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The con of the rebuild in the AL Central

Ever get the feeling you’ve been had?

Minnesota Twins v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

There are all kinds of transactions in baseball between teams. There are prospects for veterans. There’s the “change of scenery” deal. There is the now-rare Major Leaguer straight up for another major leaguer trade. Then there are some baseball transactions that are baffling. The ones that feel lopsided from the moment they are announced and, with the benefit of time and understanding, remain questionable.

We saw that kind of transaction on Sunday.

Cleveland Indians traded RHP Corey Kluber and cash to Texas Rangers for RHP Emmanuel Clase and CF Delino DeShields.

Let’s sum this up as succinctly as possible. Cleveland just sent the 2014 and 2017 AL Cy Young award winner to Texas in exchange for a fireballing 22-year old reliever and a fourth outfielder.

To put it even more succinctly, this was a salary dump by a team located in the AL Central.

There is plenty of risk inherent with Kluber. He battled injury (a broken forearm followed by an oblique strain suffered during a rehab assignment) for most of 2019 and didn’t pitch after May 1. When he was on the mound this year, he was dreadful with a 5.80 ERA over seven starts. His walk rate almost tripled from the previous year to 3.8 BB/9. His ERA- ballooned to 121. And his hard-hit percentage has jumped almost 10 percentage points over the last two years and finished at a robust 38.4 percent this year. He’s lost a tick off his fastball. And we haven’t even mentioned that next year he will be owed $18.5 million and will be pitching in his age 34 season. There is no guarantee he will find his former form. There’s no guarantee he will even match what he did this year, which was by any metric poor.

Maybe it’s too early to evaluate this trade if there’s another chip to fall. But here’s what we do know. Cleveland entered last offseason in the pole position as the favorites in the AL Central and did nothing to improve their station. Nothing. Their Opening Day payroll dropped from $135 million in 2018 to $120 million. They opened the season with an outfield of Jake Bauers, Leonys Martin and Tyler Naquin. Was it hubris or penuriousness? The only thing we can say for certain was it was damn foolish. Of course the Twins bashed their way to the Central, but Cleveland somehow found themselves in the thick of the postseason hunt in September. Imagine if they hadn’t squandered a winter where they weren’t 29-29 after June 1.

Cleveland fans should be furious. They should be enjoying a mini dynasty within the division. And as we know well enough around these parts, sometimes all you need is to do is qualify for the postseason. Just qualify. Then if you can go on a run in October… look out. Yet instead of postseason dreams, there are offseason nightmares. Cleveland drew over three million fans a year when they last put together a Central Division juggernaut in the late 1990s. In 2020 they’ll be lucky to snooker half that amount to pay for tickets.

And as another AL Central team once again takes themselves out of the running for October consideration 10 months in advance, the Royals are still in the nascent stages of The Process 2.0. We say that all the time… The Process… The Process 2.0. But what exactly is The Process? It would be easier to talk about it if there was some definition to it. Some shape. A few milestones. Sure, baseball never follows a linear path. There are setbacks and detours. Rarely do things go according to plan. But still… what is the plan, exactly? The Process is nebulous. Undefined.

And given the circumstances in the AL Central, it feels like missed opportunity.

You are told to be patient, the pitching prospects are on the way, but the reality is who the hell knows when they will arrive and how they will actually pitch if they even get here. Dream on Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic all you like. The reality is, not all four of these guys will make it.

But what if they do? What if, by some baseball miracle, all four contribute meaningful innings in Kansas City in the next couple of seasons. When is the right time for the Royals to make supplementary moves? For Dayton Moore, the recently completed Winter Meetings was all about meeting agents and laying groundwork for bargain basement free agent deals they expect to culminate in February. There may be a signing that could push the team to 65 wins. Or one who could be flipped for a “C” level prospect at the July trade deadline. For the third winter in a row… How exciting.

Maybe the front office, who knows more about their own personnel than anyone, believes that 2020 is the year we could begin to see the young arms advance to the majors. Maybe it’s 2021. The timetable often shifts during these rebuilds but the question that needs to be asked is when will the Royals finally break out of their one year, bargain bin moves and make a larger play in the free agent market. When will they smartly spend some dough to accelerate The Process 2.0?

This is a lament on missed opportunity. There are only a handful of teams that can realistically expect to compete every single year. The Royals, saddled with a small market and tiny revenue streams, are not one of those teams. Yet they play in a division that is favorable to their market size and budget.

The Royals find themselves in this position because their free agents from the original Process exited while the pipeline from the minors ran dry. They rightfully went for it in 2016, but with the storm clouds on the horizon, why weren't they more active in laying the foundation for beyond? Why settle for a full rebuild? Why not be nimble and ready to take advantage of unforeseen situations like 60 percent of a division going into the tank? As we have seen, when you go full rebuild you have to steer directly into it. Deviating from the plan only sets you back.

The Twins are the prohibitive favorites to repeat but only because the other four teams are already waving the white flag. And let’s be clear... The Twins didn’t win 101 games because they were some sort of baseball powerhouse. They won 101 games because they played in the same division as the Tigers (14 wins in 19 games), the Royals (14 wins), and the White Sox (13 wins).

Sure, Minnesota still has what looks to be a mighty lineup, but they have been unable to improve thus far this offseason. They need help in the rotation, but have whiffed on the free agent market, unwilling to go the extra step to lock down a tier-two starter. Looking down the division, the Tigers are worse at rebuilding than the Royals. Chicago may be ready to make the leap into contention, but after watching them implode for the last decade-plus, does anyone actually believe this is their year? Is there anybody here who can win this thing?

According to USA Today, the AL Central teams ranked 16th (Cleveland), 18th (Minnesota), 21st (Detroit), 22nd (Kansas City) and 24th (Chicago) in Opening Day payroll in 2019. This is a division firmly planted in the lower middle class on the MLB economic spectrum. The idea that teams in this division can’t compete among themselves is ludicrous.

The rebuild is a con to hoodwink the paying customer into accepting losses. Tank today, win tomorrow! Except as we said earlier, nothing is guaranteed. Maybe one or two teams (including the Royals) found that path successful in the recent past, but now so many teams are copying that method, it’s even less of a sure thing than before. Now it’s simply an excuse for ownership to line their pockets with profit. Lose today, tell everyone you plan to win tomorrow. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Lacking a powerhouse franchise or a team with a distinct fiscal advantage the AL Central could be—should be—a wide open competition. For the teams like the Royals—merely spectators in the offseason—it feels like a missed opportunity.

I’ve written that 81 wins is baseball’s version of Siberia. It’s the desolate middle ground that no team wants to inhabit. That’s the risk in going for it. We saw that in 2016 and 2017 in Kansas City and that’s a reason we’re currently going through yet another rebuild. Shoot for contention, but fall to .500. Lose out on the postseason and the desirable draft pick. It takes planning, guts and a little bit of luck to accelerate the timetable. But the Royals will stick to The Process 2.0. They’ve moved so far down this path, that it’s probably the right move. It’s another year of watching 90-plus losses in Kansas City while following boxscores from places like Wilmington, Northwest Arkansas and Lexington. Hoping the elbow holds and the pocketbook will eventually open. Someday.

Another year of avoiding the word rebuild. Another year of missed opportunity.