Questioning Criticisms of the Indians’ Offseason Inactivity

Criticism of the Cleveland Indians’ lack of activity this offseason has not just come from fans of the ball club. It has also come from the national media, where some have gone so far as to call the Indians losers of the annual Winter Meetings while others have opined that the team’s lack of aggressiveness and free spending could end the upcoming season before it even begins due to other upgrades within both their division and league.

The Indians, who finished just one game in back of the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central and exited the postseason after a one-game AL Wild Card loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, have been an almost non-existent and irrelevant player in the free agent and trade markets so far this offseason.

For many fans, this is a significant problem.

After the sizable spending spree last offseason, quite uncommon for Cleveland’s Major League Baseball franchise, there were those out there expecting the Indians to do similar again this year. There is a distinct difference, however, between the final product of 2013 when compared to that of the 2012 season.

There are far fewer holes to fill.

The Indians went into last offseason needing to plug gaps all around the field. Bullpen and bench needs were resolved in the Esmil Rogers and Shin-Soo Choo trades, netting the club two bench pieces and two bullpen arms, while minor league deals tendered to Jason Giambi and Ryan Raburn paid Major League dividends. Other deficiencies in the starting nine were eliminated in the large signings of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, while the rotation was supplemented by the low risk, high reward addition of Scott Kazmir.

Last year, the Indians needed players all throughout the roster. Left field was a void, filled by a series of ineffective has-beens or never-weres who combined to hit .215 for the season. The corner infield spots were glaring weaknesses as well, with Casey Kotchman (.229, 12 HRs, 54 RBI) on the right side and a combination of Jack Hannahan, Jose Lopez, Lonnie Chisenhall, and others (combined .254 average, 11 HRs, 67 RBI) on the left side. The starting rotation had underperformed, but the returning bullpen was expected to be a strength. The bench (Lou Marson, Aaron Cunningham, Jason Donald, Lopez, etc.) was far removed from effective.

At present, the Indians return an established starting nine and the Goon Squad bench, in addition to the team’s lone significant free agent signing thus far, outfielder David Murphy. The Indians had just two position players who were free agents heading into the offseason, and neither (Kelly Shoppach, Jason Kubel) played a significant role in their brief time on the roster.

There are those who crave a power right-handed bat for the lineup, but such an acquisition would likely have to come via trade and would not come cheaply. The outfield is already crowded with six different players on the roster who can play there regularly (Michael Brantley, Bourn, Murphy, Raburn, Drew Stubbs, and Swisher). The middle infield is set with Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera for the present with Francisco Lindor looming in the shadows of the future. First base, designated hitter, and catcher are established, leaving third baseman Chisenhall at a power position with the biggest question mark.

The rotation has at least one hole in its five-man stable. Danny Salazar will fill a slot vacated by Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez, with the other spot to be decided. The bullpen, with four new vacancies, is much younger and unestablished at present, leading many to hope that the team finds substantial upgrades in the overpriced marketplace.

Pitching is and has been pricey in free agency and this year is no different. Large chunks of cash are being spent on multi-year contracts for pitchers of questionable age, consistency, makeup, or results.

With that said, the Indians have not placed a John Hancock at the bottom of any contracts they may regret in the near future.

Despite having significantly fewer needs this offseason, the Indians have been called out in the national media for what has been perceived as a missed opportunity for the club to upgrade one way or another.

Bob Nightengale of USA Today wrote on Wednesday that the Indians “aren’t doing a lot for the perception that their playoff run may be short-lived” and that, unless ownership of franchises in Cleveland, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh in particular start spending, the 2014 season may already be over for the three clubs.

His criticisms lie in the departures of such a substantial portion of the Indians’ pitching staff while all of the AL Central counterparts have improved on paper. Six pitchers (two starters, four relievers) saw their contracts end after the season.

Jimenez suddenly found new life in 2013 after a year and a half of mediocre, at best, results on the mound. With a draft pick returning to Cleveland if he signs out of town, the market has been strangely quiet on the starter. Still, Nightengale joked that the right-hander is “expected to earn more money than the Indians’ entire payroll”.

