Indians Bargain Bin Shopping May Pay Off
By Craig Gifford
The Cleveland Indians certainly did some big-time shopping this winter. Their additions of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to lucrative, long-term deals and the one-year, $6 million contract given to Mark Reynolds, earned high praise during the offseason. A team known for pinching pennies opened a lot of eyes by opening the checkbook larger than ever before and took leaps and bounds toward becoming relevant again.
While those were all much-needed additions, some of the Tribe’s best values may have come out of the bargain bin. Cleveland picked up veterans Jason Giambi, Scott Kazmir, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Ryan Raburn on cheap, spring training invite deals. At the time, many fans scoffed and proclaimed this was no longer 2008. In 2012, all four players struggled with injuries, down years or being out of Major League Baseball entirely. Now it looks promising that at least three of the four could be wearing an Indians uniform on Opening Day.
Typically, a team is lucky to hit on one player who can not find work and is trying to make a comeback. The experiments, much like Johnny Damon with the Tribe last season, do not usually pan out. Giambi, Kazmir and Raburn are looking each day like keepers, while Matsuzaka may only be a victim to the numbers game.
Of the free agent finds, it seems Giambi may have the most firm grip on a Major League roster spot to start the season. Giambi struggled last year with one home run and a .225 batting average in a part-time role with Colorado. However, Cleveland manager Terry Francona sees a veteran in Giambi, who can lead a young team and may still have something left in the tank.
“He’s everything you want in a player,” Francona said at the start of spring training. “He’s a good teammate, respects the game and wants to win. Even when he’s on the other team you respected him, you just didn’t want him at the plate.”
Giambi is only 3 for 16 on the spring, however. He did get his first hit and first two RBI of the spring against the L.A. Dodgers and added two hits on Thursday against the San Francisco Giants. Despite the struggles at the plate in the early going, Francona has not been deterred in his hopes that the 42-year-old left hander will do what it takes to earn a roster spot.
“He has a presence about him,” Francona said. “He doesn’t swing at bad pitches, ever. He’ll take a walk and he still has his bat speed, so I’ve been very impressed.”
If Giambi makes the team, and listening to Francona he should, it would be as a part-time designated hitter, only batting against right-handed pitching. He would allow Francona to rest Reynolds, who is expected to be the full-time DH, or move Reynolds to first and give Swisher a break. The chances of seeing Giambi in Cleveland come April are high. He may be able to help a little bit on offense, but his biggest contribution will be as a mentor to the young players. He was nearly named manager of the Rockies in the offseason, so his knowledge of the game is well-respected.
Meanwhile, a player who may help a little more at the plate is Raburn. The former Detroit Tiger struggled last season as he battled injuries. The 31-year-old, given Detroit’s second base job to open 2012, hit just .171 with one homer in 66 games. However, in the three seasons before that, Raburn proved to be a solid run-producer. Defensively, Raburn has played all three outfield spots, first base, second base and third base in the majors.
“The day I got the job, (GM) Chris (Antonetti) and I were talking,” Francona said. “I said if this guy (Raburn) ever comes off the Tigers’ roster, he’s a guy I like. Chris said he liked him, too. So we targeted him early.
Raburn has not disappointed this spring. He currently has hit four homers with 11 RBI, batting .550 (11-for-20). Friday he had two doubles and drove in two in a pair of at bats. He is looking like the guy who hit no less than 14 home runs or no worse tham a .256 average from 2009-2011. If he keeps up this clip, it will be hard to keep him off the Tribe roster. His ability to play all over the field is a big plus if the Indians are going to keep Giambi. Having a player who can do the job of a couple backups in Raburn would be a huge benefit to a team possibly keeping someone who only plays DH on a part-time basis.
“The unfortunate year he had, may have helped us,” Francona said. “He had a tough year. If he would have had a good year, we wouldn’t have had a chance to get him. The Tigers felt he could be their starting second baseman, so there’s something there.”
The Indians will start the year with four bench players. Utility infielder Mike Aviles is a given. One spot will go to a catcher, likely Lou Marson. The third spot appears to be Giambi. That leaves Ezequiel Carrera, Yan Gomes and Raburn battling for the final bench slot. Raburn’s versatility should give him the edge, provided his hitting does not go completely south between now and Opening Day.
One player quite familiar with Opening Day is Scott Kazmir. The veteran left-hander was a former Opening Day starter when he was with the Rays earlier in his career. After two nearly entire seasons out of the majors, Kazmir is now trying to regain his former glory with Cleveland.
Little was expected of Kazmir when he signed on with the Tribe. Last year, after being cut by the Angels, the only work Kazmir could find was on the independent circuit with the Sugar Land Skeeters. He pitched well enough for the Indians to take notice. He is now trying to erase the memories of horrible 2010, his last full year in the big leagues. In 2011, he pitched just one and two-thirds innings for the Angels, allowing five earned runs.
In Goodyear, Kazmir has seemingly found the fountain of youth. In four innings of A game work, he has not surrendered a run, striking out four batters and walking none. He pitched a B game on Wednesday in an effort to focus on improving his slider against lesser competition. He threw three innings and continued to impress Cleveland’s management.
“He’s a lot more mature pitcher than we expected,” Francona said. “You watch him in his delivery and it’s smooth. The ball is coming out free and easy. Obviously, he was very prepared for this camp. The hope is that he holds his stuff. You hope it goes up and the tank gets more full because I think right now, with the stuff he has, he can pitch and win.”
Kazmir is in competition for the one of the final two rotation spots. The top three spots are a given with Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Brett Myers. The Indians would like to see Zach McAllister, who had a good rookie showing last year, take the fourth spot. He has struggled this spring. He and fellow 2012 rookie Corey Kluber have matching 6.43 ERAs in seven innings of work, each. Both may be proving to need a little more seasoning.
Carlos Carrasco was also thought to have a strong shot at coming back from Tommy John surgery and getting back into the Cleveland rotation this year. He, too, has struggled with an 11.25 ERA in four innings. It could be he needs more time to get acquainted with major league hitting.
That leaves the door wide open for Kazmir. One thing that helps is that Kazmir is a lefty in an otherwise right-handed dominated Indians rotation. David Huff, also a lefty hoping for a starting job, may be better suited for the bullpen. Kazmir’s leftty status is certainly a plus. It also helps that, unlike most players trying to make a comeback, Kazmir is still young. He entered the majors so early (at 20) that he seems older that his 29 years of age. He is essentially in what should be his physical prime.
When spring training first began, Kazmir seemed like one of the longest of long shots to make the team. Now, he very well could be the number four or five starter.
Matsuzaka is also in competition for one of the last two rotation jobs. He has looked good, with a 2.57 ERA in seven frames. He had a tough time coming back from Tommy John surgery last season as he was 1-7 with an 8.28 in 11 games upon his comeback with Boston. He has not had a real good year since winning 18 games in 2008. Still, when he had his best two seasons (2007 and 2008) they were with Francana and the Red Sox. Matsuzaka is still a dark horse, as the Indians would likely prefer to only have to add one new starter to the 40-man roster. However, he can not be completely dismissed.
It is amazing that the Indians could open the year with three or four of their bargain finds on the roster. Amazing, still, they could all be on a team that will begin the season with expectations of competing for the playoffs. All four could provide a useful role as veterans who have had big league success. All seem to have a little something left in the tank, to boot. The final couple weeks will certainly be interesting to see if any of them fade or if their springs to this point have been the real deal.
Photos: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer