A Team With A New Direction
By Bob Toth
When the Cleveland Indians’ season officially ended last October, it left the organization with more questions than answers.
What happened? Who was to blame? How did a competitive roster carried over from the 2011 season fall apart midway through the 2012 season? Why did Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez struggle throughout the year? How could the team address the deficiencies on offense against left-handed pitching? Is this core a core worth building around, or is it time for another rebuilding process? What steps would need to be taken to prevent a similar catastrophe from happening again in 2013?
All of these questions are difficult to address and even more difficult to resolve. Yet looking back on what the Indians organization has been able to do in just a few short months this offseason, it would be safe to say they have attended to some of, if not all of, the above questions. The team has retooled and now has a new brand new face to the organization. They are a team with a new direction.
The team’s most pressing need entering the offseason was to fill the open managerial void created with the firing of former manager Manny Acta with a week remaining in the season.
While many expected fan favorite and interim manager Sandy Alomar to take the reigns of the team after posting a 3-3 record to end the season, ESPN analyst and former Philadelphia and Boston manager Terry Francona emerged from nowhere as a candidate in what ultimately became a two-horse race for the position.
Francona won the job and was signed to a four-year deal. He inherited a position on a team with a clear-cut image problem. A lengthy rebuild was perceived for a team with a suspect farm system and a penny-pinching owner in a sport where big spending has generally forced most small and mid market teams to look in at the playoffs from the outside.
Francona’s experiences could be beneficial to the development of several of the young players on the roster who seemed to stagnate or fail to reach the expectations of the organization.
“There’s two main reasons I’m here today,” Francona said at the press conference announcing his signing. “Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro. I know we have challenges ahead of us. But I look forward to tackling these challenges as a unit, as a ‘we,’ always. I’m genuinely excited to do that.”
After adding Francona, the Indians addressed the roster. Several moves were made to help improve the everyday team at the major league level, in addition to adding depth to the bench and the minor leagues.
Easily the biggest offensive move and one that surprised many was the signing of free agent Nick Swisher, who had spent the previous four seasons in New York with the Yankees. Even more surprising was the large sum of money spent by the franchise, as the club signed him to a four-year deal for $56 million, with a vesting option for a fifth season.
The signing seemed to go against the team’s trend over the last five seasons. Swisher, a switch-hitting outfielder, fills a glaring hole on the squad and provides the clubhouse with veteran leadership. On the field, his bat will provide balance and pop to a lineup that was almost entirely (and ineffectively) left-handed or switch-hitting in 2012.
The Indians also snagged free agent Mark Reynolds (from the Orioles) and Brett Myers (from the White Sox). Reynolds signed on a one-year, $6 million contract. A right-handed bat with some consistent power, Reynolds should see his time at first base, replacing the departed Casey Kotchman, who was not resigned after his contract ended. Myers, a long-time starter who worked in the bullpen for the Astros and White Sox last season, signed a one-year, $7 million deal with a club option and is expected to return to the starting rotation, where he has shown an ability to work 200 innings in the past.
The bench was fortified through a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays, as the Indians acquired infielders Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes in exchange for reliever Esmil Rogers. Aviles was the full-time shortstop for Boston in 2012 and can provide relief throughout the infield. Gomes is a corner infielder and catcher and has shown some power throughout his young career. Rogers, who was scheduled for arbitration this winter, was dealt from a perceived area of strength on the roster, despite the success he had after being acquired from the Colorado Rockies earlier in the season.
Minor moves, including the signings of pitcher Scott Kazmir, relievers Matt Capps and Rich Hill, and outfielders Ben Francisco and Ryan Raburn, have given the team several experienced veterans as low-risk options with outside shots to make the team out of camp.
The Indians were by far one of the most active teams in the offseason. They were frequently linked to many of the second-tier talent available in free agency and were thought to be considering a variety of trade options, beginning during the Winter Meetings.
One of these trades rumored became a reality, as the team dealt the arbitration-eligible Shin-Soo Choo, in the final year of his contract with Cleveland, to Cincinnati in a three-way trade that included the Arizona Diamondbacks. Heading to the Reds with Choo was teammate Jason Donald, whose utility player role on the club looked all but lost after the trade for Aviles. Dealt to the Diamondbacks in the trade were reliever Tony Sipp, minor league first baseman Lars Anderson, and shortstop Didi Gregorius of the Reds.
The return for the Tribe has the ability to affect the team both now and moving forward. Prized former 2011 number one draft pick Trevor Bauer came to Cleveland from Arizona and could factor into the starting rotation picture at some point this season. Right-handed relievers Bryan Shaw and Matt Albers also departed Arizona for Cleveland. Center fielder Drew Stubbs, who was acquired from Cincinnati, should provide the Indians’ lineup with speed and strength, both offensively and defensively.
Questions regarding the farm system remain somewhat unanswered. While the team is still suffering the consequences of years of bad drafts throughout the first decade of the 21st century, the lower levels of the system provide the team with some hope on the horizon. Bauer could find himself at Columbus to start the season, which would give the rotation at Triple-A a legitimate top-tier prospect. Other players acquired, including Gomes, Mike McDade (waiver claim from Toronto), and Chris McGuiness (a Rule 5 selection from Texas whose situation is more complicated than that of the other mentioned players), could also find themselves in Columbus if unable to crack the 25-man roster out of Spring Training. The teams at high Single-A and even Double-A should see a steady flow of talented young players whose dreams of reaching the major leagues are not unreasonable.
In addition to those players traded away (Choo, Donald, Sipp, and Rogers) who were on the roster and contributed last season, the Indians also moved several other familiar faces and several more who were on the horizon in the minor leagues.
