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Indians Not That Far From First Place

| On 11, Oct 2011

When you go 80-82 for a baseball season, you can say you are in the middle of the road. You are not a very good team, but you are not all that bad, either. You are a mere 10 more wins away from being a true contender.

This is where the Indians lied in 2011. In the end, they had a lot of flaws, but were not all that bad of team. Hard to believe that a team coming into the season with so many questions marks goes into an offseason really only needing to add a couple of pieces to be a viable contender to the Detroit Tigers’ AL Central Division throne.

Cleveland is set at second base, shortstop, third base, catcher, two outfield (maybe all three) spots, designated hitter, three of five starting pitchers and the entire bullpen.

Let’s say the Indians decide to pick up the options on starting pitcher Fausto Carmona and center fielder Grady Sizemore. That would leave just three questions to answer this offseason. Who plays first base? Who is the last pitcher to round out the starting rotation? Who is the fourth outfielder?

Starting at first base, the Indians can not bring Matt LaPorta back and be expected to be taken seriously as a contender. It can not and should not happen. LaPorta has had three full seasons now to prove he is the Grade A power hitter he was supposed to be when the Tribe traded C.C. Sabathia for him and outfielder Michael Brantley in 2008. LaPorta has not produced and it is hard to fathom him suddenly flipping a switch and figuring out major league pitching at this point.

Cleveland should address the first base position in free agency or trade. I would leave to see the Tribe throw a ton of money at Prince Fielder, but that likely won’t happen. Even though signing Fielder to a $30 million a year deal would only bring the Indians up to roughly $90 million in salary next season (still absurdly low compared to a lot of teams), Indians management won’t go for it. That leaves a weak class of free agent first baseman, meaning the only way to upgrade at first is probably through a trade.

Of course, the other option is moving Carlos Santana to first full time and adding a starting catcher. Lou Marson is a terrific defensive catcher, but does not hit enough to play everyday for a contender. Again, the options are limited with few quality names on the free agent list. The Indians could always add a veteran catcher like Jason Kendall or Ivan Rodriguez and platoon.

The smart money would be to keep Santana in the duel first base/catcher role, with Marson as the back up catcher and find a new option at first. LaPorta is no longer the answer.

When it comes to the starting pitching, the Indians are likely to resign Fausto Carmona. Going into the season as the number three or even four starter may take pressure off the former ace and clear his head enough to pitch fairly well. Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez (provided he rebounds to form) and Josh Tomlin give the Tribe a solid start of the rotation. With Camona at No. 4, it leaves the question of who the No. 5 starter will be.

The Indians have promising options in late-season call ups Jeanmar Gomez and David Huff. Both looked brilliant at times this past season. Gomez probably has the upper hand, slightly. The other option would be to bring in a free agent. There are some interesting names out there. With the upheaval in Chicago, perhaps ace Mark Buehrle is looking to get out of town. Buehrle wouldn’t have to leave the division. At the age of 32 and following a 13-9, 3.59 season, you probably wouldn’t have to go broke signing the White Sox 2011 Opening Day starter. He can probably be had for $10 million a year.

On a cheaper scale are guys like Jason Marquis, Zach Duke and Joel Pineiro. Any of those guys would make for excellent No. 5 starters and not be real expensive options.

Finally, on the outfield front. We are assuming the Indians bring Sizemore back for the sake of this story. We are sure Shin Soo Choo is going into spring training as the right fielder and Brantley either left or center. It will be left if Sizemore returns to play center. Now you need a fourth outfielder. Trade deadline acquisition Kosuke Fukudome would not be a bad option. However, the Indians need better insurance in case Sizemore yet again goes down with an injury.

What I would like to see happen is the Indians bring back Sizemore, but not at the $9 million¬†option price. Restructure the contract with incentives. He should not play every day. Bring in an outfielder with a little pop in his bat. A couple interesting names here are Carlos Guillen and Ryan Ludwick. Both are capable of 20 home runs and won’t cost an arm and a leg to bring on board.

In a perfect offseason, for me, the Indians sign Ludwick for the outfield, Marquis or Buehrle to start, and trade for a better first base option. If this gets done and Sizemore and Carmona are back, I will say the Indians go into next year viable contender. It is not a lot of work and is feasible. That’s how close this 80-82 team is from going from mediocre to very good in a matter of months.

Photo: Dave Reginek/Getty Images

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