By Cliff Corcoran
July 31, 2011

The Indians may have slipped into second place in the American League Central. They may be just two games over .500. The sum of their hitting and pitching performances may be more indicative of a team five games below .500 (per third-order wins). As far as the Cleveland front office is concerned, however, the Indians are for real. Indians general manager Chris Antonetti made that announcement in bold type Saturday night when he traded four players, including his team's top three pitching prospects, to Colorado for Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez.

The trade, which won't become official until Jimenez passes a physical, is part of the Indians' shocking turnaround this season. Just a year ago, they were putting the finishing touches on stage one of their rebuilding process by trading away veterans Jhonny Peralta, Jake Westbrook, Kerry Wood, and Austin Kearns, the fourth straight season in which the Indians had sold off veterans for prospects at the trading deadline dating back to the CC Sabathia trade in 2008. This season was supposed to be about evaluating the young talent in the system, breaking the upper levels of that talent into the major leagues, and planning for the future. Instead, the future came early.

After losing the first two games of the 2011 season, the Indians peeled off eight-straight wins, quickly ascending to first place in their division. Then, shockingly, they remained there through mid-June. A look back at the Indians season, however, shows a team consistently playing over its head. The Indians did play great baseball in April, but 11 of their 18 wins that month came against the Mariners, Orioles, and Royals. They put up a winning record in May, but were outscored by their competition in a month in which they won one game 19-1 (against the Royals) and another 12-4. Since May 24, the Indians have gone 23-36, a miserable .390 winning percentage that, not coincidentally, isn't that far out of line with what many expected from them coming into the season. Their win over the Royals on Saturday night was just their second in their last nine games.

Looking at the season as a whole, entering Friday night's action the Indians had scored fewer runs per game than the American League average and allowed more runs per game than the average AL team, missing the former mark by a larger margin than the latter. That makes a big buy for an ace starter somewhat perplexing, though, as was the case with the Phillies and Hunter Pence, the Indians are getting Jimenez for more than just the stretch run.

Jimenez, who finished third in the National League Cy Young voting last year, is signed for a mere $4.2 million next year with a similarly inexpensive $5.75 million club option for 2013. As of this writing, his contract, signed in January 2009, also includes an $8 million club option for 2014, but that option can be voided if Jimenez is traded, which he just was, and if Jimenez pitches well enough for Cleveland to want to pick up that option, you can be sure he'll void it to get market value for his services a year earlier. The Indians thus traded for Jimenez not only to make a serious run at a playoff appearance this season, but to have him head their rotation for the next two years at the bargain basement price of $9.95 million. By way of comparison, the Red Sox will pay more than three times as much for John Lackey over the same period.

That's a tremendous value, and one that prompts questions about why the Rockies were willing to trade Jimenez in the first place. Before his name surfaced in trade talks earlier this month, Jimenez was believed to be one of the Rockies three core players, along with Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, both of whom received massive extensions over the winter. However, the 2011 season hasn't gone according to plan for either Jimenez or his former team. Jimenez missed most of April with an infected cuticle on his pitching hand, then went 0-5 with a 5.64 ERA in his first eight starts after his return. The Rockies jumped out to an 11-2 start, but have gone just 40-54 (.426) since and, though they have a better third-order record than the Indians, are double-digit games behind in both their division (which contains the defending world champions) and the NL wild-card race.

Jimenez has been better since the calendar flipped to June, posting a 3.03 ERA with seven quality starts in 11 turns and 71 strikeouts in 71 1/3 innings (not counting his disaster outing Saturday night, from which he was nearly scratched due to the developing trade, and after which he confessed he was driven to distraction by his knowledge of the deal), but there are lingering concerns about the two-mile-per-hour drop in his average velocity this season, which is likely one reason why the Indians have insisted on a physical.

When a team trades away a seemingly untouchable player, like the 27-year-old Jimenez, there will always be lingering concerns that they "knew something" about that player's health, conditioning, or disposition. However, the Rockies said they wouldn't trade their ace unless they were blown away by the return, and in getting the Indians' top three pitching prospects, Drew Pomeranz (who can't officially be named as part of the trade until mid-August, but is the key player in the deal for Colorado), Alex White, and Joe Gardner, it's reasonable to believe that they were indeed blown away. However, the most impressive thing about that return may have been Cleveland's willingness to pay it. That is to say that while Pomeranz, White, and Gardner are all legitimate prospects, only Pomeranz projects as a potential star pitcher, and the odds of him becoming the ace that Jimenez has, early season struggles aside, remain long. However, losing those three pitchers sets the Indians' organizational pitching depth back significantly.

White, who will turn 23 at the end of August, was taken out of the University of North Carolina with the 15th pick of the 2009 draft and made his major league debut this April in just his second professional season. However, he sprained the middle finger on his pitching hand while throwing a slider on May 20 and has been on the disabled list ever since. He was scheduled to make a rehab start Saturday night before being scratched due to the trade. The right-handed White projects as a mid-rotation sinkerballer, though he does have an outstanding split-finger pitch and less than 190 professional innings under his belt from which we can draw conclusions. He'll slide right into the Colorado rotation once he's healthy.

Gardner, a 23-year-old righty drafted out of UC Santa Barbara two rounds after White, has a similar projection (mid-rotation sinkerballer), but lacks a pitch comparable to White's splitter that would suggest greater potential and seems more likely to end up in the bullpen than as an impact starter. Indeed, Gardner has stumbled badly at Double-A this season, with a miserable strikeout rate that has barely out-paced his walk rate and a 7.35 ERA in six July starts. That both White and Gardner are groundball pitchers, and Gardner's sinker is considered one of the best in the minors, makes them good fits for the Rockies, but neither will make Rockies fans forget Jimenez. That will be Pomeranz's job.

The fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft, out of the University of Mississippi, Pomeranz is a six-foot-five lefty who throws in the mid-90s with a devastating curve and is already excelling in Double-A in his first professional season, having made the jump to that level just two weeks ago. Pomeranz made his pro debut in High-A this April and has thus far posted a 1.98 ERA and struck out 11.1 men per nine innings in 18 pro starts, three of which have come at Double-A. He still needs to work on a third pitch, currently an underdeveloped changeup, and his mechanics and control can break down at times, but he has emerged as one of the best pitching prospects in the game.

The last player in the deal, catcher/first baseman/corner outfielder Matt McBride, is a 26-year-old who has had just 174 plate appearances in Triple-A in his career and none higher. He can hit a little (.282/.345/.467 in his minor league career, during which he has consistently been old for his league), but he's ultimately an organizational player of little significance beyond his defensive flexibility.

Ultimately, this trade seems to come down to two teams overreacting to unexpected seasons. The Rockies stumbled and decided to cash in their ace despite having him signed to one of the most team-friendly contracts in baseball. Meanwhile, a fluky early-season surge and a bad division convinced the usually very smart Indians to accelerate their rebuilding plans by unloading their top pitching talent in the unlikely pursuit of a postseason berth that seems likely to stall out in the first round if it does happen. Yes, the Indians will enjoy Jimenez for two more seasons, but Pomeranz's development pace was more in sync with the team's, and White and Gardner could have provided much-needed depth. Perhaps most curiously, Jimenez will now join a team that, at least prior to his arrival, was weaker than the one that just traded him. Other than that, this deal makes perfect sense.

You May Like