The Indians didn't acquire Mike Aviles over the weekend in order to trade Asdrubal Cabrera. In fact, when asked if he still envisioned Cabrera as his starting shortstop on Opening Day 2013, this was general manager Chris Antonetti's precise, plain-as-day reply: "Yes." Hmm. Not a whole lot of room for shades of gray there.
But heading into an awfully interesting and important winter for the Indians organization, Antonetti has the option to be a little bit more open-minded about his shortstop situation. Because while he has multiple trade chips he can dangle the next few months as the Tribe figures out how best to surround its championship-caliber new manager with a championship-caliber ballclub, no one, in this moment, is more attractive and more ready to reap an impactful return than Cabrera. The Indians know their roster as currently constructed is too flawed, too fragmented, to be a realistic contender in 2013 -- even in as winnable a division as the American League Central, where the eventual AL champion Tigers needed just 88 victories to claim the division crown in 2012. A glaring lack of upside arms in the rotation and a lineup that leans too heavily left-handed were major culprits in the Tribe's fall from grace in the second half of 2012. And while Terry Francona was an applaudable acquisition who could create a winning culture in Cleveland, this club was clearly much more than a managerial switch away from making major strides in the standings. The front office, then, will be forced to evaluate its assets. Some have viewed Francona's arrival as a sign that the Tribe is not focused on a full-scale rebuild. Perhaps that's the case. But no matter the profile of the skipper, the Indians are not in position to field a high-profile payroll. And the state of the roster and the state of the farm system presents a strong case for being opportunistic in the trade market, exploring the possibility that two birds in the bush could, in fact, eventually outweigh the bird in hand. Who are the birds in hand? There's Shin-Soo Choo, an impact hitter against right-handed pitching who has proven adept in both the leadoff spot and No. 3 hole. Great arm. Great competitor. But a year away from free agency, the Scott Boras client could have a limited market, especially when you factor in his struggles against lefties. There's Chris Perez, the colorful and quotable closer. He's a reasonably reliable ninth-inning option for a team in need, and the Indians have Vinnie Pestano ready, willing and able to step into that role. But Perez's expanding arbitration worth -- he could make $7 million or more in 2013 -- and open mouth don't bode particularly well for his trade value. There's Justin Masterson, who was emerging as an ace in 2011 but took a drastic step back in '12. Teams would line up to take a chance on him, but the Indians would be selling low. There's Carlos Santana, not so long ago viewed as a superstar in training. But he, too, had a subpar season, and his position has come increasingly into question, as even the Indians seem unsure of whether his future is behind the plate or at first base. Either way, Santana is signed through at least 2016, so dealing him now -- when it still seems his best days are firmly in front of him -- does not appear to be an attractive option. In a rebuild, you trade away just about all of the above and bring back as many warm bodies as you possibly can. The Indians, though, have given no indication that they're going the full-rebuild route. The road they would rather take is the one Oakland traveled a year ago, dealing from depth and going young but feisty. The A's proved feisty enough to stunningly win the AL West -- a method easy to admire and all but impossible to replicate. But for the Indians, Cabrera at least fits the formula. Why? Because he's a 27-year-old All-Star shortstop locked into a reasonable deal ($16.5 million over the next two seasons). There is always a demand for up-the-middle talent, and Cabrera -- even with some concerns about his conditioning and fading range -- has value as a starter at either short or second. And for teams like the A's, Red Sox and Mariners, there could be particular demand in the trade market, because the free-agent market this winter is definitely dim. It's true that the Indians also have use for a 27-year-old All-Star shortstop with an affordable deal. But the Aviles acquisition buys them some flexibility. Aviles, who hit .250 with a .663 OPS in 136 games as Boston's primary shortstop last season, could be a stopgap before the Indians start dipping into their Minor League system -- Juan Diaz, who spent the bulk of 2012 in Double-A, and Tony Wolters and Ronny Rodriguez, who spent the whole season at the high Class A level. Francisco Lindor, the Tribe's No. 1 pick from the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, is viewed as the club's shortstop of the future, but even in an environment in which clubs are speeding up the timetables of their top picks, Lindor is only going to be 19 next year. So he's still a ways away from the bigs. You deal Cabrera and lean on Aviles and the organizational depth if and only if you can bring back some young and projectable starting pitchers. That will be the goal in any trade the Tribe makes at this juncture, but Cabrera has the ability to bring back more than any other trading chip the Indians can reasonably dangle.
If Cleveland explored that route, it would be dealing Cabrera at his perceived peak -- though his 2011 season, in which he hit 25 homers and drove in 92 runs, was likely his actual peak.Maybe that's not the route the Indians are inclined to go. But that's the sort of aggressive approach a small-market club that has struggled in the drafting and development departments needs to take to build a winner on a budget.