AL Central Crown Up For Grabs

For the second time in a week, a trade was made around Major League Baseball that had an effect on the Cleveland Indians’ offseason.

On Friday, the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Angels agree upon a trade centered around third baseman David Freese and outfielder Peter Bourjos. On Wednesday, the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers completed a swap of former All-Stars Prince Fielder, Ian Kinsler, and bags and bags of cash.

The early wave of trade activity may be an indication of things to come over the remaining few months of baseball’s time off.

The activity between the Cardinals and Angels may have eliminated one potential trade option for the Indians while they continue to improve their ball club for next season. The free agent signing of outfielder David Murphy away from the Texas Rangers added to an outfield logjam on the roster. Murphy joins returning outfielders Michael Brantley, Michael Bourn, Ryan Raburn, and Nick Swisher. Also in the mix, but in a state of uncertainty, is outfielder Drew Stubbs, who is eligible for arbitration again this winter.

Stubbs could be on the trade block. A versatile outfielder with good defense and speed in the lineup, Stubbs batted .233 last season with ten home runs and 45 RBI at the bottom of the Cleveland batting order. His 17 stolen bases were lighter than some expected in his first time in the American League and his fewest since his 42-game rookie season in 2009.

The offensive production the 29-year-old outfielder gave in the Indians lineup may be a sign of what he would contribute again in 2014. His batting average was right in line with the numbers he had provided over several seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, where he was a .241 career hitter. He does not draw a ton of walks, still strikes out at a high rate, and has been unable to get on base enough to be a threat on the base paths.

He remains a potential candidate for non-tender come the December 2nd deadline.

The Cardinals would presumably have no interest in Stubbs now, not that they did before. Their outfield may be set with Matt Holliday, Bourjos, Matt Adams, and Jon Jay. The likelihood of Asdrubal Cabrera to St. Louis has also dwindled away with the club’s reported interest in Jhonny Peralta.

Having removed a player from their crowded outfield mix, the Angels may see no need to pursue the rumored trade that circulated the internet last week of Mark Trumbo. The Angels, looking for young and controlled starting pitching, do not appear at this point to match up well with the Indians in a trade, as the Indians are lacking the same starting pitching depth the Angels would desire. There remains speculation still however that the Halos could move Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick, or Trumbo to bolster their rotation.

The trade of Fielder from Detroit to Texas for Kinsler freed up money from the books of the Tigers. It is presumed that the club would try to allocate those funds towards arbitration increases and trying to re-sign AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and AL MVP Miguel Cabrera, but the team could look to add. Rumors surrounding Robinson Cano seem unfounded, but their pursuit of another big bat to protect Cabrera in the lineup may be legitimate.

Kinsler slots in immediately to replace Omar Infante and Ramon Santiago, the team’s free agent second basemen. The team may also need to look to replace the production of free agent All-Star performance enhancer Peralta, who is looking for a sizeable raise and multi-year deal on the market.

The Tigers will likely look for bullpen help this offseason. They avoided arbitration with left-handed reliever Phil Coke, signing him to a one year, $1.9 million salary plus incentives. Their closer void is still wide open, however, as last season’s closer Joaquin Benoit is a free agent and the team did not elect to pick up the option on reliever Jose Veras, who had closed in Houston prior to his acquisition at the trade deadline last season.

Kansas City, who finished third in the Central last season seven games in back of Detroit, hung around for the majority of the season and has been active early as well.

The Royals attempted to make a major announcement on Thursday with the free agent signing of left-handed starter Jason Vargas. The former Angels pitcher agreed to a four-year deal worth $32 million after his lone season in Los Angeles. The soon-to-be 31-year-old earned a 9-8 record in 24 starts and posted a 4.02 ERA. He may slot in to replace the departing Ervin Santana (9-10, 3.24 ERA in 32 starts) and Bruce Chen, who are both free agents, and join James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, and several younger and inexperienced starters in the KC rotation.

