Free Agent Departures Will Not Hurt Tribe

While other teams around the league, and specifically at the top of the American League Central Division, attempt to replenish their rosters after losing free agents to other gigs around baseball, the Cleveland Indians are nearly unscathed by those no longer under contract with the club.

The Indians may be in small company in returning nearly their entire roster after the completion of the 2014 season. No regular starting player has left, whether it be through free agency or trade. Meanwhile, the teams the Tribe found themselves behind at the end of last year have holes in their respective lineups to fill.

The AL Central champion Detroit Tigers lost outfielder Torii Hunter, while one of the biggest targets on the market, starting pitcher Max Scherzer, is still available and will command a significant long-term investment. Hunter was replaced by Yoenis Cespedes, who was acquired from the Boston Red Sox in a trade for pitcher Rick Porcello.

The AL champion Kansas City Royals have also lost a scattering of players around the diamond. Designated hitter Billy Butler bolted for the Oakland Athletics. Outfielder Nori Aoki left town after just one season for the San Francisco Giants. Starter James Shields remains a free agent and few rumors have indicated that “Big Game James” will find himself back in Royals blue. Raul Ibanez and Josh Willingham, two veterans who were along for the wild postseason ride of the Royals, are also free agents but expected to retire.

The Indians’ losses do nothing more than open up spots for the club on the 25- and 40-man rosters. None of the players made significant contributions over the course of last season.

Designated hitter Jason Giambi remains a free agent and far more likely to find himself in the coaching ranks than on an active roster for the 2015 season. The then 43-year-old Giambi played in just 26 games in an injury-decimated season, batting .133 with a pair of doubles, two home runs, and five runs batted in. With 20 years and 440 homers under his Major League belt, it is possible that Giambi’s last contribution as a player at the MLB level was surrendering his number 25 jersey late in the season in honor of the retired Jim Thome.

Giambi’s immeasurable presence in the dugout and locker room cannot be replaced easily. His failing health all last season, however, ate up a roster spot that may have been better served on another investment last offseason.

Also gone from the Tribe’s roster of potential players are reliever Mark Lowe and catcher, first baseman, and receiver of late season key at bats, Chris Gimenez. Both players are headed to the AL West, as Lowe has signed on with the Seattle Mariners after appearing in seven games for Cleveland last season, while Gimenez was hitless in ten trips to the plate in eight games of September work for the club and has returned again to the Texas Rangers, the team that traded him back to Cleveland last year.

Outfielder Chris Dickerson and utility man Elliot Johnson both remain unsigned. Dickerson was granted his free agency from the Indians on September 16th. He played 41 games with the club and hit .224 in limited opportunities after being acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Johnson started the season as a super utility guy for the team and hit .105 in seven games before being designated for assignment. He played out the season at Triple-A Columbus and hit .236 in 87 games.

Another name that some Tribe fans may remember, but did not see any of last season, was outfielder Matt Carson. “Crash” signed a minor league deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers at the end of December after hitting .259 in 82 games for Columbus last season. His deal includes an invitation to Major League camp in spring training. Indians fans may best remember him for his .636 batting average in 20 games in 2013 or his clutch walk-off single in extra innings against Houston during Cleveland’s hunt for the Wild Card that season.

If you were not playing close attention, you did not even notice the signing of J.C. Ramirez last season by the club. The reliever, who made a brief appearance in the Majors with Philadelphia in 2013, spent all of last season in the minors for the Indians. He made ten appearances in Akron, posting a 1-0 record with a 2.08 ERA, and had a 1-3 record and 3.45 ERA in 25 games at Columbus. He was signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks early in the offseason on a minor league deal.

Another former Philadelphia arm that came to the Indians organization but did not spend time with the parent club in 2014, Tyler Cloyd, was released from his contract two weeks ago so that he could pursue an opportunity in Korea after the Indians had re-signed him and invited him to spring camp. Cloyd, who appeared in 19 games for the Phillies in 2012 and 2013, threw a no-hitter for the Columbus Clippers last season on July 30th at Huntington Park against the Louisville Bats. He was 10-8 with a 3.89 ERA in 27 games pitched there, but is now a member of the Samsung Lions of the Korea Baseball Organization.

The two biggest potential free agent departures that the Indians had at the beginning of the season were dumped in July after lackluster starts.

Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera was dealt to the Washington Nationals for utility player Zach Walters. He was hitting .246 at the time of the trade and was not deemed a part of the future with Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez available to play short. Cabrera signed a deal this month with the Tampa Bay Rays on a one-year, $7.5 million tender, which led to the trade of their former starting shortstop Yunel Escobar to the Oakland A’s and then on to Washington.

Starting pitcher Justin Masterson was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for minor leaguer James Ramsey amidst an injury plagued first half. With Cleveland, he was 4-6 in 19 starts with a 5.51 ERA. Despite not finding himself under the Golden Arch, “Nasty Masty” received a one-year, $9.5 million contract to return home to Boston, the team that drafted and developed him starting in 2006 until his trade to the Tribe in 2009.

From the final pitch of the 2014 season, the Indians did not lose a big arm, a big bat, or a big glove (was such a thing on the roster last year?) from the lineup. While Cleveland will return very much the same team that they had last year, they have added a veteran bat (Brandon Moss) and a veteran pitcher (Gavin Floyd) to the mix.

They will also be hoping for higher returns from Jason Kipnis, Michael Bourn, and Nick Swisher, whose absences from the lineup due to injuries and their lack of production when in it was felt throughout the year. The trio, one-third of the everyday lineup and a substantial portion of the financial commitment by the Dolan family to the club, combined to bat .237 in 332 games with 17 home runs and 111 RBI. They had more strikeouts (325) than hits (309) and finished third, fourth, and fifth on the club in Ks despite making significantly fewer plate appearances than the club’s leaders, Carlos Santana and Yan Gomes.

The team is also banking on improved returns from Carlos Carrasco, who blossomed after a lengthy stay in the bullpen, and young arms Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar. This trio will join reigning Cy Young winner Corey Kluber in a young but promising rotation.

The Indians, who finished five games in back of the Tigers while posting an 85-77 record last year, should benefit from the continuity of the roster and additional growth from the talent within. What was a close divisional race last season could become that much closer if Detroit and Kansas City cannot find the proper pieces to adequately replace their exiting stars.

Photo: Bob Levey/Getty Images

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