CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – The Cleveland Indians finished off the three-game series sweep of the Athletics, routing Oakland on Sunday afternoon, 8-0.
This column features my takeaways from Sunday’s game. If you want more baseball coverage, you can follow me on Twitter (@TJZuppe).
1. SORRY, NOT SORRY
Jonathan Lucroy isn’t coming to Cleveland.
The Milwaukee Brewers catcher chose that path after blocking a proposed deal between the Indians and Brewers centered around the All-Star backstop. And it doesn’t sound like the Tribe’s locker room will be shedding any tears.
“I don’t know the specifics of why he chose to use that no-trade [clause], but he had that in his contract, so that’s his right,” Sunday starter Corey Kluber said. “As far as we’re concerned, we’ll move forward with the guys we do have here.”
And that’s essentially the attitude the rest of the locker room has taken when it comes to Lucroy’s decision. Yes, he has every right to exercise his partial no-trade clause in any way he wants for whatever reasons he wants. Playing time, contract leverage, money, it doesn’t really matter.
If he doesn’t want to come to Cleveland, so be it. But that won’t impact the Tribe’s players in any way, shape or form. They’ve got games to win and people to prove wrong.
Why spend any time feeling deflated over Lucroy’s decision when their newest teammate, Andrew Miller, will be joining them for their upcoming four-game series opener against the Minnesota Twins? After all, it was the Tribe’s decision on Sunday morning to acquire the talented left-handed hurler which really took everyone by surprise.
2. THE PRODUCTION
With Aroldis Chapman off the board, there is not a reliever on the market more dominant, talented and productive than Andrew Miller.
Over the past three years, Miller has been a top three reliever in baseball.
Only Chapman and Dellin Betances have been better over the past three years coming out of the bullpen than the Indians’ newest hurler. Over that time, the lefty has averaged 93 strikeouts and 15 walks over 56 innings per season.
This year, Miller has been just as impressive, owning a 1.39 ERA, 1.77 FIP and 0.772 WHIP. He’s walked just seven batters in 45 1/3 innings. SEVEN! And he’s registered 77 strikeouts in 44 appearances.
Lefties are hitting .191 against him. The righties? .165.
There’s a reason why the Indians had to pay so much to get him (more on that in a bit). His production is off the charts. Like, literally. They had to create new charts just for guys like him.
Since becoming a full-time reliever in 2012, Miller has walked just 88 guys total. Over that same period, he’s struck out 379 in 240 1/3 frames. That’s a 4.68 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His ability to command the baseball, avoid the walks and punchout the opposition makes him a lethal mix at the end of games.
And what about his postseason numbers? You know. That place Cleveland is desperately trying to reach this October? Well, if you care to read into 8 1/3 career playoff innings, Miller has allowed one hit, zero runs, one walk and has recorded 12 strikeouts.
Basically, if you went into a laboratory with the intention of creating a near-perfect back-end reliever, you’d hope to end up with someone as good as Miller. And given how incredibly important it was for the Indians to add someone capable of providing a shutdown inning at the end of close games, the fit was so obvious it was slap-you-in-the-face worthy.
“In so many ways, I’m not sure there’s a better fit and better complement to our team than Andrew Miller,” Indians President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti said. “For his ability to be so effective, but his willingness to do anything to help the team and pitch whenever it made sense. I think that speaks to who he is as a person, and we think he’ll fit right in to the fabric of our team.”
3. THE ROLE
So, where will Miller pitch? Other than asking when he’ll make his debut (he’s expected to get in sometime on Sunday night), that’s the most important question being asked about the dominant southpaw. And it’s an interesting question, for sure. But it’s probably the best problem manager Terry Francona has ever had.
Does Francona plug Miller into the ninth? He originally signed with the Yankees to be their closer in 2014. The lefty successfully converted 36 saves in his first season in the pinstripes, emerging as one of baseball’s most lethal ninth-inning hurlers. But then New York acquired Chapman from the Reds in the winter, and Miller was more than willing to switch roles to do what was best for the team.
No doubt, it was that sort of self-sacrifice which makes his upcoming transition to the Indians, a club full of guys willing to look past personal goals for the greater good of the franchise, a smooth and seamless one.
