By now, Cleveland Indians fans have grown accustomed to watching their favorite players being shipped out of town around the trade deadline.
Casey Blake, Paul Byrd, Mark DeRosa, Ben Francisco, Ryan Garko, Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez, Carl Pavano, and C.C. Sabathia have all been shipped off between late June and early August the last couple years—and that doesn’t count winter exports Franklin Gutierrez and Kelly Shoppach.
Introducing the Cleveland Indians Trading Post, a new weekly segment to help my fellow Tribe fans sort out which of the few familiar faces we have left might not be around much longer.
This week’s potential trade candidate is Austin Kearns.
A former top prospect in the Reds’ system, Kearns had a fantastic season (5.0 Wins Above Replacement in just 107 games) as a rookie in 2002. After posting an impressive 7.8 WAR from 2006-07, the injury-prone outfielder suffered elbow, foot, and thumb problems in 2008-09, and his production dropped off the table completely (.633 OPS over those two seasons).
The Indians signed him to a Minor League deal in the offseason. His contract is for one year and $750,000.
Why he’s expendable
For the Indians this season, any player signed to a one-year deal will have his contract expire before the team has a chance of contending. Once we officially wave the white flag, it doesn’t make sense to keep anyone who’s on his way out for a few extra months when we could trade him at midseason and get some building blocks for the future in return.
There’s a chance the Indians would re-sign him in the offsesaon, but it doesn’t seem likely. The Indians couldn’t afford to sign any dependable players last winter, and while having Kerry Wood and Jake Westbrook off the books next year will free up some payroll, there’s no guarantee that Larry Dolan will be willing to open his wallet to extend an expensive player.
Even if the Indians do decide to flex some financial muscle in the offseason, the Tribe has too many talented young outfielders to justify clogging up a spot with a more expensive veteran. Unless Grady Sizemore’s drastic meltdown proves to be a permanent collapse, he and Shin-Soo Choo have two of Cleveland’s three outfield spots locked down.
If Kearns is permanently added to the cast, what does that mean for Michael Brantley? Jordan Brown would have even less of an opportunity to prove himself in the majors. Trevor Crowe wouldn’t get the chance to rediscover wherever potential he once had. Nick Weglarz would have trouble finding space in the lineup when he eventually gets the call, and Matt LaPorta would surely lose playing time, at least indirectly.
Why he has value
The aforementioned injury and production problems seem to be behind him. Kearns has forced his way into the Indians’ starting lineup this year, hitting .346 with a .954 OPS, a .422 wOBA (a weighted on-base average which reflects a hitter's value), and 16 RBI in 22 games. That’s certainly enough to interest an inquiring GM.
And even while his bat has floundered in recent years, his glove has remained solid. He’s posted a positive UZR (ultimate zone rating, which essentially shows whether a player's defense is above or below average) in eight of his nine MLB seasons.
Over that time span, he’s saved an estimated 57.1 runs—ninth best among outfielders and better than noted defense stalwarts Mike Cameron (47.0) and J.D. Drew (43.4).
Where he’d go
You’d be hard-pressed to find a team that wouldn’t be interested in Kearns at this point. If he can maintain something close to his current level of production, it’s hard not to expect a bidding war, and given his bargain-basement salary, even a low-budget contender might give up a king’s ransom in return.
With the worst team wOBA (.291) in the league, Seattle seems a likely suitor. In addition to giving the Mariners a much-needed offensive upgrade, the team’s starting outfielders would combine for a 43.2 career UZR/150 (ultimate zone rating per 150 games) rating; surely that would make Jack Zduriencik drool.
Their division rivals, the Athletics, could also use a lineup upgrade; thought before the season to have a glut of good outfielders, Ryan Sweeney is the only one who has been even a slightly above-average hitter (.328 wOBA) so far. And the stingy Moneyball-ers could afford Kearns’ six-digit salary.
Or perhaps Kearns would be best suited in Atlanta. Identified as a clear pitching-heavy team before Opening Day, most fans agreed that the Braves could contend if they could muster a respectable offensive showing.
Atlanta’s mediocre 16-18 record is a reflection of the team’s poor .312 wOBA. The pathetic Nate McClouth (.266 wOBA) has been their second-best outfielder to date; Kearns would do the Braves a lot of good.
What do you think? Will Kearns be traded? Where will he go, and who will we get in return?