Don't rush to judgment on Tribe's offseason

December 17th, 2018

The Indians have made three trades in the past three weeks. The Major League roster was weakened in at least two of them (the and deals). The impact of the third (a three-way deal that removed and , and added and ) is more debatable. But all three deals were provoked by a desire to pare payroll, and, as one reader put it in an e-mail, "talking about financial flexibility is not sexy for most fans."
Maybe it says something about my advancing age and my holiday season credit card statement, but I personally think there's something very sexy about financial flexibility.
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I understand the angst. The Indians' roster, right now, is quite possibly -- if not definitely -- weaker than it was at the start of the offseason. And the roster at the start of the offseason was -- as a result of the free agencies of Josh Donaldson, , and , among others -- definitely weaker than it was at the conclusion of the 2018 season.
There's nothing sexy about that.
But if the offseason grades we hand out at the start of each Spring Training have been proven worthless (and Lord knows they have), I don't even know how to properly characterize the utter meaningless of mid-December roster evaluation (particularly for a club with so many unanswered questions, and particularly at a time in MLB when so much of the offseason heavy lifting bleeds into January and even February) except to say that it makes the DXL Frisco Bowl look like the national championship game.
Go Bobcats!
Besides, it's a lot easier to shrug off any potential ill effects of these three swaps when you consider the track record of the people who made them. Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff didn't build the best American League record over the last six years on a budget by coming out on the short side of swaps or erroneously allocating expenses on the regular. The path to three straight AL Central titles was paved by shrewd decision-making.

Their cumulative 2013-18 Opening Day payrolls were about $600 million lower than those of the Yankees, and they won 14 more games than the Yanks in that span. Even when you account for the admittedly vast difference in divisions, that's pretty good.
Indians leave Meetings with payroll flexibility
Vinnie Pestano for Mike Clevinger? They did that.
Gomes and Mike Aviles for ? That's on their greatest hits album.
The creative accounting of the Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn for Chris Johnson trade that freed up some cash for what turned out to be a World Series-caliber 2016 roster? That one was money (literally and figuratively).
Miller at the 2016 Trade Deadline? No matter what becomes of and , if you could go back in time, you'd probably do it again.
None of the above gives the Tribe brass a free pass to gut this club and then try to sell it to the fans as a job well done. Though I actually think the pure baseball merits of the three completed trades is better than many fans are giving the Indians credit for, these deals were necessitated by a maturing and increasingly unwieldy player payroll.
For what it's worth, here are Steamer's 2019 projections for the Weighted Runs Created Plus and Wins Above Replacement marks of players significantly affected by the three swaps:
Gomes: 86 wRC+, 1.2 WAR
: 79 wRC+, 1.6 WAR
Encarnacion: 122 wRC+, 1.6 WAR
Santana: 121 wRC+, 2.0 WAR
Alonso: 103 wRC+, 0.7 WAR
Bauers: 104 wRC+, 1.3 WAR

The first rule of predictive baseball analysis is that nobody knows anything, but these projections would lead you to believe the Major League roster might have actually improved, on measure.
This club carried franchise-record payrolls in each of the past two seasons. But attendance trended downward, and the Tribe made a quick postseason exit in successive Octobers. That, combined with the guaranteed raises and arbitration raises that offset much of the money that came off the books in free agency, left the front office with a budget that demanded immediate attention. There are various ways to calculate the payroll pertaining to buyouts and signing bonuses involved in the Encarnacion and Santana contracts, but the gist is that the Indians have saved somewhere between $18 million to $22 million for 2019 in the last few weeks. They found ways to address the money matters without robbing from the signature strength that is the rotation (in fact, they extended through at least 2022), and they are no longer expected to move or .

So let's call all of the above Phase 1 of the offseason.
It's Phase 2 -- the allocation of the saved salary -- that will ultimately determine whether the Indians' offseason was defensible or lamentable. If ownership pockets that saved sum and the club goes into Spring Training with its present-day lineup (which at the moment would probably have to employ Bauers at both first base and left field, an arrangement that feels physically iffy), go ahead and rip 'em to shreds. But if the entire focus of the offseason was to shed salary, there are frankly much better ways the Indians could have gone about it, up to and including dangling ahead of what could be a historic first-time arbitration case.
On the contrary, the Carrasco extension, the Bauers acquisition (he was on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 prospects list a year ago) and the more feasible financials point to a club that is trying to extend, not close, its competitive window.
So let's see what they do with the dollars. It probably still rates as a longshot, but can they make a play for A.J. Pollock? Can they significantly beef up the bullpen in a market saturated with relievers? Are there more trades coming -- ones that more clearly rate as baseball boosts?
Time will tell, as it tends to do. For now, I'm inclined to give Antonetti and Chernoff the benefit of the doubt. They've earned at least that much.