There is something noble about the Big Trade-Deadline Gamble — about the general manager of a middling, mid-market team who acts decisively in the face of daunting odds, blowing away the rest of baseball with a bold, headline-grabbing move. It is a signal to your beleaguered fan base and your restless clubhouse that management is not about to let this fleeting opportunity at contention pass unaddressed.
But there is also something reckless about it. The heart wants to praise the Cleveland Indians and their GM, Georgetown product Chris Antonetti, for moving a mountain to acquire Colorado Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez on Saturday, less than 24 hours before the 4 p.m. Sunday trade deadline. But the head worries it will all be for naught — or worse.
The Indians entered Sunday in second place in the AL Central, trailing the Detroit Tigers by 1½ games (but tied in the loss column), with the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins also within stalking distance. But the Indians are fading; since reaching their season’s high-water mark on May 23 (30-15), they are just 23-36. That’s two whole months of bad baseball. Only the mediocrity of the division has kept them alive.
Part of the story of the Indians this season is the story of Cleveland, how the new economic reality in the heartland has cost the team at the box office and on the field — as reflected in some of the difficult trades the team has made in the past few years. They traded away CC Sabathia. They traded away Cliff Lee. They traded away Victor Martinez. They chalked it up to the cyclical nature of contending in small markets — how a team such as the Indians had to tear down and build back up every few years in order to have a chance once in awhile.
Now, one wonders if perhaps the specific pressures of the Cleveland market – the chance to bring back some of the fans they lost in the last decade, and the chance to atone for the wildly unpopular trades of Sabathia, Lee and Martinez — played a big part in the Jimenez deal. The trade cost the Indians four young pieces: lefty Drew Pomeranz, right-handers Alex White and Joe Gardner, and first baseman Matt McBride. Some of them, particularly Pomeranz — rated as the 14th-best prospect in baseball in Baseball America’s midseason rankings — seemed destined to be part of the next contending cycle in Cleveland, somewhere not too far down the road.
It’s true that prospects are merely that — prospects, potential studs, potential busts. The Indians gave up a lot of future potential for someone, Jimenez, who is a proven commodity. At his best, he is a bona fide No. 1 starter, the rarest commodity in baseball, and something the Indians desperately lacked.
But there’s also plenty to be scared about when it comes to Jimenez.
No one — not even the army of scouts armed with radar guns and cell phones who have been studying (and studying up on) Jimenez these past few weeks — knows him nearly as well as do the Rockies, who have had him in their organization for 10 years. And for a 27-year-old pitcher who started in the All-Star Game in 2010, who finished third in the Cy Young voting that season — the Rockies sure did seem to be in a hurry to part with him. When you factor in Jimenez’s club-friendly contract (he’s under club control through 2014 at reasonable salaries), it seems odd the Rockies would even entertain offers on him.
Unless something’s wrong with him. And there is evidence to suggest there is. His fastball velocity is down a few ticks from 2010. And since going 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA in the first half of 2010, he is just 10-16 with a 4.18 since. He lasted an average of nearly seven innings per start in 2010; he’s lasting almost a full inning less in 2011.
If the Indians were getting the June 2010 version of Jimenez, this trade would be a no-brainer for them. Even if the Indians couldn’t get past the Tigers and into the playoffs this year, with three more seasons of the unstoppable Jimenez atop their rotation, you’d have to like their chances in the near future.
But there is little to suggest this version of Jimenez is as good as last year’s version. When you give up a haul like the one the Indians gave up, you expect to get a sure thing in return. It appears the Indians didn’t get that. They got an immediate injection of hope, which they sorely needed in the face of their current midseason slide.
It was a noble move the Indians made — capitalizing on the sudden opening of a championship window, rewarding the players for their inspired play, giving their fans a reason to believe. You just wonder how smart it was.