But then there’s Cody Allen, the Tribe’s current closer. While certainly not on Miller’s level, Allen has emerged as one of baseball’s best relievers himself, taking the ball in the ninth inning for Cleveland for over two years. More often than not, the righty has gotten the job done for the Indians. He would absolutely have every right to demand retention of the closer title.
But that’s not really how this Indians team is wired, as Antonetti noted on Sunday morning.
“I want to make a specific mention of Cody Allen,” he said. “I was on the road trip with the team and he came to me and said, ‘Chris, hey, for whatever it’s worth, all I care about is winning. I will do anything to help the team win, so if you feel that there’s some guy out there that can help us and help the bullpen,’ he said, ‘I’ll pitch whenever Tito wants me to pitch.’ And he reinforced that with us today. I can’t tell you how much that means to me and speaks to Cody and his mentality and how much he cares about winning.”
As for who will do what? That’s still to be determined. Francona plans to sit down with Miller, Allen and Bryan Shaw next week to address those sorts of things. But given the way Miller handled the situation in New York and Allen’s willingness to put the team first, there’s no reason to believe a successful strategy can’t be implemented.
The most important factor: Francona now has multiple quality arms to throw at opposing teams when the game hangs in the balance. And with a starting rotation capable of carrying ballgames into the seventh on a nightly basis, the ability to shorten every contest only makes Cleveland that much more difficult to beat.
4. THE CONTROL
The price the Indians paid was severe. And maybe we haven’t stressed that enough.
It’s easy to get caught up in the acquisition of a talent like Miller, but it was absolutely painful for the Tribe to part with young prospect talents like outfielder Clint Frazier and pitcher Justus Sheffield.
Like all deals involving prospects, there’s a really good possibility that Sunday’s deal could become regrettable at some point in the future. Maybe that happens as Frazier is clubbing monster blasts in Yankee Stadium or Sheffield is locking down future Indians lineups.
That’s the risk you run. But it’s important to note a couple of things when examining the four-player package the Indians sent New York, including Frazier, Sheffield, and relievers Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen.
First: Miller’s addition years of control were absolutely critical. Without the two extra years of Miller beyond 2016, this deal doesn’t get done. In no way would Cleveland be capable paying the same price for just a rental, an issue they faced when discussing a deal involving Chapman with New York.
Miller is owed $9 million in each of the next two seasons. But even if that financial burden presents a potential issue, the Indians could always recoup some of their prospect loss by flipping the lefty in the off-season. Of course, they probably wouldn’t get a package to the level they sent New York on Sunday, but it is possible that he could be used to help off-set the departure of Frazier or Sheffield.
That’s just one option. Or they could just hold on to one of the game’s best relievers. That’s another solid option.
Second: The Indians’ ability to make a deal like this shows the drastic improvement of their farm system over the past several seasons. A collection of good drafts combined with solid development helped enable Cleveland to part with some incredible talents, in part, because they’ve built some depth at all levels. In years past, the front office might not be comfortable with giving up players of that skill level. But with quality depth in many areas, a trade like Sunday’s can become possible.
“I think it really speaks to the job our scouting staff and our development group has done,” Antonetti said. “To be able to not only have a healthy Major League team that has a lot of members of the farm system that are making an impact, but to be able to have the depth in the farm system to make a trade like this and still look up and feel pretty good about the guys that we still have here, I think it speaks to the tremendous work of a great group of people in our scouts and our player development staff. Without their work, we wouldn’t be in a position to make this type of deal.”
5. RAISING THE BAR
Prospects are unproven. That doesn’t mean they should be thrown around recklessly in trades for veterans. And there certainly is a fine line between bold and foolish. But when the time is right, that young talent can absolutely help provide the difference in more ways than one.
The Indians were already a World Series contender; Their 60-42 record, best in the American League, confirms that. But adding a guy like Miller, fixing a spot which has been such a glaring weakness for the Tribe in 2016, pushes those aspirations to a new level.
The expectations have changed. It’s no longer about hoping to make the postseason. It’s now about trying to win it all. Unfortunately, you don’t always get to pick and choose when your championship window opens and closes. There are so many variables along the way.
Grabbing a guy like Miller, however, helps remove a few of those unknown elements from the equation.