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In unique move, Tribe trades starter to improve

@castrovince
July 31, 2019

It is unusual for a contender to deal a prominent, productive player from its Major League roster midseason, but it is not unprecedented. The 2004 Red Sox did it with Nomar Garciaparra and went on a World Series run for the ages. The ‘14 A’s did it with Yoenis Cespedes

It is unusual for a contender to deal a prominent, productive player from its Major League roster midseason, but it is not unprecedented.

The 2004 Red Sox did it with Nomar Garciaparra and went on a World Series run for the ages. The ‘14 A’s did it with Yoenis Cespedes and… well OK, that one didn’t work out as well. But the point is, the line between “buyer” and “seller” can be blurred, especially in an era of cold-blooded executives who operate more analytically than emotionally.

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Dealing prominent, productive pitching, however, is a step few contenders would dare to take.

The Indians just took it with Tuesday night’s mind-blowing blockbuster involving Trevor Bauer, who leaves behind an Indians legacy of K’d batters, groundbreaking groundwork, ruffled feathers and one final frustrated heave into the Missouri sky. And while only the remainder of 2019 and a suddenly sincere American League Central race will decide if it was worth it, on paper it sure looks like the Tribe has a good chance of pulling off what was once incomprehensible -- trading away arguably its best healthy starter in the middle of a pennant race and emerging better for it.

Bauer goes to Cincinnati, of all places. The three-team swap sends outfielders Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes, left-hander Logan Allen and prospects Victor Nova and Scott Moss to Cleveland and prospect Taylor Trammell to San Diego.

The Padres’ angle here is clear. They had a chance to deal from areas of depth to land MLB Pipeline’s No. 30 overall prospect to continue improving an organization that is not-quite-ready-for-prime-time but close.

The Reds’ angle here is … curious. The appeal of adding Bauer right now is that he can impact two playoff races. But as with the Mets’ acquisition of Marcus Stroman earlier in the week, it’s highly debatable, if not outright doubtful, that the Reds are even in the race in 2019. (For all we know in this unorthodox market, maybe they’ll flip him by day’s end.)

But the Indians’ angle is the most meaningful in the immediate, and therefore the most interesting.

Like many crazy ideas, this one revolved around money. Bauer makes $13 million this season, but his final round of arbitration prior to 2020 is likely to push his price tag up around the $18 million to $20 million range. It’s a price the Indians, a low-revenue club that slashed payroll prior to ‘19, were not expected to accommodate on the ‘20 roster.

So it made sense to listen on Bauer going into this season, and in those conversations the Indians set a high price and never backed off it.

It made even more sense to be primed to listen again on Bauer in early June, when injury and illness had robbed the rotation of Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco and the lineup was, shall we say, leaky.

Then the Indians -- with the benefit of a soft schedule, an improved offense and a Twins team learning the leveling realities of the 162-game schedule – went on a ridiculous and quite unexpected run, whittling an 11 1/2-game deficit into the more manageable three-game hole they take into Deadline Day. The surge in the standings didn’t alter the financial realities associated with Bauer one bit, but they did make it clear that the Indians should and could not make a deal if it didn’t land them significant Major League talent in return. And that’s hard to do, especially in a market in which Stroman only fetched the Blue Jays the Nos. 4 and 6 prospects from a light Mets farm system.

Some industry observers thought it would be even harder to do after Bauer’s impromptu long-toss session Sunday in Kansas City.

Against that backdrop -- and knowing that contenders (preferably with an NL affiliation) with a rotation need, viable right-handed bats to send the other way and financial flexibility are in short supply -- the prevailing sentiment around the Indians’ clubhouse in recent days was that a deal was unlikely. But a front office with an admirable track record of intelligent asset management kept working the phones and found a highly unexpected dance partner in a Reds team that not only had iffy contention status but didn’t seemingly need rotation help.

The Indians have some potential help arriving in that area. Danny Salazar has finally pushed himself through the physical and mental barriers that have kept him off the Major League mound since the 2017 playoffs and will make his ‘19 debut Thursday. Corey Kluber’s recovery from a fractured forearm could have him in a Minor League rehab start as soon as next week. No one dares put a timetable on Carlos Carrasco in his bid to return from leukemia treatment, but it’s still a possibility that we see him before year’s end.

So with those potential reinforcements in the wings, Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger doing pretty decent ace impressions these days and the league at large shifting toward a more bullpen-oriented model in October anyway, it’s not inconceivable that the Indians can overcome the absence of Bauer.

And now, having added two players in the middle of 20-homer seasons in a single swap, a lineup that lacked length and right-handed thump looks a lot more formidable than it did a day ago. The flexibility of the DH spot is an asset, as is a fun-loving clubhouse where Puig’s personality won’t clash with some outdated ordinances. Oh, and Reyes is under control for five and a half years, and Allen, who is currently ranked No. 98 overall by MLB Pipeline, for six.

The Indians saved a few 2019 dollars in the deal, too, and perhaps that’s something they’ll make use of between now and the time you read this or 4 p.m. ET Wednesday (whichever comes first).

Budgets compel creativity. That’s a reality the Indians' front office has dealt with for years, and especially in the last eight months. They were crushed by fans and media for essentially sitting out the upgrade market over the winter and letting Michael Brantley walk, but, as it turns out, the Yan Gomes swap, the return of Carlos Santana, the platoon help offered by offseason acquisition Jordan Luplow and the emergence of low-profile 2018 Deadline acquisition Oscar Mercado have salvaged what very easily could have been a lost season.

Now comes a deal that removes a top-of-the-rotation type from this team in a bid to get better. That’s an unusual -- and maybe even unprecedented – equation for a contender. But an unconventional trade is perhaps a fitting ending to Bauer’s unconventional Cleveland career.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.