Cleveland Indians v Texas Rangers

One of the shibboleths of contemporary baseball analysis is that teams, especially “small market” teams, must grow from within. No team can completely ignore the free agent market, or the waiver wire, or trades, but the most affordable impact talent comes through the cost-controlled players brought up through the team’s own system. Especially these days, when even teams with bigger payrolls are more loathe than ever to give up prospects, the importance of drafting future stars (not to mention international free agents) seems obvious to all. Everyone acknowledges the importance of the farm system, especially in the aftermath of hey another over-hyped MLB draft (really eager to find out which of these guys is going to pan out in three years, ya’ll!).

That is not to say that having a well-regarded farm system is itself a guarantee of future major-league success. Scott McKinney’s important historical study of top prospects established that fact in the wake of a certain team’s farm system being declared the Best in the History of Whatever, and this year a certain team confirmed the implications of McKinney’s work, as even more optimistic analysts acknowledge.

I am not here to refute the notion that, generally speaking, a good farm system built through amateur talent is essential to any team on any budget — even the Yankees, whose two best position players thus far in 2013, Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner, were both drafted and developed internally and are yet to reach free agency. However, there is one team that has put together a good group of position players while on a small budget without drafting almost anyone in the current group: Cleveland.

It is not as if Cleveland is dominating this year. While they hung tough with the Tigers for a while, at the moment they sit 4.5 games back of the current leaders from Detroit. The main culprit has been their run prevention, as Cleveland is tied with the Angels for the second-worst ERA- in the American League, ahead of only the “rebuilding” (seems like we need a stronger word in this case) Astros. That is no surprise: despite Justin Masterson‘s rebound and Zach McAllister‘s good luck balancing out Corey Kluber‘s bad luck, there is still too much Zach McAllister and Scott Kazmir going around.

Cleveland’s offense is a pleasant surprise, though. They have a collective 108 wRC+ in 2013, which would be good enough to contend if they had adequate pitching (which they do not). What is particularly interesting about this to me is that, despite an Opening Day payroll similar to division rivals Minnesota & Kansas City close to $80 million, only one of their current everyday position players came from their own development pipeline. Which is surprising given their effectiveness, the team’s budget, and the received wisdom about the necessity of building from within. It is not surprising that they had to go outside the organization — for years the team had a (deserved) reputation for not drafting players with upside.

Let’s take a quick look at Cleveland’s current everyday hitters to see how they came to the team. (Cleveland is currently having some injury issues, so I am patchworking what I think would be their lineup [not necessarily batting order] with everyone healthy.)

Michael Bourn, center field. I am not sure how much I really like Bourn’s four-year, $48 million deal for Cleveland, although I am sure Bourn and his agent (Scott Boras, naturally) love it. Although he is a good defender, it is not clear how long that will last. Still, Bourn is a league-average-ish hitter, true-talent wise (even if his current 104 wRC+ is leaning heavily on a a .400 BABIP). and his speed means value not just in the field but on the base paths (he has averaged close to 10 runs above average over the last four seasons). He missed some time this year with a finger laceration, but another important aspect of Bourn’s value is his durability: it was his first time on the disabled list since 2007.

Jason Kipnis, second base. Confession: I love Jason Kipnis. I am not sure why, but I latched on to him at some point when I noticed his minor-league numbers looked just as impressive as Dustin Ackley‘s. Maybe I like him so much because he is one of the few guys I have been “right” about. Kipnis started the year badly (52 wRC+ in April), but has been on fire since then despite high strikeout totals. He is a surprising combination of power (.199 ISO this year) and speed (14 steals already in 2013, 31 in 2012. This from a player whose single-season high in the minors was 12 steals). Kipnis is the one guy on this list who was actually drafted by Cleveland (out of Arizona State in 2009). While he is the solid major-leaguer who has overcome enough issues with his glove to be a good offensive second baseman, he still is a classic low-upside Cleveland draft pick.

Asdrubal Cabrera, shortstop. Cabrera is currently on the DL, but to date is having a classic Asdrubal Cabrera season: below-average walk rates, but enough pop that his bat (.254/.311/.434, 106 wRC+) works for a shortstop, even one who is so deficient with the glove. He’s a nice, affordable option for Cleveland. Best of all, he came over in one of two hilarious trades Cleveland made with the Mariners way back in 2006 (I’ll get to the other below): for Eduardo Perez, not only a 36-year-old platoon DH, but the right-handed half of the platoon! A classic “screw the other team for a prospect” trade that just does not happen any more, at least not to this extreme.

Nick Swisher, first base. Swisher was another four-year deal that is not great from the team’s perspective, but it is actually pretty decent given his bat. The bat may not play brilliantly at first base (although Swisher is almost certainly better than the .235/.336/.406, 107 wRC+ line he’s put up so far), but Swisher can move back to the outfield if needed, and it gives the team better defense. At the end I will briefly discuss some of the advantages of this and Bourn’s contracts even for quasi-rebuilding teams like Cleveland.

