Last weekend, theScore published an article titled “1 Hypothetical Trade Each AL Central Team Should Make.” Within the piece, it was suggested the Cleveland Indians should trade pitching prospect Triston McKenzie to Boston in exchange for outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and cash.
Setting aside the debate about whether this proposed deal is a good move for Cleveland (it’s not), there’s definitely a bigger conversation to be had here.
Should the Indians use McKenzie as a trade chip this season? Should one of Cleveland’s top prospects be viewed not as a future member of the rotation, but as an asset the team can use to address other roster needs?
Before going any further, let’s do a quick refresher on McKenzie.
After logging a combined 18 starts during his first few years in Cleveland’s system, McKenzie broke out in 2017. He spent the full season with Class A Advanced Lynchburg, finishing with a 12-6 record, 3.46 ERA and 3.03 FIP. His 186 strikeouts were second to none in the Carolina League, and helped earn him pitcher of the year honors.
Unfortunately, McKenzie has since run into a couple injury setbacks.
Forearm soreness kept him sidelined for the first chunk of the 2018 season, while he missed all of last year with an upper-back strain. Just a couple years ago, MLB Pipeline ranked McKenzie as Cleveland’s top prospect. Due to his struggles staying healthy, his ranking has since dropped to No. 9 within the Indians’ farm system.
That said, McKenzie could still fetch a solid return in the trade market. Does that mean the Indians should consider shopping him this year?
You can certainly make a case for it.
For starters, until stating otherwise, the Indians expect to contend in 2020. Provided they remain in the hunt, one would think they’d be buyers at the trade deadline. This would result in their viewing prospects as potential trade chips, especially those who play in a position where the Indians already have solid depth.
One would think there’d be a little hesitation to do too much damage to the farm, especially considering the potential pending departure of Francisco Lindor. However, Lindor or not, Cleveland’s rotation should be in a good spot for the near future.
Mike Clevinger is under team control through 2022, while Carlos Carrasco’s contract could expire at the same time if Cleveland decides to buy out his 2023 vesting option.
2022 also marks the first year of Shane Bieber’s arbitration eligibility. He remains under team control through 2024, as does Adam Plutko provided the Indians decide to save a roster spot for him this season. Meanwhile Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac are both under control through 2025.
There’s no guarantee Cleveland will avoid any bad luck with the injury bug, or with the development of Civale and Plesac. Still, it may be a minute before a spot opens up in the rotation.
Obviously, moving McKenzie would put a dent in Cleveland’s starting pitching pipeline. While Logan Allen, Scott Moss and Sam Hentges are also ranked among the Indians’ top 30 prospects, none of them are viewed as highly as McKenzie.
At the same time, if there’s one claim to fame the Indians have earned over the years, it’s their ability to develop excellent starting pitching. We saw a prime example of this as recently as last year.
By the end of the 2018 season, Civale was Cleveland’s No. 19 prospect, while Plesac wasn’t even ranked in the top 30. One year later, not only had each pitcher grabbed himself a spot in Cleveland’s rotation, but the rate at which both progressed helped convince Cleveland All-Star starter Trevor Bauer was expendable.
This in no way proves Cleveland can just turn anybody into an elite starter. At the same time, it should at least inspire confidence in the Indians’ ability to survive without McKenzie if that’s the route they take.
Whether they decide to go down that road depends on a couple factors and how Cleveland thinks they’ll impact his value.
For one, do the Indians view McKenzie’s injury issues as a serious concern? Neither ailment he suffered was serious, but until he bulks up his 6’5”, 165 lb frame, questions about his durability may remain.
On top of this, there’s a chance McKenzie’s development is paused in 2020.
While nothing is official, minor league baseball could potentially be cancelled this summer. Likewise, even considering the 2020 roster expansion being discussed by MLB, it’s doubtful the Indians would save a spot for McKenzie. Considering how careful Cleveland has been with him, even holding him out of games despite his being at full strength this past spring training, it’s tough to believe they’d give him big league starts this season.
As a result, McKenzie could go over two years without throwing a live game pitch.
Should these be seen as valid concerns within the Indians’ front office, then, yes, it would make sense to consider trading him while his value is still high.
If the Indians were to make that move, though, it should certainly be for a better deal than the trade suggested in the aforementioned article.
Despite watching his ranking dip within their farm, the Indians should in no way be moving McKenzie for one short-term rental. That’s especially true if said rental is a 30-year-old outfielder whose value has been on the decline since 2016. If Cleveland is kicking the tires on McKenzie’s trade value, it’d ideally be doing so with the goal of effectively addressing a roster need beyond just this year.
To clarify, the Indians don’t need to move him. It’d be understandable if they viewed their rotation depth not as a reason to shop pitching prospects, but instead as proof they don’t need to rush McKenzie’s development.
Still, while there’s no pressure to deal the top pitcher in their system, it’s something the Indians would be wise to at least consider in the year ahead.