The Indians Did What They Had to Do

On the Tuesday prior to the All-Star break, at a game which this author observed from the Progressive Field press box, Trevor Bauer left his start after eight innings with the Indians holding a 4-0 lead. Then a call to the bullpen, complete with a miscommunication error, followed. Dan Otero faced Joey Votto. The Indians lost. It was not necessarily a great surprise: so often something has gone amiss for Cleveland this year after such calls to the bullpen.

As readers of this Web site are likely aware, the Indians’ bullpen has struggled mightily this season, sitting in the bottom quartile by many notable bullpen skill metrics.

The group ranks 28th in WAR (-0.9), 23rd in WPA (-1.07), 29th in ERA (5.28), and 29th in FIP (4.85). There has not been any positive regression, either. Over the past 30 days, the Cleveland relief corps has posted a 4.87 ERA, a 5.10 FIP, and a -0.15 WPA.

Bullpens are fickle beasts. The Indians’ 27th-ranked left-on-base percentage (68.7%) suggests some poor first-half fortune was bound for second-half positive regression. Oliver Perez and Neil Ramirez have been useful finds, with Ramirez perhaps building on his physical talents by learning more how to harness his high-spin fastball and breaking ball in concert. But the Indians had a clear manpower shortage in their bullpen, particularly with Andrew Miller still sidelined and out for much of the first half.

As the All-Star break approached, it felt like the Indians had to do something. Baseball knew the Indians had to do something, so if the Indians were to do something, it was not going to be done cheaply. And on Thursday, the Indians did something.

Cleveland acquired one of the best relievers on the market from Dave Cameron’s Padres in Brad Hand and a sneaky secondary bullpen piece in submarine-style thrower Adam Cimber. The cost? Their top position-player prospect in Francisco Mejia, a consensus top-50 prospect in the game.

This audience is aware that Hand has emerged as one of the best left-handed relievers in the game, posting a 27% K-BB mark last season and 26.9% this season. He’s Miller Lite. And if Miller is not 100%, he might be a superior option to Miller this fall. He’s under club control through 2021 at reasonable terms: $6.5 million next year, $7 million in 2020, and a $10 club option for 2021. In 22.1 “high-leverage” innings this year, opponents are batting .177 against Hand.

This author has an affinity for submarine-style arms like Cimber, who has a 21.3% K-BB mark. Featuring one of the lowest release points in the game, the pre-arb pitcher will give the Indians a different look.

Consider the Cimber slider:

In a brief sample of industry sources and evaluators, the deal graded from neutral to slightly favorable for the Indians in a pure value context.

But when you factor the Indians’ window of opportunity into the equation — and consider that the Padres are a year or two away from relevance — then it becomes very sensible for both parties. We understand Cleveland’s motivations, and we certainly understand the Padres’ incentive to cash in relievers in a package for a living, breathing top prospect. He was ranked 19th overall among rookie-eligible minor leaguers by Eric and Kiley recently.

There is plenty of downside in the deal. What if Cimber and Hand regress? What if Mejia isn’t a catcher? And what if Mejia isn’t disciplined enough to hit anywhere other than catcher?

But that is balanced by upside. What if the Indians have coupled a dominant rotation with a competent bullpen in October? What if the Padres just acquired a switch-hitting catcher with a plus bat, an 80-grade arm, and competent receiving skills?

There are differing opinions on whether it’s wise to build around the concept of “contention windows.” Well, windows of opportunity are very real in Cleveland.

In Bauer, Francisco Lindor, and Jose Ramirez, the Indians currently roster three of the top five players in the AL according to WAR. Corey Kluber, when healthy, might be the best pitcher in baseball. Bauer and Carlos Carrasco are under control through 2020. Kluber and Lindor are under club control through 2021 and Ramirez through 2022. The that’s a rare collection of MVP- and Cy Young-caliber talent concentrated on a smallish-budget roster.

