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Indians Might Be Looking to Deal at the Vegas Winter Meetings; Could the Astros Ante Up?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

We continue the cavalcade of pre-Winter Meetings rumors with a recent report from Buster Olney that the Cleveland Indians are willing to listen to offers on players this offseason. They don’t seem at all set on trading everyone, and top names like Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are totally off the table, but that’s not so much a problem for the Astros. They can’t exactly trade for one of them and run two shortstops or second basemen or anything, so they’d probably be more focused on the rest of the roster anyway.

In fact, the Astros and Indians line up pretty well in a lot of ways. Aside from the two teams’ middle infield situations both being set, the Indians don’t exactly have much to offer in the outfield or bullpen, both areas Houston doesn’t really need to worry about this winter. Meanwhile, several of the players Olney specifically name checks (as well as other players similar to them) play at positions the Astros are lacking at in depth going into 2019, like first base/designated hitter and catcher.

Yan Gomes is probably the easiest to imagine suiting up in orange and navy next March, given that the current Astros catching situation is Max Stassi, who finished the year as the third string backstop, and Chris Herrmann, who makes up for his lack of offensive ability with gratuitous letters in his last name. Gomes would not be as flashy as a number of other options the Astros could acquire this offseason, like J.T. Realmuto, Yasmani Grandal, or Wilson Ramos, and those numerous other options are probably the strongest factor working against acquiring Gomes.

But, if those other options fail to align, Gomes makes for a pretty solid fallback plan. He’s signed to a team-friendly contract that would make it easy to keep him around ($7 million next year, followed by two team options of $9 and $11 million), and not a devastating write-off if the worst-case scenario for the 31-year-old materializes (a $1million buyout for 2019).

When healthy, he has shown that he can provide offense that ranges from “acceptable for a catcher” to “above league average overall”, and combined with solid defense, that makes him easily a starter-level player (Fangraphs has him at 3.9 WAR over 217 games the last two years). And, if the Indians decide he’s too good to trade away, as mentioned, there are plenty of other options around the league, so the pressure to make the deal is lower.

Edwin Encarnacion and, presumably, Yonder Alonso (who wasn’t mentioned specifically by Olney but fits a similar profile as the other listed candidates) don’t stand out as such great bargains, but the first base and DH markets this offseason don’t seem to have nearly the same depth that catcher does. They likely also won’t take the same return as a result, although whether they’re worth acquiring at all is it’s own question, especially given their ages (Encarnacion is 36 next year, while Alonso is 32 but has never hit nearly as well).

Both are most likely going to be paid in excess of what they’re worth in 2019, with Encarnacion getting $21.67 million and Alonso getting $8 million in 2019. But, thankfully, both are also in their final guaranteed years (Edwin has a $5 million buyout next year, while Yonder has a $1 million one), so you won’t be committing to a long-term albatross that will keep you from locking up players next year and on. It’s not an ideal situation, but also it’s not so awful that I would call it totally impossible.

Ultimately, though, neither is a likely acquisition. Alonso has some upside, but unless the Indians were basically giving him away as part of a salary dump, he’s not so much better than a number of other potential fits who can be signed without having to trade anything away. Encarnacion is more interesting, partly because his better past means you can at least imagine a bounceback to respectability, partly because his remaining money is so great that there would almost have to be something creative happening to make a trade actually go through.

For instance, maybe trading Josh Reddick, who is himself turning 32 and owed $26 million through 2020, but in equal installments rather than $21 million and a buyout. That would free up another spot in the outfield for the Astros’ depth there, and help the Indians at a position that feels especially thin for a playoff team (current starters: Jason Kipnis, Leonys Martin, and Tyler Naquin). Of course, the Astros would need to get something else to make that trade feel balanced, but it’s at least a close enough starting point to serve as a framework to build off of.

The starting rotation is without a doubt the place with the most interesting names, however. The Indians have a lot of depth there thanks to the emergence of younger arms like Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, and Shane Bieber, and as a result seem to be considering trading the older and more expensive arms, which includes some exciting talent. I’ve mentioned in the past that I think the Astros need more starters to cover for potential regression and injury in 2019 (not to mention likely losing one or both of Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel), so this is the area I would expect Jeff Lunhow and company to focus the most on in any potential talks.

Buster Olney specifically mentions Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco in his tweet, and I imagine Danny Salazar is also a potential candidate. Going in reverse, Salazar is an interesting variable to consider, but I don’t think he would be the central factor of any Houston-Cleveland trade. The 2016 All-Star hasn’t thrown a pitch since 2017 due to various injuries, so he’s more of a reclamation project than a sure thing at this point.

Still, he only turns 29 in January and still has up to two more years of team control, so even if he misses time this year, it wouldn’t be a guaranteed total loss. If he comes back healthy, he’s probably not an All-Star-level pitcher (that 2016 selection was a bit of a fluke driven by an unusually strong first half), but you’ll still be getting above-average quality innings (he posted a 3.79 ERA and a 3.62 FIP from 2015 to 2017) at a below-market-level rate, which wouldn’t be bad for a fourth or fifth starter. But that’s a big if, so even if the front office believed that Salazar is worth taking a flier on, he’d probably be more of a throw-in in a larger deal.

The case for acquiring Carlos Carrasco or Corey Kluber is much more straightforward, in comparison, and I would happily take either of them should the Astros decide to go in that direction. Monetarily, Carrasco is the cheaper one, with $9.75 million due next year and a $9.5 million option next year, while Kluber is getting $17 million next year and has options for $0.5 and $1 million more the following two seasons.

Personally, I think Kluber is the better pitcher of the two, so I’d have him higher on my hypothetical wishlist. He’s only a year older than Carlos and has a much better track record, including a pair of Cy Young Awards (plus at least a top-three finish this year) and a much better history against teams with a winning record(which should play well in a pennant stretch). Any concerns about age are fair, but the remaining years being team options mitigates the concerns about sunk costs.

Plus, his success this year is a good sign about future performance in spite of his age; pitchers have a reputation for falling apart at random, but I’ve done some research, and players who have success in their 30s like Kluber (or Justin Verlander, pre-Astros, for a closer-to-home example) generally hold up pretty well. That is to say, signing a 28 year old pitcher until he’s 35 is very risky no matter how good they are at 28 because the early 30s are a common point where pitchers fall apart. In contrast, a pitcher who has already made it to age 32 or 33 and shown success, even if it’s less of a peak, isn’t nearly as big a roll of the dice.

Of course, that comparison of the two is in a vacuum, and ignores the question of what the Indians would demand for each of them. My guess is that they also view Kluber as better and are more open to dealing Carrasco purely due to their wealth of starters, but that could flip depending on how heavily salary weighs in their decision. And of course, those team friendly deals mean that it will probably take a legitimate prospect haul for either one of them, although given their status as playoff contenders, they may be more comfortable making a deal like the one the Pirates struck last year for Gerrit Cole, more focused on MLB-ready players. Either way, the Astros at the moment have players to spare, and a need for quality innings that one of these two should easily be able to fill. Depending on how heated the free agent market gets, either Carrasco or Kluber could become an attractive trade target.

Of course, this might just be empty talk leading up to the Winter Meetings. Every team should at least listen to all offers, in case someone is willing to overpay for someone. There are still too many variables to account for. But if the Indians are actually serious about reconfiguring their team to such a degree, given all of the ways the two teams’ excesses and needs overlap, Cleveland and Houston should have a lot to talk about in Las Vegas next month.