow him to work through things in the Minor Leagues, and at some point here in the next few weeks, he can be an option for us."
The American League Central-leading Indians did not want to part with Mejia unless the incoming package came with multiple seasons of control. That goal was achieved by netting Cimber as the secondary piece to the trade, which greatly enhances the look of Cleveland's bullpen with October in mind.
The acquisition is similar to when the Indians got Miller from the Yankees before the 2016 non-waiver Trade Deadline while he still had 2 1/2 years remaining on his contract. As with Hand, they traded outfielder Clint Frazier, then their No. 1 prospect, for an elite left-handed reliever in Miller with multiple years of team control.
Mejia, 22, was splitting his time between catching and the outfield this season due to him being blocked at the MLB level by Gomes (signed through 2019 with team options for '20 and '21) and Roberto Perez (signed through '20 with team options for '21 and '22). Francona emphasized over the past few weeks that the switch-hitting prospect preferred to focus on catching.
"We asked a lot of Francisco this year, no doubt about about it," Antonetti said. "We asked him to try to develop defensively at a couple different positions while trying to perform at a young age in Triple-A against some really good pitching. So there were a lot of challenges on Francisco's plate, and to his credit, he handled them really well."
The Padres plan to keep Mejia at catcher, but will send him to Triple-A El Paso for the time being.
In 2016, Mejia put himself on the national radar with a 50-game hitting streak. He made the World roster in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game in each of the past three seasons, and he's hitting .279 with 30 extra-base hits and a .755 OPS through 79 games at Triple-A Columbus this year. Mejia, who had two brief stints with Cleveland this season, hit .455 with a 1.193 OPS in 24 games in June, ending that month with eight multihit games in a row.
"We all feel that Francisco's going to be a really good player," Antonetti said. "But in order to be able to get back what we view are really high-leverage, high-impact relievers, we knew we were going to have to give up a lot of value. We were fortunate that we do have some catching depth within the organization, and that depth allowed us to consider a trade like this."