CLEVELAND -- The Indians are caught in the middle of the American League's crowded Wild Card pack as Thursday's non-waiver Trade Deadline at 4 p.m. ET approaches. For the second straight season, Cleveland does not appear to be either a buyer or seller in the strict sense of either descriptor.
The Tribe certainly has some pieces it could sell, and the club could surely use the boost of a big-ticket trade acqusition. There is always the chance that Cleveland will attempt to balance both avenues as it tries to reduce its deficits in both the AL Central and the AL Wild Card races.
"We're exploring a wide variety of things," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "Big, small. Anything and everything at this point."
As inconsistent as Cleveland's offense has been this season -- hindered by Nick Swisher's season-long slump and injuries at various points for key players such as Jason Kipnis and Michael Bourn -- the Indians' primary need is starting pitching. A right-handed-hitting outfielder to shore up the lineup would not hurt, either.
At the moment, the Indians have two reliable arms atop the starting staff in Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer. Behind that duo, Cleveland has been utilizing a kind of rotation within the rotation, cycling Zach McAllister, T.J. House, Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin between the Majors and Minors to maximize the roster.
Barring a trade for a top-shelf starting pitcher -- and know that the Tribe is searching for such a possibility -- the hope on Cleveland's part is two-fold. First, the Indians would like sidelined starter Justin Masterson to return from the disabled list Friday as the All-Star-caliber arm he was last season. Next, they would love nothing more than for one or two of the other starters to seize their chance in the big leagues.
"In an ideal world," Antonetti said, "a couple of those guys would perform in a way where they became indispensable to the rotation, where we had to keep them at the Major League level. I think that's what we're working toward with each of them. In the meantime, as they perform and contribute in a comparable way, that allows us the flexibility to manage our roster."
There is also the chance that Cleveland could look to trade the 29-year-old Masterson.
Masterson is making roughly $9.8 million this season, and he will be eligible for free agency this coming winter. Through 19 starts, the sinkerballer has gone 4-6 with a 5.51 ERA while dealing with diminished velocity and command woes. Masterson has not started since July 7 and, as it happens, his next start for the Tribe is slated for the day after Thursday's Trade Deadline.
Despite Masterson's struggles, teams have been calling Cleveland to inquire about his availability. If the Indians fall further out of contention in August, it is also possible that the club might consider trading the pitcher prior to the Aug. 31 waiver Trade Deadline.
Antonetti declined comment when asked specifically about Masterson.
"I get that you have to ask," said the general manager. "It's just not constructive to talk about it one way or the other on specific guys."
Indians manager Terry Francona had a different, more optimistic take on Masterson's situation.
"If he was able to get hot, that would be such a pick up for us," Francona said. "I mean, you think back to what he did for us [last season] and what he means to us, it'd almost be like making a trade. The first half's been so tough for him. That'd be really exciting."
Finding a match to bring an elite arm (Tampa Bay's David Price and Boston's Jon Lester are reportedly on the market) into the fold is no easy task, especially with Cleveland hesitant to include top prospect Francisco Lindor in any package. Antonetti has also noted that the Indians are most interested in acquiring players under team control beyond this season.
"I think there are a lot more buyers or sellers," Antonetti said of the current market. "I think the teams that are trading players right now have a very high bar for what they're looking to get back. So the asks are pretty aggressive at this point, and they're waiting to see if they can find teams to meet those asks."
Another player the Indians have reportedly fielded calls on is 28-year-old shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who is earning $10 million in the final season of his contract. With free agency looming for Cabrera and Lindor now at Triple-A Columbus, the Tribe could consider dealing the veteran.
The Indians are not in all-out sell mode, though, because they remain within striking distance of the postseason discussion.
Even on the heels of a rough road trip against all AL Central foes, all Cleveland needs to do is look to last year to know it still has a chance at October baseball. At the end of August, the Indians were 8 1/2 games back of first place in the division and 4 1/2 back of the AL Wild Card picture. They then got on a roll in September, finished one game behind the Tigers in the AL Central and claimed the AL's top Wild Card spot.
"We've got to think about last year," Cabrera said. "We've had ups and downs, too, and we won 21 games in September. That was the key. Anything can happen in the next two months. Let's see what happens."
With Bourn currently sidelined with a left hamstring injury and his timetable for a return still unknown, the Indians already swung a small trade to bring outfielder Chris Dickerson into the fold. On July 7, Cleveland acquired Dickerson from Pittsburgh in exchange for cash or a player to be named later, and he has filled in admirably as a part-timer in left field.
The Indians could use some more balance to their lineup, though. Given Swisher's struggles, combined with Ryan Raburn's dramatic drop-off from last year's production against left-handed pitching, Cleveland has a need for more right-handed production from its offense.
Potential trades aside, Antonetti stressed the importance of having players such as Masterson and Bourn return to full strength and performing at a high level again.
"Both of those guys have shown," Antonetti said, "when they're playing healthy and at their best, they're huge contributors. They have been huge contributors for us. To the extent that we can get those guys back, get them healthy and get them to the point where they perform how they have in the past, that'd be a huge lift for us."