Mark Reynolds, designated hitter. Due to Lonnie Chisenhall‘s demotion and Cabrera’s injury, Reynolds is back to butchering his glove at third base, but the idea of signing him to a one-year, $6 million deal was sound. After a monstrous April, Reynolds, like Swisher, regressed heavily in May, and Reynolds ancient foes: contact and BABIP, have cut into his production. Still, it is really a low-risk, one-year deal and the failures of the likes of Matt LaPorta indicated to Cleveland they needed some sort of relatively sure deal who could have a reasonable bat at DH and first, and, in a pinch, play third base. The power is clearly still there (.208 ISO, 13 home runs) and not just a creation of Arizona and Baltimore’s home parks as are the alks.

Carlos Santana, catcher. Speaking of “screw the other team” trades… Santana is not a great defensive catcher, but he hit with both power and patience pretty much from the moment he was called up back in 2010. This year might move him up from “good player” to superstar. He signed to a club-friendly deal, too (like Bourn and Swisher, through 2016 with an option, although for much less money as he was under team control). But returning to the specific focus of this post, Santana, already a well-regarded prospect at the time, was acquired in a trade with the Dodgers in which the big coin was Casey Blake. To be fair, Blake did give they Dodgers two-and-half decent seasons, but yikes.

Michael Brantley, left field. In 2008, Cleveland was in the midst of one of their classic “everyone went wrong” seasons, so they traded CC Sabathia to the Brewers for a nice load of prospects, the best of whom was future slugging left fielder/first baseman Matt LaPorta. Oops. But the player to be named later turned out to be Brantley. I am not a huge Brantley fan, as he seems to have the bat for center field and glove for left, but he’s been at least useful this year as a league-average hitter

Mike Aviles, third base. This spot was intended to be taken by Lonnie Chisenhall, another smart-but-low-upside draft pick by Cleveland, but Chisenhall struggled again this year and was demoted. Aviles is currently playing shortstop with Cabrera on the DL, but this is where he would be otherwise. Aviles was never a prospect, and had an up-and-down time in Kansas City after a shocking debut in 2008. He is a borderline usable starter, but is a fine utility man, which makes his .272/.295/.404 line acceptable on those terms. He was a nice find for Cleveland as part of trade with the Blue Jays that only cost them swingman Esmil Rogers. That trade also brought Yan Gomes to Ohio, and while Gomes is clearly playing over his head, his ability to sort of play catcher and hit home runs has contributed to the team’s offensive success.

Drew Stubbs, right field. A former eighth-overall pick by the Reds in 2006, Stubbs has turned out to be a pretty terrible hitter since his promising 2009 and 2010 seasons, even if his abilities in the field mitigate the impact. He is at least somewhat serviceable, and he is a good as the left-handed half of a platoon with Ryan Raburn. What is interesting about Stubbs here is not so much his sort of adequate play itself, but what it says about Cleveland’s method to acquire decent young players despite their inability to draft many themselves.

Stubbs came over in a massive and confusing trade this off-season between Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Arizona. Very short version: Cleveland gave up a bunch of guys, but the biggest piece they sent was Shin-Soo Choo, who went to the Reds. Cleveland got a bunch of guys back, including Stubbs, but the big prize for then was Trevor Bauer. Now, Bauer has a long way to got before we know whether he will turn out to be the stud pitcher he was thought to be, but as a trade, it made sense for the Cleveland for their future. It is always a risk. And so on.

The Stubbs case shows the potential long-term impact of “winning” a trade. The big piece that left Cleveland, as said above, was Choo. The trade does not happen without him. How did Cleveland get Choo? Remember how they traded their right-handed platoon DH, Eduardo Perez, to the Mariners in 2006 for their current shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera? A month later, Cleveland traded the other half of that 1B/DH platoon, Ben Broussard, to the Mariners, for Shin-Soo Choo. Broussard was out of baseball after 2008 (fortunately his music lives on), but Choo went on to become one of the better outfielders in baseball since 2009. Thus he was the big piece in yet another big trade, in which Cleveland got a great pitching prospect and other help for just one year of him. One great trade, years ago, is still paying divides for them, and may for years to come.

This is not a “Cleveland is totally awesome!” post, as they are faltering, and look like they will need a little luck to finish over .500 this year. They need pitching, obviously. That might be one part of their farm system produces in near future. I am hardly applauding their drafting — drafting upside is not mutually exclusive with smart trades and signings. It is impressive that despite so little production from Cleveland’s own draft picks, their current offense it remains very competitive.

Contracts like those extended to Swisher and Bourn might not be great, and may not get them over the top this season, but those two players are not so old that they are necessarily going to fall off cliffs tomorrow. If the pitching help comes, they, along with other players like Santana and Kipnis, will be around for a potential playoff contender in Cleveland. If not, it is not as if those contracts are unbearable or un-tradeable in the future. They acquired players that can help them be respectable now and perhaps contend in the near future, and doing so through free agency, though it has risks, also means they did not have to give up any young, cost-controlled talent to do so.

Cleveland was and is not in an ideal position with respect to their farm system and budget. But they are making a go of it without the plaudits from the prospect-watchers. It sure beats proclaiming themselves Ready To Win on the backs of a bunch of hot prospects who do not live up to the hype, then having to run to the hills.