Contract options were not picked up by the Indians for designated hitter Travis Hafner and starting pitcher Roberto Hernandez. Hafner’s once-promising career in Cleveland came to an end, tainted by several years of injuries. He signed with the New York Yankees on a one-year, $2 million contract with another $4 million possible in incentives. Hernandez spent the majority of 2012 dealing with visa problems after the discovery that he was not, in fact, Fausto Carmona. He was signed by the Tampa Bay Rays on a one-year deal worth $3.25 million. The contract option for Jimenez was exercised, keeping the inconsistent starter in an Indians uniform for the 2013 season at a cost to the team of $5.75 million.
The team also parted ways with free agent Grady Sizemore, whose career once again hangs in the balance. After spending his one-year, $5 million contract rehabbing from injuries and never once suiting up for live game action, he is now a free agent and thought to be unavailable until midseason at the earliest while he continues to rehab and hopefully resurrect his career.
Russ Canzler was designated by the Indians to make 40-man roster space for Reynolds and was claimed by Toronto. He was then designated by the Blue Jays and the Indians reclaimed him, only to designate him again and have the Yankees place a claim on him. His wild offseason continued after being subjected to the same in New York (because of the Hafner signing) and he has since been claimed by Baltimore. The Indians had hoped to stash him as a depth option in Columbus and give him a chance to make the ballclub as a utility player in the spring.
Jeanmar Gomez was dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates after being designated for assignment. A rotation piece last season, he was eventually sent to Columbus to deal with his inconsistencies and finally ran out of options in Cleveland.
Outfielder Thomas Neal was designated for assignment to make room for Swisher on the roster. He signed on with the Yankees and has been invited to their Spring Training.
Third baseman Jack Hannahan and reliever Rafael Perez saw their time in Cleveland come to an end as the team opted not to tender either of them contract offers. Hannahan would sign with Cincinnati and join Choo and Donald as members of the Reds. Perez was designated for assignment and remains unsigned while recovering from the injuries that sidelined him nearly all of last season.
Pitchers T.J. McFarland (Orioles) and Hector Rondon (Cubs) were lost via the Rule 5 draft and will have to fulfill the requirements of their selections in order to remain with their new ballclubs, or be offered back to the Indians.
With all of the moves made, some non-moves were just as significant.
Despite many rumors throughout the Winter Meetings, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera was kept with the ballclub. The acquisition of Aviles had given some reason to debate whether or not the Indians would shop their All-Star shortstop and move him in what was considered a rather weak market for free agent shortstops. He still would appear to be the stopgap until the next generation of Indians’ prospects hits the big leagues when Francisco Lindor is ready to make the jump.
Also greatly debated was the status of closer Chris Perez. Perez, coming off of his second consecutive All-Star season, was expected to see a substantial raise in arbitration and there was some question as to whether Cleveland would want to tie as much as $8 million to a position deemed a luxury for a team whose playoff possibilities are an unknown. Complicating matters further was the presence of Vinnie Pestano, the Indians’ setup man who has shown an ability to close and could do so for far fewer dollars. A heavy free agent market on bullpen arms, especially guys with major league experience setting up and closing, may have helped to close the door on any movement of the Indians’ most outspoken and controversial player on the roster.
The Indians have answered some questions regarding players who would enter Spring Training out of options and would have to make the roster or be exposed to waivers. Donald and Gomez were traded away. Matt LaPorta and Brent Lillibridge were outrighted to Columbus; Lillibridge declined the assignment and elected to become a free agent, signing with the Chicago Cubs.
The Indians were able to bolster their team over the offseason without adding a substantial amount of money to the roster. The money gained by the departures of Hafner, Sizemore, and Hernandez would appear to be much better spent on the likes of Swisher, Reynolds, and Myers.
They kept the young nucleus intact, sans Choo who in all likelihood was going to leave town next year with super agent Scott Boras driving the car as fast as possible to his next pay day in another city. They replaced his bat with a young top prospect starting pitcher, something clearly lacking in the depths of the minor leagues for the franchise.
They have seemingly averted the potential crisis, from a public relations standpoint, of explaining to fans why the team was once again rebuilding.
Is the Indians’ present roster better than the one that ended the 2012 season last October? Absolutely.
Is it a contending, playoff-caliber roster? That remains to be seen. A lot of things will need to go right.
All of these moves do not make a contender. They do, however, signify a bold statement and a clear attempt to swiftly change the losing culture of the team. A team cannot be revamped for the positive and be turned into a competitor in just one offseason, at least not without a massive injection of cash into the roster (a la Toronto this offseason). But with Francona’s managerial experiences, Swisher’s energy and enthusiasm, and the veteran group of players brought in with the leadership they will provide to a young, but talented, core, the hopes are higher for the Indians now than they were last October.
The moves may not be enough to catapult the team into first place or even into the mix for the American League Wild Card. And yet…why not? What did the other teams in the AL Central do to improve their rosters? Are the Indians the team that competed with Detroit and Chicago throughout the first half of the season? Or are they the team that ran out of gas in August and showed their true colors?
As the 2013 season begins in Arizona and Florida with players around the league reporting for Spring Training, we will introduce you to Terry Francona and his coaching staff; players on the horizon; vital players needing to rebound or recover from injuries; the roster battles, especially those within the bullpen; the new faces to the organization; and some of the players who have made their mark for the ballclub already or are on the verge of doing so.
An energized Francona and an inspired group of new faces to the franchise have a lot to prove. Regardless of how long it takes for the Indians to find themselves playing meaningful baseball at the end of the summer and on into the fall, they are going to be a lot of fun to watch. This Cleveland Indians team is a team with a new direction, both for now and for years to come.
Photo: Chuck Crow / The Plain Dealer