What will the Indians do with Shin-Soo Choo? The answer will tell us quite a bit about Cleveland's evaluation not only of its 2012 season going astray, but also about 2013, too. The Indians have known for 2 1/2 years that Choo is their property through the 2013 season and not a day longer, given that he's a five-tool talent who latched on with an agent -- Scott Boras -- known for getting his players to free agency as quickly as possible. Naturally, Tuesday's Trade Deadline, coming as it does just as Cleveland spirals out of contention in the American League Central, has a way of forcing a club to take stock of its standing and its assets, both present and future. And there is no question that one of the Tribe's greatest assets in the immediate is Choo.
It comes as no surprise, then, that interest in Choo, who has a .292 average and a .862 OPS and has had a strong presence in the leadoff spot for the Indians, is high right now. Reports have run rampant that the Pirates have particular interest, and they have the ability to dangle promising prospect Starling Marte, among others. It comes as equally no surprise that the Tribe is at least willing to listen to offers for the 30-year-old native of South Korea, because this is an organization known for trying, with varying degrees of success, to reel in returns for its top talent before that talent bolts. Choo's, though, is a particularly delicate case, because it comes at a time when the Indians are still trying to repair relations with a fan base which largely turned its back on the latest rebuild, and his sheer presence is a key element of any effort to maximize the so-called "window of contention" the Indians have outlined for themselves. Because beyond Choo, Cleveland's outfield arrangement at the upper levels of its farm system can best be described as barren with a side of bleak. The most illustrative moment came midseason, when former No. 1 pick Trevor Crowe, drafted nine slots ahead of Jacoby Ellsbury in the famed 2005 First-Year Player Draft, was released by an organization that too often whiffed on amateur talent. The Indians, though, got it right on several relatively low-profile trades, and that was undoubtedly the case when they acquired Choo from the Mariners six years ago. All it cost them was Ben Broussard, the second half of their 2006 first-base platoon. The first half, Eduardo Perez, had also gone to Seattle in exchange for future All-Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. Those two swaps are still nothing short of amazing. It's altogether possible, six years later, Cleveland could get it right again and move Choo for a prime piece or two. The club is definitely targeting upper-level bodies with the ability to play in the Majors in the present tense. But if the return is, say, Marte, who is young (23), controllable and -- bonus -- right-handed (the Indians' lineup famously leans to the left), you're still sacrificing a good deal of 2013 output from the loss of Choo's leadoff lumber in order to attain a longer-term projection. And maybe the Indians are comfortable with that, given that Ubaldo Jimenez, the man whose arrival signaled the Indians' embrace of the aforementioned "window," has established himself as anything but an ace and Justin Masterson has also taken a step back in 2012. Those two have been leaders of the Tribe rotation only in the sense that they have been equally unsteady as the rest of the starting five. Masterson, for the record, has also been rumored to be a movable piece, but he's under the Indians' control through 2014. For this club to contend both in the immediate and in 2013, a rotation upgrade is definitely in order, and that is, of course, the most costly and difficult area to upgrade. So maybe Cleveland uses a strength like Choo to address a weakness, be it in the rotation or the long-term outfield alignment. The Deadline presents a frenzied environment in which clubs act impulsively, so this could be a time to reap a robust return. Or if the Indians are really serious about dangling Choo, they can also wait until winter, when more clubs can get involved. Or they could keep him, knowing they could always monitor this market a year from now, if 2013 goes off track. Choo is the hotter topic at present, but if the Indians are really swaying toward "sell" mode, they would be wiser, simply as a function of in-house replacement options, to part with closer Chris Perez. Perez won't be a free agent until after 2014, but he's already making $4.5 million with another raise looming after a stellar season. If his pay gets bumped to somewhere in the $7 million range, then the Tribe, realistically, could be investing about 10-12 percent of its 2013 player payroll into the erratic commodity that is a closer, knowing full well that lower-cost option exists in Vinnie Pestano and that bullpens, in general, can be pieced together on the cheap. Late-game relief is definitely a seller's market at present and could be in the winter, as well. Naturally, Cleveland has the option of standing pat and letting the 2012 season resolve itself, hoping the first sustained winning stretch this current club goes on will be the one that triggers a rapid rise in the Central standings. But even if the Indians hold firm now, these questions will come up again in the winter. It says here that you can trade Perez and probably still build a winner next year, especially if you wisely apply the money saved. Trading Choo, on the other hand, would present a more difficult proposition for 2013. According to Baseball Reference, Choo has created 71 runs this year, or 16 percent of the Tribe's total output. Combine that with his rocket arm in right, and his impact is impressive. Any returns on a trade better be the same and better be ready for prime time, or else the Indians would have a tough time selling this current "window" as anything other than shut.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.