But the Indians are also among the least balanced of the “super” teams, with voids and question marks at three positions (second base, center field, and right) plus flammable bullpen. The relief issue is complicated ever further by the looming free agency of Miller and Cody Allen. To maximize their window, the Indians didn’t need just bullpen help this year but bullpen help in forthcoming years, which Hand and Cimber should deliver.

While that core — and the weakness of the AL Central — allows Cleveland to enjoy 99% playoff odds in July, the Indians are a club that must have its eye on October. The AL Central has afforded them the luxury of planning for October, and we know what is coming to define success in that month more and more — namely, bullpen strength.

Last season, bullpens accounted for a major-league record 38.1% of total innings thrown in the regular season. In the postseason that ballooned to a record 46.4%.

This season? Bullpens are accounting for what, at 39.1%, would be a new record share of innings.

We saw the Yankees last summer, already with a strong collection of relievers, attempt to build an uber pen by way of a deadline deal with the White Sox. They nearly advanced to the World Series over an elite Astros team whose bullpen, by the end of the season, had become suspect.

While the Indians have enjoyed playing AL Central competition, they are 9-18 against the Astros, Athletics, Mariners, and Yankees this season. They have lost every series they have played against the teams that compose the potential AL playoff field. (They have not yet faced the Red Sox.) They needed to get better, particularly in high-leverage situations. They did just that on Thursday.

Getting better didn’t come cheaply, however. There can be an honest debate about whether it’s ever wise to flip a top-50 position-player prospect for relievers, but the Indians could look at Mejia as something of a luxury with catchers Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez locked up to long-term deals. Cleveland values defense and staff-handling at the position. We cannot quantify every facet of catcher defense.

However, the deal did come more cheaply than, say, Gleyber Torres for two-plus months of Aroldis Chapman. The benchmark price for acquiring an elite lefty reliever under control for multiple seasons was previously set by the Indians’ 2016 summer acquisition of Miller. Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield were the headliners, each regraded as top-100 prospects in the game. With Cimber also involved, Thursday’s deal might have been cheaper than that acquisition cost.

Still, prospects and cheap labor become seemingly more valuable each year, and the Padres opted to bundle relievers for one quality option over a volume of prospects.

While the projected outcomes for Mejia are relatively wide considering his positional uncertainty and uneven offensive performance this spring, this is a consensus top prospect according to evaluators. He could become a first-division regular at an up-the-middle position. Like other hitters with strong bat-to-ball skills, he might enjoy a power surge at the major-league level.

Given the volatile nature of relievers, it made sense for the Padres to sell off pieces from what is one of the game’s better and more unusual bullpens.

Just published prior to the trade Thursday was a community blog entry by Conrad Parrish advocating for an Indians and Padres trade, and for the Padres ought to sell in bulk.

Bullpen pieces have never been more in demand. Premium chips have landed top-100 prospects like Frazier, Sheffield, Torres, and Blake Rutherford in recent deadlines. Now we can add Mejia to the list.

And with 0.0% FanGraphs playoff odds, the Padres ought to keep selling bullpen assets. They might as well sell all of them.

Relievers are in demand but are often non-appreciating assets, and these relievers specifically probably won’t be part of San Diego’s next competitive team. For instance, Kirby Yates has been a right-handed Hand over the past couple of seasons, and he could also net a significant return. For the Padres, it’s all about future surplus value. They’ll need it to catch the Dodgers.

While we can debate the returns, and while there is considerable downside (and upside) for each club, the Indians and Padres are in different places, including different divisions and different leagues. That made them and this deal a perfect match.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Pepper Martin
5 years ago

So bizarre that your list of top prospects traded for relievers in recent years — Frazier, Sheffield, Torres, and Rutherford — were all traded to or from the Yankees.

5 years ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

It’s the Mariano Rivera effect. Ever since the Yankees’ amazing run with him and his bullpen; everyone wants to emulate that.