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Indians Quiet But Looking Heading Into Winter Meetings

Indians Quiet But Looking Heading Into Winter Meetings

| On 08, Dec 2013

The American League Central has been a flurry of free agent activity and trades so far this offseason. In fact, big money has been changing hands from East Coast to West Coast in the last few weeks and only seems to be heating up more.

That is, except from the Cleveland Indians.

Unlike the offseason that followed the 2012 season, the Indians have been quiet, causing tension amongst some fans who are waiting (impatiently) for the first big move by the club after an active retooling last year that had the team frequently linked to names on the free agent market.

Those looking at the Indians roster are hoping for Cleveland to make moves to keep up with the Detroit Tigers, who may have improved their bullpen and infield defense while freeing up money for another big free agent splash or to secure stars for the long term, while the Kansas City Royals, biting at the Indians’ heels last season, added a new lefty to the rotation to replace another free agent starter and bolstered their batting order.

In Cleveland, the moves have not come yet. Even the rumor mill has been largely quiet, outside of some early offseason trade speculation that has not come to fruition.

So far, the Indians have brought in one outside acquisition, the somewhat minor signing of left-handed hitting outfielder David Murphy, formerly of the Texas Rangers, on a two-year, $12 million contract. It is presumed Murphy will fill a platoon role in right field with the right-handed hitting Ryan Raburn, allowing the team to shop Drew Stubbs or use him as an extra outfielder and pinch runner.

They re-signed free agent designated hitter and clubhouse presence Jason Giambi at the start of the free agent signing period as well to a minor league deal similar to the one he signed with the team last year.

The lack of activity from the Indians so far in the offseason may be a direct reflection on the spending spree the club engaged in last winter.

Last November, the Indians made what were perceived as minor moves at the time, selecting rehabbing reliever Blake Wood off of waivers from Kansas City and acquiring infielder Mike Aviles and catcher Yan Gomes from Toronto in the Esmil Rogers trade.

As winter officially rolled in, Cleveland traded Shin-Soo Choo in a three-team trade that quickly injected Stubbs and new pitchers into the Indians mix and signed free agents Mark Reynolds, Scott Kazmir, and Nick Swisher. By the end of January, they had also brought in Brett Myers, Raburn, and Ben Francisco, and in February as players began to gather in Arizona and Florida for Spring Training, they signed Rich Hill, Giambi, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Michael Bourn.

Bourn was easily the surprise of the bunch, as the Indians had already made a significant commitment in Swisher. The price on Bourn was steep for some teams in both financial and draft pick investment, but the Indians, knowing the 2013 free agent class was going to be no more impressive than 2012’s, opted to sign the former Atlanta Braves’ outfielder to cap the team’s big spending.

It may just be that the Indians biggest offseason signing for 2014 happened in the second month of 2013 when the team opened up the check book one more time for Bourn. He will still come away as a cheaper option when compared to other free agent outfielders this season, including Curtis Granderson (four years, $60 million with the New York Mets) and Jacoby Ellsbury (seven years, $153 million with the New York Yankees). Choo, one of the bigger remaining names available, is expected to cash in on a large multi-year deal over $100 million in pay as well.

“We went into the offseason with a defined set of needs and in a better position than maybe the last few offseasons,” said Indians General Manager Chris Antonetti on Friday. “Really some of our strategy last offseason was to put us in a stronger position this offseason where we acquired players who would impact our roster beyond the 2013 season. That has lessened some of the needs we have headed into this offseason.”

While the Indians have been tentative about spending money on the talent available, other teams in the AL Central have not balked at shopping in the overpriced market.

Detroit has been the most active of the divisional teams. They swapped former All-Stars with the Texas Rangers, sending first baseman Prince Fielder to Arlington in exchange for second baseman Ian Kinsler. They filled the long standing hole in the back end of their bullpen by signing closer Joe Nathan for two years. They dealt starting pitcher Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals for infielder Steve Lombardozzi and pitchers Ian Krol and Robbie Ray in a move expected to improve their depth.

The Minnesota Twins aggressively addressed needs in their starting rotation by adding pitchers Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. Nolasco signed a four year tender for $49 million, while Hughes leaves the Big Apple for the midwest on a three-year, $24 million deal.

Kansas City added a starter to the rotation to replace Ervin Santana. Jason Vargas, a lefty last with the Los Angeles Angels, signed a four-year, $32 million contract at the beginning of the offseason. The Royals also dealt lefty pitcher Will Smith to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for outfielder Norichika Aoki, who will slot in at the top of the batting order and allow the team to move the dangerous Alex Gordon further down in the lineup.

The Chicago White Sox started their offseason process early in the second half of last season with a purge at the deadline, but added first baseman Jose Abreu from Cuba in October on a six-year deal worth $68 million. They also brought back slugger Paul Konerko for one final year in the Windy City. The moves supplement several trades at the deadline last season, when they traded away Matt Thornton, Jake Peavy, and Alex Rios.

