A couple weeks ago, the Indians season seemed to hit a crossroads. The team was in a good place in the standings. As recently as June 26, Cleveland was sporting a 41-32 record, sitting only a game and a half behind the AL Central-leading White Sox. They were the only real threat to Chicago in an otherwise bad division.
The state of the roster, though, told a different story. Cleveland’s offense has underwhelmed all year, with the team’s strong run prevention keeping them in the race. The Indians were dealt a series of injuries to their top three starters — Zach Plesac, Shane Bieber and Aaron Civale — in fairly rapid succession, though. That left an unproven, inexperienced group taking the bump without the benefit of a high-powered lineup to back them up.
Not surprisingly, it’s been tough sledding for Cleveland in recent weeks. The Indians have gone just 4-10 over their last fourteen games, falling 7.5 back of the White Sox. They’re a more manageable four games back in the Wild Card race, but their skid has raised some questions about the team’s ability to stay in contention. Plesac returned from the IL this week, but the Indians are still without Bieber and Civale and continue to have questions about the lineup. FanGraphs gives the Indians just a 7.1% chance of reaching the postseason at this point, with their odds of winning the division down to 3.5%.
The front office is no doubt aware of those dwindling playoff odds. Indeed, Jon Heyman of MLB Network hears from rival executives that Cleveland has made some players on the big league roster available to other clubs in advance of the July 30 trade deadline.
It’s not clear specifically which players are on the market, but there’s no indication the Indians are planning any sort of full-on teardown. Bieber and José Ramírez would be the top two players on the trade market were they made available, but it seems highly unlikely the Indians would market those kinds of controllable stars in response to two weeks of poor play. The Cleveland front office would probably figure to listen to offers on players with less club control. There aren’t many players on the Indians roster who stand out as obvious trade chips at first glance, though.
Second baseman César Hernández looks like the team’s most plausible trade candidate. He’s hitting .226/.305/.413 and has already tied his career high in home runs (15) this season. It’s a nontraditional shape of production for Hernández, who typically hits for strong averages and reaches base at a high clip without hitting for much power. While Hernández’s profile has changed in 2021, he’s been similarly valuable as before. His 95 wRC+ this year isn’t far off his career mark (99) and is essentially unchanged from his 2019-20 production (97). Hernández is making an affordable $5MM this season and comes with a $6MM club option (no buyout) for 2022.
Cleveland would figure to welcome interest in corner outfielder Eddie Rosario. He’s making $8MM, though, and wasn’t having a particularly good year even before landing on the 10-day injured list with an abdominal strain this week. The Indians have a handful of young relievers (James Karinchak, Emmanuel Clase, Nick Sandlin) who would figure to draw plenty of attention, but it’s not clear the team would consider moving any of them. Veteran relievers Nick Wittgren and Bryan Shaw would probably be more attainable but wouldn’t bring back franchise-altering returns.
More broadly, the Indians are facing an interesting few months as an organization. The controllable core of Ramírez, Bieber, Civale, Plesac and Franmil Reyes looks good enough to anchor a contender. They would obviously love for Andrés Giménez and Amed Rosario to produce enough to supplement that group. The farm system is regarded as one of the league’s best. It’s not inconceivable to see the Indians as a threat in the division in the coming years, even if the front office moves a couple veterans before the deadline in an acknowledgment of their increasingly slim playoff chances in 2021.
As the past few weeks have shown, though, there’s still plenty of work to be done to make the current roster a legitimate contender. The rotation is very strong at the top but the recent injury woes have exposed its lack of depth. The outfield has been a weak point for years. The catching duo of Roberto Pérez and Austin Hedges is a well-regarded defensive grouping but has offered virtually nothing at the plate, and the team’s first basemen have been the worst offensively in MLB this year. Giménez also struggled in his first crack at locking down shortstop.
There’s still a few weeks for president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and the rest of the front office to settle on a pre-deadline plan. Even if they stand pat or serve as minor sellers, the upcoming offseason will be a pivotal one to determining the franchise’s long-term direction.