The Cleveland Indians, despite owning only the sixth-best record in the American League, have basically already clinched their spot in the playoffs, and are the only AL team that doesn’t have to worry about the wild card play-in game. Thanks to the putrid AL Central and its one (1) team with a record over .500, the Indians currently enjoy a 7.5 game advantage over the 44-50 Minnesota Twins, which—barring a catastrophic collapse—all but guarantees that they’ll land in October needing just seven wins to win the pennant.
All this means the Indians can afford some big risks to improve their roster this year, with the assumption that they might never have a clearer path to the World Series. That’s what the Tribe did today, dealing highly regarded prospect Francisco Mejia to the Padres in exchange for closer Brad Hand and another reliever in Adam Cimber.
This is a scary move, from Cleveland’s perspective, but it makes sense. The Indians bullpen—the crown jewel of their 2016 AL Champs team—has over-regressed into complete butt this year. Andrew Miller is battling injuries and hasn’t appeared in a game since May. Dan Otero is posting a negative WAR after a couple of seasons as a shutdown arm. And closer Cody Allen’s current FIP of 4.28 is nearly a full point higher than any season besides his abbreviated rookie year. While Cleveland’s starting rotation, including Cy Young candidate Trevor Bauer, is the envy of every franchise except maybe Houston, the team’s bullpen ERA of 5.28 has flipped that unit from first in the league in 2017 to second-to-last now, and it’s led to some truly embarrassing fall-from-ahead losses.
So enter Hand and Cimber, two guys from the Padres who come to Cleveland with better 2018 numbers than any of the Indians’ relievers. Hand is a lefty closer type with some command issues but a lethal slider that, along with the fastball, make him a threat to strike out the side in every appearance. Cimber is a righty who throws that same two-pitch combo, but his low sidearm delivery makes him an awkward change-of-pace for opposing hitters, leading him to 9.50 K/9 this year. In an MLB postseason that now rarely sees starters go three times through the batting order, acquiring solid bullpen pitchers like these two was an imperative, not a luxury.
But relief arms, as Cleveland has learned the hard way, can be extremely inconsistent. Cimber, who has come more or less out of nowhere, feels like almost a lock to regress as a 27-year-old rookie. And for the 28-year-old Hand, in his third season now as one of the best relievers in the game, we appear to know his ceiling. That’s what makes their price tag so intimidating—Francisco Mejia, the 22-year-old who was the Indians’ top prospect. Mejia has proven to be a prolific contact hitter at a catcher position that, league-wide, has struggled to produce big bats. He had a 50-game hit streak in 2016 and currently bats .279 in Triple-A, and he’s a huge get for the prospect-laden Padres. While San Diego’s road back to relevancy is still pretty bumpy, giving up relievers in their late 20s to receive such a valuable young hitter at a hugely important position was a no-brainer.
But even if there’s some sticker shock at the phrase “No. 1 prospect,” dealing Mejia to put out the bullpen fire was also a smart and necessary move for the Indians, and not just because Yan Gomes is their man behind the plate for the foreseeable future. Though an AL playoff field also featuring the Astros, Yankees, Red Sox, and Mariners will be a nasty crucible, Cleveland has to hope that 2018 is its year. Having such a secure playoff position by July is a rare gift, so this is definitely the time for Cleveland to go all-out. If they keep giving their fans nervous breakdowns in the last three innings, however, they’ll have to get comfy with the idea of a three-game sweep at Houston’s hands.