The Indians, meanwhile, do have holes on the roster of their own to fill as Major League Baseball approaches the annual Winter Meetings this week in Orlando, Florida.

Cleveland will have its eyes on pitching at the meetings more than anything, but do not expect the team to throw around bags and bags of cash to lure in a pitcher like some other clubs have done already this offseason and last. The team has been reluctant to hand out large multi-year deals in reported discussions and have several players (Justin Masterson, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley) that they may wish to lock up on contract extensions before they reach the open market.

The team saw two-fifths of its starting rotation from 2013 enter free agency. Lefty Scott Kazmir signed this week with the Oakland Athletics on a somewhat surprising two-year, $22 million deal. Ubaldo Jimenez remains one of the bigger names available in starting pitching.

Antonetti appears to have four of the spots in the rotation locked up between Masterson, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, and Danny Salazar. The fifth spot could come down to Josh Tomlin, returning from his Tommy John surgery, or Carlos Carrasco, who is out of options and “is on the team whether he pitches in the rotation or bullpen”, according to the Tribe GM.

“We’re still focused on trying to improve our pitching alternatives,” said Antonetti on Friday. “We have come into the offseason in a much better position than we have in prior offseasons with the quality and quantity of our pitching alternatives on our roster and within the organization. That being said, we’re going to continue to try and find a way to improve it.”

The market for free agent pitchers has been expensive to say the least this offseason. In addition to Nolasco, Hughes, and Vargas, Scott Feldman signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Houston Astros and Hiroki Kuroda re-signed with the New York Yankees for one year, $16 million on Friday. Thirty-eight year old Tim Hudson, pursued by the Indians and others in November, signed a two-year, $23 million contract in San Francisco, returning to the Bay Area.

The bullpen has numerous voids in it as well, thanks to the release of closer Chris Perez after a distracting and injury-filled campaign and the ends of the contracts of Joe Smith, Matt Albers, and Hill. Smith has since joined the Los Angeles Angels on a three-year pact, while Albers has drawn some attention on the market and has not been able to come to an agreement on money on a one-year deal to return to Cleveland, according to Cleveland.com’s Paul Hoynes.

In addition to the possibility of Carrasco in the bullpen, the Indians have added several relief candidates this offseason on minor league deals (Mike Zagurski, Matt Capps) or acquisitions (the purchase of Colt Hynes from San Diego). Several other rookie options who debuted during the 2013 season with Cleveland could claim roles, as well as a couple of other candidates who pitched in Triple-A Columbus last season.

The Indians could also look to add to the bullpen through Thursday’s Rule 5 draft. Cleveland has two openings presently on their 40-man roster after Tyler Cloyd, Matt Carson, and Lou Marson were non-tendered last Monday.

Last year, the Indians selected first baseman Chris McGuiness of the Rangers in the Rule 5 draft. They were unable to hide him on the bench with the hopes of being competitive for 2013 and could not come to terms on a trade for the slugger, so he was returned to the Texas organization. If the Indians were to consider adding a player in the draft this week, it could be easier to stash a reliever in the bullpen on the 25-man roster for the course of the entire season, where you can better monitor innings pitched and games played and not necessarily expose them to high pressure situations.

With the previous addition of Murphy to the roster, the team hopes to improve its numbers against right-handed pitching. While Murphy’s numbers were down across the board last year, his career numbers indicate that he has the potential to be a solid platoon addition for the Tribe. He is, however, hardly the big right-handed bat that some people have hoped the Indians would pursue to fill the role that Reynolds did for the first month and a half of last season before he spun into a nose dive and ended the season wearing pinstripes in New York.

The hot corner has been the other most notable hole on the diamond for the Indians, where Lonnie Chisenhall has not taken advantage of the opportunities given him. While it appears right now that Cleveland will give the former top prospect one last shot at holding down third base for the club, it is not out of the question that the team could look to upgrade the roster there.

They have even considered former minor league third baseman Carlos Santana, who will get looks there in winter ball in the Dominican Republic. Santana played 58 games in parts of four seasons in the minors at third base while in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

After a disappointing 2012 season, the Indians clubhouse was littered with needs that were addressed in the bigger name acquisitions of Terry Francona, Swisher, Bourn, and Giambi.

This offseason is completely different.

The “Goon Squad” bench is considerably improved from a season ago. There are no current vacancies in the starting nine that need to be filled after holes in the outfield and at first base were filled. At the plate, the offense scored 745 runs, its highest output since 2009 (773). The Indians are looking to improve an AL Wild Card team that finished 92-70 and in second place in the Central, not trying to rebuild a 68-94 fourth place team that had completed its fourth straight losing season.

The rotation does have some question marks and the present collection of arms in the bullpen is relatively young and unproven. Those will be the top priorities this week for Antonetti and in the remaining months before Cactus League baseball resumes for the Indians, not nearly soon enough.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images