Cleveland made a big trade last week, netting Carlos Santana from the Mariners and Jake Bauers from the Rays, while sending Edwin Encarnacion, Yandy Diaz, Cole Hulser, and a draft pick off to the other two teams in the trade. Jeff Sullivan already covered that trade, which was pretty interesting for Cleveland, slightly interesting for the Rays, and not very interesting for the Mariners, who essentially just moved contracts around and received a draft pick for their trouble. On Friday, Cleveland made another move, trading Yonder Alonso, a one-time Carlos Santana replacement, as Alonso has now been replaced by the guy he replaced. Alonso heads to the White Sox in a deal that figures to help both AL Central clubs this season.
- OF Alex Call
White Sox Receive:
- Yonder Alonso
Last season, Yonder Alonso was the discount version of the Carlos Santana who was on Cleveland’s 2016 pennant winner. Sure, Alonso is left-handed, not a switch-hitter, but he can play an adequate first base with a bat that is a little worse than Santana. He required just a $16 million guarantee to go to Cleveland while Santana received $60 million from Philadelphia. Having signed Edwin Encarnacion for $60 million after 2016, the Indians elected to let Santana go and brought in Alonso coming off a career year in Oakland and Seattle. “Career year” is a bit of a misnomer; Alonso hit 20 homers and put up a 147 wRC+ in the first half of 2017 before settling in closer to his career norms with a 114 wRC+ in the second half, much of it with the Mariners.
Alonso was a bit out of place in Cleveland as an everyday player. In his breakout season in Oakland, only 15% of his plate appearances came against left-handers; that figure jumped to 24% in Cleveland. Alonso has a career wRC+ of 80 against lefties in his career, including a dreadful 64 wRC+ last season. If Alonso had half as many plate appearances against lefties last year, and had hit closer to his career average against them, he would have been worth about half a win more last year. The White Sox might be able to get more value out of Alonso next year by aggressively platooning him.
Jose Abreu is the White Sox incumbent first baseman and he figures to see a lot more time at designated hitter with the addition of Alonso. But Chicago should probably still start the right-handed Abreu at first against lefties and let a right-handed bench bat serve as the designated hitter. Unfortunately, at least for right now that right-handed bench bat is probably either Welington Castillo or James McCann, though it could also be Eloy Jimenez with a defense-first outfielder taking his spot. This move adds about a win to the White Sox next year at a guaranteed cost of $9 million–and people say $/WAR isn’t linear–including a one million dollar buyout of Alonso’s $9 million salary in 2021. That option will vest if Alonso gets 523 plate appearances this year, but if the White Sox use him in a way that maximizes his performance, he likely won’t get there. If he’s playing so well that the White Sox feel the need to play him more, the extra $8 million in 2021 is a very reasonable price.
Alonso also happens to the brother-in-law of free agent target Manny Machado, who is in Chicago today meeting with the White Sox. On paper, the White Sox are about a 70-win team and more than 20 wins behind Cleveland in the division, but the club does have enormous payroll flexibility. If the team signed Machado, Bryce Harper, and Dallas Keuchel for around $80 million, their payroll would still be just around league-average. They would also still be a handful of games behind Cleveland on paper, but they would be in a position to make things interesting if they got decent pitching performances from some of their younger guys; the rotation is still a major weakness. While the above scenario isn’t likely, the club does appear ready to move forward in their rebuilding cycle. Alonso is a small piece on their way to respectability, but he is a piece, nonetheless.
As for Cleveland, Alex Call isn’t an especially exciting prospect. Eric Longenhagen told me he has average tools all-around, and might be a “good platoon OF or low-end regular, but is probably just a bench outfielder.” At 23 years old, he was a little old for Hi-A at the start of last year, where he put up a 126 wRC+ before his promotion to Double-A, where he posted a 28% strikeout rate and an overall line a bit above average. Longenhagen added that Cleveland appears to be stocking up on upper-level outfielders (see Oscar Mercado) in the hopes that one or two will eventually pan out as regulars. That strategy has yet to pay dividends and the outfield remains the clubs biggest weakness. But if someone like Call, Mercado, Bradley Zimmer, or Jake Bauers could take an outfield spot, it would leave resources to fill other outfield holes.
With these moves, Cleveland’s payroll is now projected down to around $110 million for 2019, which represents a more than $20 million cut from last season. After gaining half a million fans in 2017 following their World Series appearances, the franchise kept the vast majority of those gains last season despite awful early-season weather and competition with LeBron James’ probable final season with the Cavaliers. Interest remains high in the club based on their local tv ratings, though the club’s rumored trade of one of their aces could serve to lower that interest. So far, the team’s moves to send away Yan Gomes, Edwin Encarnacion, and Yandy Diaz coupled with Carlos Santana’s return don’t portend much of a negative affect on the field. It would be near impossible for the team to do the same if it were to trade Trevor Bauer or Corey Kluber.
If, as Jon Heyman reported, the club is less likely to trade on their aces, the team could still add a reasonably priced free agent and make themselves better while still lowering payroll somewhat. Or, they could trade an ace for young talent, go much lower on payroll, and still probably win the division. The club has two MVP-level talents in the field, three potential Cy Young contenders on the mound, and no team to challenge them in the division. It’s an unusual spot to be in, and the club has responded by moving smaller pieces around. Cleveland is still clearly playing for 2019, but also seems to be asking themselves how low they can take payroll in 2019 without jeopardizing a playoff appearance, all while moving chips in on 2020 and beyond. How well that strategy works once they reach October remains to be seen. A lack of offense, particularly in the outfield, was obvious in 2018 playoffs, and it’s a weakness that still needs to be addressed.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.