The Indians are in a rough place once again, and might need to trade their better players. Again.
The Indians made a play for the present in July of 2011. That's when they traded top prospects Alex White and Drew Pomeranz, along with Matt McBride and Joseph Gardner, for starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. Cleveland was 53-51, in second place in the AL Central, just 1½ games back of the first-place Tigers. Jimenez was having a rough go of things in Colorado, but was less than a year removed from a season in which he placed third in the Cy Young race with a 161 ERA+.
Jimenez was a balance of short-term and long-term gain, as his deal went through 2013, with a club option for 2014. In that light, it made sense, but there were reasons to think Jimenez had already performed his best in the majors, even at the time of the trade. To this point, things have worked out poorly for Cleveland: They finished 15 games back of the Tigers, at 80-82, and fared even worse in 2012, when they lost 94 games. In between, Jimenez threw 242 innings with a 1.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 5.32 ERA.
Being under contract isn't worth much if he's not going to be of any use, and the Indians are down two of their top prospects for that right. Even if Jimenez turns things around, his revival would not be enough. The major-league roster has serious problems, and the minors aren't about to send any assistance. That's why it's no surprise to see the Indians open to trading away what core they do have to help build the next worthwhile Indians' team.
Jon Heyman reported earlier this week that the Indians were willing to move outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, starter Justin Masterson, and closer Chris Perez in the right deals. Choo has a single season of team control left, Cabrera is under contract for two more years, while Perez and Masterson are both arbitration-eligible for the next two seasons. Unless the Indians go all out on free agents this offseason, there's little chance any of these players will be around by the next time Cleveland makes the playoffs. The team just doesn't hit enough, the pitching is too poor, and there's little help on the way from the minors over the next couple of seasons.
Whether the Indians deal these players to bring in low-minors prospects with high ceilings, or they go for players from the upper levels who can help them sooner, is almost irrelevant. The system needs an injection of youth somewhere in order to brighten the future for the Indians, who haven't been over .500 since 2007, and have been outscored every season since 2008.
Most of the last vestiges of that era are on the way out. Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore are both free agents, as is Roberto Hernandez, also known as the former Fausto Carmona. The other key pieces, like CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Jhonny Peralta, and Victor Martinez have been gone for years, and that's part of why the Indians are in this predicament in their first place: The return on those trades didn't do enough to revive Cleveland, and instead, the club continued to stagnate.
That's no reason not to try again, though. As stated, unless the Indians make a huge push with free agency, there's little to be done about the current state of the roster internally. Their 2011 first-round selection, Francisco Lindor, is likely the only top-100 prospect in the system. He just finished a stint in the Low-A Midwest League, though, so he's not going to help out any time soon. Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall are both promising, and they spent 2012 in the majors. Neither is expected to turn the lineup around by themselves, though, and that's really the issue. There's a lack of impact youth on the roster, and even if the lineup surprises, there's still the rotation to contend with.
There are plenty of center fielders on the market, but there are few corner outfielders out there who can make a difference. The ones who could, such as Nick Swisher, are asking for significant money. Choo might only have one year left, but he'll likely merit a qualifying offer come next off-season, so there's value to a new team beyond 2013 even if they don't sign him. The Indians could wait for that pick on their own, but they could also see if someone is willing to part with two-to-three prospects right now instead. All of those teams looking at Cody Ross as a backup plan to Josh Hamilton might be willing to move some kids for the rights to Choo, who has a career .381 on-base percentage and 132 OPS+. Among the 163 players with at least 2,000 plate appearances since 2008 (when Choo began to play regularly), his 136 OPS+ sits 12th -- he's got a serious bat, and if the Indians are going to lose him to free agency, there's little reason not to shop him.
Cabrera, as a shortstop who can successfully put wood to ball, would be the piece that brings the most back in a trade. He's not the hitter Choo is, and he's a solid defensive shortstop at best, but finding a shortstop who can both hit and not embarrass himself in the field is rare. The Indians already have a replacement on hand in Mike Aviles, and Cabrera is the kind of piece that could get Cleveland the thing they need most: young pitching.
Perez and Masterson aren't nearly as valuable in a trade, but they could appeal as part of a larger deal. Masterson has been a bit below-average in his parts of four years with Cleveland, but he's also averaged 201 innings and 32 starts per season over the last three. A National League squad, or a team in a division that leans right-handed, would do well to use Masterson at the back-end of their rotation. Perez has been a productive reliever for three years now, and there's always someone willing to give up talent for a closer they feel they can trust.
It will be hard on Cleveland to press reset once more, but what's the alternative if they aren't planning on bringing in impact pieces through free agency? Trading to bring in talent is difficult, given the lack of prospects, and all four of these players could be elsewhere two years from now. It might not be the best for 2013, but it's the right course of action for the future.