CLEVELAND -- Indians manager Manny Acta is always quick to say that his ballclub is not exceeding his expectations. It must be noted, though, that Acta has gained a reputation as a perpetual positive thinker.
The reality is that Cleveland -- with its low payroll and band of young players -- has been one of baseball's first-half surprises. The Tribe has had its ups and downs, but remains in the hunt for the American League Central crown. Save for Acta, that is something no one saw coming.
Truth be told, the Indians are probably a year ahead of schedule in terms of their performance. Now, Cleveland's decision-makers are facing a kind of crossroads with the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline approaching. As the Indians aim for the playoffs, they can stay the course with the group in place or explore the trade market for help.
Cleveland is currently weighing all its options.
"We continue to evaluate both internal and external alternatives," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "The dialogue with other tams has certainly picked up over the last few weeks, and I would expect that to continue here as we approach the Trade Deadline.
"Now, whether that means teams will be ready to move sooner or later, or we'll even match up, that's really tough to say."
On Friday, the Indians absorbed a significant blow when star right fielder Shin-Soo Choo had his left thumb broken by a wild fastball from Giants left-hander Jonathan Sanchez. Choo underwent surgery on Tuesday and will be sidelined until late August at the earliest, robbing the Tribe of his solid bat and strong arm.
Losing Choo has increased the urgency for the Indians to browse the available options via trades. There is one major problem: too many teams are still within earshot of first place in divisions across baseball. The market is still being defined, leaving few realistic trade partners at the moment.
"Even if our timetable may move more quickly, it's still June," Antonetti said. "It takes other teams to trade. A lot of other teams aren't ready to make those decisions at this point, both in terms of their competitiveness, as well as wanting to see what plays out over the next few weeks."
There is also the fact that replacing a player like Choo is no easy task.
"Where can you go to substitute Choo? To the moon?" Acta said. "You're not going to find a guy in a trade that's going to be better than him, and you're not going to find a guy in our system that's better him.
"We're just going to have to battle through it and maybe get better at other positions, or whatever it takes. Certainly, he's not a guy that you can substitute very easy."
That means Cleveland will plow forward with Travis Buck getting the bulk of the at-bats as the team's right fielder. The Tribe is also hoping lineup regulars like Grady Sizemore and Carlos Santana will heat up at the plate, ending the club's season-long reliance on Asdrubal Cabrera, Travis Hafner and Michael Brantley.
The Indians' place in the standings has not changed the fact that the team has little monetary breathing room. The club's attendance has been better than anticipated, creating a little more financial flexibility, but not to the extent that the Tribe can target high-priced players in trades.
"We need the guys that are here," Antonetti said, "to continue to get back to the point of being productive and to play to their abilities. That's where it starts for us, because we're not in a position to go out and make wholesale changes."
The Indians have already shown a willingness to turn to its highly-touted farm system to provide a lift for the Major League club.
Early in the season, pitching prospect Alex White was promoted to the rotation before a right middle finger injury sent him to the disabled list. More recently, the Indians called up second baseman Cord Phelps and the club's top prospect, third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, to assist the offense.
Such internal options will likely continue to be Cleveland's answer for issues at primary roles on the club. If the Indians do swing trades, it seems more probable that the moves would be to improve the reserve roles throughout the roster. Playing a role is the Tribe's reluctance to part with its top prospects.
Highly-regarded prospects such as left-hander Drew Pomeranz and second baseman Jason Kipnis, along with players such as Chisenhall and White, are not going to be moved. They are viewed as integral pieces to Cleveland's upcoming core, and the club is not going to mortgage that future for one playoff run this season.
That does not mean the Indians will not consider dealing prospects.
"There's always a balance," Antonetti said. "We'd measure the talent we feel we'd be getting back, the potential impact on this year's team, their potential contributions to our team going forward and then weigh that against the acquisition cost both in terms of dollars and players."
First and foremost, the Indians need to stay in the postseason hunt.
"Ultimately, what matters is our competitive position," Antonetti said. "That's going to be one of the driving factors in determining what, if anything, that we do."