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The Indians Are the AL’s Team to Beat — Even Without Jonathan Lucroy

Cleveland couldn’t land the deadline’s best available player, but Andrew Miller isn’t a bad consolation prize

Getty Images
Getty Images

By both record and run differential, the Cleveland Indians went to sleep on Saturday as the best team in the American League, boasting baseball’s third-best chance of winning the World Series. Two late-night/early-morning Ken Rosenthal reports later, the Tribe appeared to have turned into a juggernaut. Late Saturday night, the Indians and Brewers agreed to terms on a trade involving Jonathan Lucroy, probably the deadline’s best player available in a somewhat depleted pool. And less than eight hours later, they shocked the world with the news that they’d also acquired Andrew Miller, the market’s most valuable reliever. For a while, it looked like Cleveland Week was beginning again.

Unfortunately for the Indians, Lucroy had leverage: an eight-team no-trade list that included Cleveland. Lucroy, understandably, asked the Indians to tear up his below-market 2017 option in exchange for waiving his right to block the deal. The Indians, understandably, said no. Lucroy backed up his brinkmanship by vetoing the trade, which left both clubs without what they wanted, and Lucroy facing the prospect of staying in Milwaukee or going to a team with a worse chance to win — and still not making much money.

Even if Cleveland’s hopes of landing Lucroy are indeed dead, the Indians ended the weekend with a heck of a compensation prize. By targeting another elite player (this time, one who lacked the power to turn them down) in Miller, the Indians added a formidable weapon for the price of a four-prospect package — one that convinced the Yankees to trade an unhittable lefty reliever for the second time in a week.

Nothing in the Indians’ recent track record prepared us for the small-market club acting like big buyers. The Indians have made next to no midsummer moves since the 2011 Ubaldo Jiménez trade; in 2013, the last time they qualified for the playoffs, their big deadline addition was Marc Rzepczynski (whom they aren’t over yet). And despite serious offseason uncertainty about Michael Brantley’s shoulder, the team’s biggest expenditure last winter was a one-year, $7 million deal for Mike Napoli. The Indians entered the weekend with the AL’s third-lowest payroll, after the Rays and A’s — who, not by complete coincidence, are also the only two teams who’ve drawn fewer fans per game. In the past, Cleveland had played the part of a low-revenue club by hoarding its prospects, but the man mostly responsible, former GM and president Mark Shapiro, has moved to Toronto, last summer’s most active deadline team. After several years of close calls and disappointing performances, the Indians are as well positioned to win as they’ll ever be. This was the time to trade in young talent.

Miller, who’s lethal against lefties and righties, was one of baseball’s best bullpen guys when the Yankees signed him in December 2014. He’s improved since then, holding his velocity, raising his ground-ball and strikeout rates, and lowering his once sky-high walk rate to Cliff Lee–like levels. As Jeff Sullivan observed earlier this season, Miller is among the best at enticing hitters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone and at convincing them to take pitches inside the strike zone, which are both good ways to get guys out. Among pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched, Miller leads the majors in both deserved run average and contextual FIP, which are two fancy statistical ways of saying that on a batter-by-batter basis, no one has been better.

By most measures, the Indians previously had a middle-of-the-pack pen, which Miller instantly elevates; the team is now tied with the Cubs for baseball’s best bullpen projection. Miller and Cody Allen give Cleveland the late-inning bat-missing combo that clubs crave in the postseason, when closers and setup men assume more prominent roles on the staff, throwing a far higher percentage of team innings than they do prior to October. Although Miller’s arrival will cost Allen saves, the right-hander hasn’t been used like a typical closer, and he should be happy to have help: He’s tied for the second-most games pitched since 2013, beaten only by teammate Bryan Shaw, whose diminished stats suggest he may be suffering because of that workload. Outside of a Lucroy acquisition — and hey, they tried — adding Miller was probably the biggest single move the Indians could have made to boost their odds of snapping their title drought before it reaches 68 seasons.

And unlike new Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman, Miller is much more than a three-month rental. He’s signed for the next two seasons at $9 million apiece, maybe half as much as he’d make on the open market. Of course, all of Miller’s surplus value came at a cost: two top-100 prospects in Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield, plus two upper-level relievers with Milleresque minor league stats, Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen.

Frazier, the fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft, ranked 21st on Baseball America’s midseason list. The no-longer-strikeout-prone outfielder, who’ll turn 22 in September, was promoted to Triple-A last week after a strong start to the year in the Eastern League. He could contribute in the big leagues as soon as next season, unless the Yankees inadvertently trigger a Samson scenario by making him cut his flowing locks. Sheffield, a 2014 first-rounder and a hard-throwing left-handed starter who ranked 69th on the same list, held his own in High-A after turning 20 this spring.

Despite some internet commenters’ terrible takes, Brian Cashman has never ninja’d as well as he did with the two transaction sequences that built up and broke down his superpen and ruined some terrible T-shirts. The Chapman trade, however morally bankrupt, was baseball-brilliant, a bit of buy-low profiteering that turned spare parts into a top prospect, former Cubs shortstop Gleyber Torres. And Miller cost only money, the one commodity that even the mediocre Yankees have had.

The Yankees chose wisely when they signed Miller for four years and $36 million (less than the Astros had reportedly offered) in December 2014 instead of bringing back David Robertson, the homegrown closer who’d succeeded Mariano Rivera. Since then, Robertson — who signed with the White Sox for $10 million more than Miller — has recorded one less out and allowed 23 more runs. Not only did the Yankees get one and a half years of a dominant reliever, but they traded the remaining years for the type of prospects they’ve historically had a hard time adding through the draft — and they did so after cold-bloodedly bolstering their leverage by leading Miller to believe that he wouldn’t be traded. And between Heller (a potential closer), Feyereisen, and former Diamondbacks setup man Tyler Clippard, whom the Yankees added on Sunday, next year’s team may not even miss Miller’s innings that much.

A week ago, the Yankees had four top-100 prospects, as rated by Baseball America; to those, they’ve added Frazier, Sheffield, and Torres. That gives them seven — more than any other club can claim, now that the Indians have subtracted from their own sizable stockpile. The thought of the Yankees sitting on one of baseball’s best farm systems, with big contracts expiring and even bigger ones waiting to be signed, should strike some fear into every Yankee hater’s heart. The last time the Bombers built from within, it started the streak of 23 winning seasons that their moves this month might finally snap.

But that’s a story for the next several seasons. For now, the Indians take center stage. Whether you believe pitching wins in the postseason or simply bet on the best team to win in October, the Indians have solidified their status as the AL’s team to beat. Baseball being what it is, that translates to an underwhelming one-in-seven chance of winning the World Series this season. But with a rotation of talented, team-controlled starters, a young superstar in Francisco Lindor, and Miller locking down leads through 2018, the Indians’ window in the wide-open AL Central won’t close for the foreseeable future.