Kazmir signed a two-year, $22 million deal on the West Coast in Oakland, where he replaces ex-Indians pitcher Bartolo Colon in the rotation. Question marks about Kazmir’s ability to repeat his bounce-back performance this year cloud his future. His results on the mound this past season for Cleveland were largely positive, despite dealing with some dead-arm issues midway through the year.

Rookie Salazar and one of Josh Tomlin, Carlos Carrasco, or Trevor Bauer could fill both pitchers’ shoes. An outside arm, likely a cheaper low-risk signing a la Kazmir’s last offseason, could be a possibility as well. They need to replace roughly 340 innings pitched by the two last season.

The loss of Joe Smith hurts the bullpen, as it leaves voids at both setup man and closer on the roster. A pitcher of Matt Albers’ ilk may be had in a minor free agent signing, while lefty Rich Hill was effectively replaced midseason by Marc Rzepczynski. Chris Perez’s replacement could be internal, but offers have reportedly been made to other free agent closers to take over the role from the reliever with the third-most saves in Indians history.

With a quiet stab at the present Dolan ownership, Nightengale wrote that “It’s life in Cleveland, where they will always play the underdog role unless someone like Dan Gilbert swoops in and buys the franchise and starts spending like the rest of the big boys on the block”. The ownership spent big last year and the team improved 24 wins to 92-70. How much more might they need to spend to push the team over the top?

The “big boys” around the league have been active in the last two months. The rest of the division has been active, too. The Dolan ownership and front office? Not so much.

Detroit swung a deal to improve at second base, adding Ian Kinsler at the cost of expensive first baseman Prince Fielder. They bolstered their oft-criticized bullpen by signing Joe Nathan and Joba Chamberlain and trading for Ian Krol and Robbie Ray (in exchange for Doug Fister), and added speed to the lineup with the addition of Rajai Davis.

Kansas City brought in left-hander Jason Vargas to fill a rotational need. They improved their starting nine, trading for outfielder Norichika Aoki and signing second baseman Omar Infante. Minnesota added a pair of starting pitchers (Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes) and has been linked to several other potential starters.

Even the rebuilding Chicago White Sox, coming off of a fire sale at the deadline last season, have been active. They signed Cuban slugger Jose Abreu, returned Paul Konerko for his last hoorah, and traded Hector Santiago in a three-team trade that brought back outfielder Adam Eaton.

With two months remaining until players begin to report to Spring Training, the Indians will undoubtedly add players to the roster. Whether or not the additions are noteworthy like last season or rival the quiet adds of Davids (Murphy, David Cooper, and David Adams) remains to be seen.

The Indians will also hope for a better return on their investments from last offseason. Swisher, who fought through a shoulder injury all season long, provided the club with his worst batting average and on-base percentage since 2008, his lowest home run production since 2007, and the fewest runs he has driven in during a full season in his career. Bourn, in his first season in the AL, had his lowest batting average and on-base percentage since 2008 in his first year with Houston. The two-time All-Star accumulated his smallest stolen base total (23) since 2007 (18) and has only one time had a worse rate of successful stolen bases in his career.

Coupled with the continued advancements of Kipnis, Brantley, Yan Gomes, Carlos Santana, and the hopeful return to form of shortstop Cabrera, the Indians offense could turn out even better than last year’s version.

“We feel we moved a number of steps forward while we were at the Meetings, both on the trade and free agent front,” Indians general manager Chris Antonetti commented after the conclusion of the Winter Meetings. “We’re hopeful that will lead to some deals here in the next few days and the next few weeks.”

While those potential additions may not be earth-shattering deals if they happen at all, they should provide improvements to a team needing a slight bolster in the arms department. The Indians may not be contributing much to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent in free agency this year, but they have a much smaller hill to climb than they did last season. Senseless and frivolous spending is not the answer to get the Indians back to the top and over it.

Photo: AP Photo/Mark Duncan

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