Will Tribe Turn Up Heat on Cold Hot Stove During Winter Meetings?

When thinking of ways to describe the Cleveland Indians’ offseason thus far, a few words come to mind.

Silent. Uninspiring. Worrisome. Frigid.

That said, plenty of other teams can claim the same as Giancarlo Stanton and Shohei Ohtani hold the annual movement of players hostage while they flirt with suitors. Once those dominoes fall, things should get moving on the rest of the notable free agents on the market, but even then, how active are the Indians going to be?

The Indians played with house money in 2016, the underdog in an unexpected run to the seventh game of the World Series. Tribe ownership remained true to its word that the team would spend when the time was right and it did so by making a sizable investment in All-Star Andrew Miller, who was a pivotal piece in the team’s incredible run through the postseason.

In 2017, they were expected to make a return to the promised land and did at least play meaningful October baseball again, but thoughts of a deep run through a second straight postseason came crashing to a halt as the team blew a two-game lead in the best-of-five American League Division Series to the New York Yankees. A record-breaking 22-game winning streak and the top spot in the AL standings at the conclusion of the regular season was not enough to prevent the Indians from being early spectators the second time around.

Following the World Series disappointment in 2016, the Indians upgraded the roster and backed up the Brink’s truck. Edwin Encarnacion fell into their laps as the new veteran slugger at the first base and designated hitter spot, replacing the beloved (by some, at least) Mike Napoli. Austin Jackson replaced Rajai Davis, bringing a downgrade in speed but a better stick at the plate. Boone Logan was a pricey addition to the bullpen, giving the team what it thought to be a pair of dominant lefties. Even in-season, the team was willing to “write a check that competitors for Jay wouldn’t” in adding the experienced bat of Jay Bruce to the roster in August.

While the team was, on paper, a superior team heading into the 2017 campaign and for much of the season because of those additions and the returns to health of several key starting pitchers and outfielder Michael Brantley, that club saw just five games of playoff baseball before heading off into the 2017 sunset.

After the disappointing and early end to the 117th season in franchise history, the Indians cannot stand pat with the roster present and assume it will suddenly find its way back into the playoffs, able to contend with the champion Houston Astros or some of the other up-and-coming teams around the league as all quite likely will be spending this fall and winter to improve their rosters for their own playoff pushes in 2018. The Tribe has made a handful of moves already since the completion of the season, but with the exception of a waiver claim and the promotion of several prospects to spots on the 40-man, the Indians have added fringe depth pieces at best in what has become an annual offseason dumpster dive, thankfully nowhere near the winless blazing trash heap several blocks north on the lake shore.

The problem for the Indians is once again money. How many millions beyond their norm is within the comfort zone of ownership and the Tribe front office?

As it stands, salary figures for the 2018 roster are already toeing the threshold of dangerous, at least for the small market club. Projected arbitration salaries for the seven eligible players this offseason totaled $34.4 million (the team has since signed Dan Otero to $100,000 below his estimate and Abraham Almonte to $250,000 lower than his projection). Some of the best players on the roster will see their own significant increases in base pay due to the structures of their contracts, accounting for $87.19 million going towards eleven players (Encarnacion, Miller, Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Corey KluberJose Ramirez, Yan Gomes, Carlos Carrasco, Roberto Perez, Josh Tomlin, and Brandon Guyer). And these figures do not take into account contracts for the remainder of the guys on the roster and $2 million worth of buyouts to Logan and Chris Johnson.

Meanwhile, coming off of the books were the important contracts of Bruce, Carlos Santana, and Bryan Shaw, and to a lesser degree, Jackson and Joe Smith.

The Indians have not been linked to their former players, although one would assume the interest is there if the price is right. Bruce’s reported demands may price him quickly out of the Indians’ plans, and Santana’s price tag is linked to that of the “top free agent first baseman” available this offseason, Eric Hosmer.

Attempts to re-sign any of their valued free agents would presumably come with the need to relocate some money off of the roster. The team’s ability to upgrade a roster, one staring down some significant offensive and bullpen-related losses, may be limited  and may likely have to come on the trade market.

The Indians do have some attractive pieces laying around the 40-man and further down the farm system. While teams have and will continue to inquire about guys like Carrasco, some of the next tier of pitchers, like a Danny Salazar or Mike Clevinger, could be intriguing starting pitcher upgrades for other clubs. The Tribe has a bit of a logjam at catcher at the Major League level, with Gomes (signed with options through 2021) and Perez (inked through 2022) already locked up on long-term deals while top prospect Francisco Mejia made his debut in September and has had to learn third base in the Arizona Fall League to give him a chance to see more steady big league action moving forward. Kipnis is a man without a position at the moment, but he comes with a lofty contract paying him $13.67 million in 2018 and $14.67 million in 2019 before an option year in 2020. Guys like Gonzalez, Urshela, or Yandy Diaz, limited by opportunities in Cleveland, could help sweeten a trade deal as viable MLBers with some degree of upside in their skill sets. The team could attempt to deal from its middle infield stockpile, knowing that life up the middle in Cleveland could be manned by Ramirez and Francisco Lindor for the foreseeable future, if the team opts to go forth with Ramirez back at his natural second base spot instead of the former All-Star second-sacker in Kipnis.

While the hot stove remains ice cold with the official start of winter inching closer and closer, general managers around the game will be looking to stoke the fire some during next week’s Winter Meetings, eagerly awaiting the moment that the barely burning brush fire erupts and spreads into a league-wide blaze of glorious offseason activity.

Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

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