The nine-year, $214 million contract that Prince Fielder got from the Tigers on Tuesday dominated baseball headlines this week—and with good reason. Fielder was the second-biggest free agent on the market this winter, and he just inked the fourth-biggest contract in MLB history. It’s no surprise that people are interested in it.
But in the midst of the hubbub about Fielder, another story got pretty much buried. One that, while less important, might mean more to Cleveland Indians fans: longtime Tribe shortstop and local icon Omar Vizquel signed a minor-league deal with the Toronto Blue Jays.
That Vizquel is still playing is incredible—if he makes the Blue Jays’ roster, he’ll be an MLB player at age 45. But it raises an obvious question: Why didn’t the Indians sign him instead?
The answer to that question is obvious: there’s no real place for him in Cleveland. Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis have the middle-infield starting jobs locked down. Third base belongs to either Lonnie Chisenhall or Jack Hannahan, and Omar doesn’t have the bat to play first base. Nor is there any room for Vizquel on the bench; Chisenhall or Hannahan (whoever loses the competition for the starting job) will be the primary backup infielder, and Jason Donald and Cord Phelps are the obvious candidates for the backup middle-infield role.
Vizquel hit .251/.287/.305 in 58 games with the White Sox in 2011; combined with his greatly diminished defensive ability, he was below replacement-level. RotoChamp projects a .633 OPS for Vizquel in 2012, while Bill James sees him limping to a .622 OPS. It’s possible that a 45-year-old Omar would blow those projections out of the water or that both Donald and Phelps would sink to such levels, but neither scenario is particularly likely.
But there’s a problem: the exact same argument could have been made against signing any of the other low-ceiling veterans the Indians have acquired this offseason.
First it was Jose Lopez. Then it was Adam LaRoche (though, to be fair, I thought that was a smart move). And in case two wasn’t enough, Cleveland signed Julio Lugo earlier this week. Not to mention that Casey Blake, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Mark DeRosa, and Jamey Carroll‘s names have come up in connection with the Tribe this winter.
To this day, Vizquel is a fan favorite in Cleveland. Remember the excitement that swept through Northeast Ohio when Jim Thome came back last year? It’d be even better to see Omar in an Indians uniform again. You want to fill some seats at Progressive Field? Bring him back. That’d sell some tickets for sure.
From a baseball operations standpoint letting Vizquel take playing time from Donald and Phelps would be a mistake, but in all likelihood they’ll be losing innings and plate appearances to inferior players anyway. Omar might not be as good as LaRoche, but at the very least he probably wouldn’t be noticeably worse than Lopez or Lugo. If the best players are already out, wouldn’t it be worth having a marginally worse utility infielder if it meant rejuvenating a depressed fanbase?
The team’s seemingly insatiable desire to load up on utility infielders doesn’t make sense since they already have Donald and Phelps, who are younger and have much higher upsides than anyone who the Indians could sign on a minor-league deal. But if they’re going to be losing playing time to replacement-level veterans anyway, the Indians should have thrown the fans a bone and brought back Omar.