Early on in the offseason rumor mill, there was some speculation that the team would be looking to trade slugger Billy Butler, who did not produce at quite the same level as he had in his All-Star 2012 campaign. Butler appeared in every game for the Royals last season, but his home run production was cut in half of the previous season. The rumors appear to have quieted down now as the team looks to bring back the same starting nine as last season, with just Carlos Pena, Jamey Carroll, and former MVP Miguel Tejada entering free agency on the offensive side of the roster.

They have been linked as a potential destination for 36-year-old free agent Carlos Beltran, who began his career with the Royals.

Barring a reunion with Justin Morneau, the Minnesota Twins could begin their first season without their former slugging MVP since 2002. That marriage seems increasingly unlikely as the low budget Twins move Gold Glove catcher Joe Mauer to first base.

Minnesota looks to be a team still in transition, three consecutive losing seasons removed from back-to-back AL Central titles and first round sweeps in the ALDS. Ron Gardenhire will begin his 13th season in the dugout in Minneapolis and hopes to get his young team, built around veterans Mauer, Josh Willingham, and Ryan Doumit, back into the upper echelon of the division.

The Twins have been linked to several different free agent starting pitchers so far this offseason as they look to solidify their rotation. Their starting rotation finished dead last in all of baseball with a 5.26 ERA in 2013. Their bullpen, led by the 36 saves and 2.30 ERA of lefty Glen Perkins, was fifth-best in the AL with a 3.50 mark.

The Chicago White Sox held their fire sale during the season in 2013 as they crashed to the basement of the division under the leadership of manager Robin Ventura. Outfielder Alex Rios, starter Jake Peavy, and relievers Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain were moved along for prospects or other considerations.

They will look to add pieces around All-Star starting pitcher Chris Sale, Avisail Garcia, and others.

The status of Paul Konerko may be their lone free agency concern. The veteran first baseman and designated hitter has yet to decide if he will return to the Windy City for 2014. There is some belief that he will not play next season anywhere else but in Chicago and is only interested in playing if he believes he can contribute as an everyday player.

They added Jose Dariel Abreu, a power hitting first baseman out of Cuba, on a six-year, $68 million contract. In the event Konerko looks to return, the team may need to make a decision on Adam Dunn.

The Indians move into next season looking to fill voids in the starting rotation, vacated by the potential departures of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, and in the bullpen, as Chris Perez, Joe Smith, Rich Hill, and Matt Albers all move along to new cities.

The Indians do have arms available for the starting rotation. In addition to Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, and Danny Salazar, the team has Josh Tomlin on the roster and arbitration eligible following his speedy return from Tommy John surgery. Carlos Carrasco is out of options and will need to find a home in the rotation or bullpen or the Indians will risk losing his strong but inconsistent arm on waivers. Trevor Bauer, who failed to take advantage of opportunities given him while he tinkered through mechanical adjustments, would be an outlier needing an unbelievable spring to sniff the rotation.

Cleveland may need to look to add another left-handed bullpen arm into the mix to aid Marc Rzepczynski in the role. The door to the closer’s role is also wide open and an area of concern; only two American League teams saved fewer games in 2013 than the Indians (38).

The addition of Murphy came as a surprise to some who were expecting the Indians to pursue a more pure power hitter and corner infielder as opposed to a player who was strictly an outfielder.

If the 32-year-old can rebound and produce like he has in years past, the move could pay off and provide better depth in the outfield than Stubbs. Last season, Murphy hit just .220 with 13 home runs and 45 RBI in the worst season of his big league career, despite making his second-highest number of starts in a season. The lefty struggled against right-handed pitching for the first time at the Major League level, hitting .219 with 12 home runs. In his previous seven seasons, he had hit righties at a .291 mark.

Especially amongst the top three teams in the Central, there are fewer holes and fewer question marks as the teams construct their rosters for next year. Barring a big splash by any of the five teams, whether it be via free agency or in a trade, the race at the top could be contentious once again and not be determined until the final days of September.

The wheeling and dealing of the offseason is only just beginning. While the Indians are not expected to be as active as they were last season, the moves they make will be just as important as they look to eliminate that one-game gap that separated them from the Tigers at the top of the division in 2013.

Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

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