Let’s say the Cleveland Indians decide to go for it in 2013. Chris Antonetti hasn’t yet made up his mind about what direction the organization will go this winter, but assume he wakes up tomorrow and announces that the Tribe will compete next summer. He’s not going to sell the farm to contend, but he won’t trade Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo and he’ll be scouring the market in the coming weeks for players who can help the team right now.
It’s been said often (including here on Wahoo’s on First) that the Indians are just a couple moves shy of being legitimate contenders. That two or three well-executed trades or free agent signings are all we need to have a shot at the playoffs. I buy that, to an extent—2012 was a flukily bad year, and there’s enough talent already in the organization that with an aggressive winter 2013 could be a fun year. But the question isn’t quite that simple.
Seeing free agent signings or trade acquisitions as silver bullets to cure what ails the Tribe ignores the current makeup of the organization. The problem is, the Indians are too good for dramatic improvement to come easily. Specifically, they have too much depth and too few internally unresolvable weaknesses. In constructing a roster built to withstand player turnover, Cleveland has become too fundamentally sound to be easily improved from the outside.
Let’s turn first to the lineup, starting with the players whose spots are locked in. Assuming the Indians don’t trade them (if they’re gone it likely means the team isn’t going for it in 2013 anyway so this analysis is moot), Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo. Ditto Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and Michael Brantley. So right off the bat you’ve got catcher, second base, shortstop, right field, and either left or center field covered. You can throw in third base, too—Lonnie Chisenhall isn’t a sure thing, but it’s his job to lose and if he does surely one of Mike Aviles, Jack Hannahan, Jason Donald, Cord Phelps, or Yan Gomes will be able to man the hot corner—so two-thirds of the lineup are already taken care of.
One of the biggest holes on the depth chart is in left field (or center, if Brantley is shifted to left), but it’s not a given that Cleveland will have to look outside the organization to fill it. Ezequiel Carrera has great wheels, an impressive glove, and held his own at the plate in 2012. Thomas Neal, who got a quick cup of coffee with the Tribe in September, just OPSed .867 in Triple-A. Recent 40-man roster addition Tim Fedroff hit .316/.394/.485 in the high minors this year. Russ Canzler is generally seen as a first baseman, but he played 58 games in the corner outfield spots between Columbus and Cleveland in 2012.
Are any of these guys guarantees to become good, or even serviceable, MLB players? No. Carrera and Neal are generally thought to have low ceilings, and based on how the Indians placed Canzler (wasn’t called up until September) and Fedroff (never called up) this season they don’t seem to regard them as legitimate long-term options. But we’ve got a group of (at least) four relatively young left field options, each of whom is good enough to have earned a place on the 40-man roster and has decent upside. Surely one of them has it in him to step up and play like a league-average left (or, in Carrera’s case, center) fielder.
Would Cleveland be able to meaningfully improve on that? After the top tier free agents who will be out of the Tribe’s price range, I’m skeptical that anyone available would be a real upgrade. If the Indians can snag Nick Swisher or Shane Victorino for a seven-digit salary, then sure. They’d be crazy not to do that. But that’s not very likely. Think someone more in the mold of Ryan Ludwick. Would it be worth (say) $8 million to have him in left field over whichever internal candidate would win the job? Probably not.
First base is another question mark heading into 2013, but again it’s not as though the Indians definitely have to look elsewhere for an answer. Despite a lackluster September with the parent club, Canzler played well in Columbus and is generally regarded as a good hitter. Lars Anderson is an option; he had a disappointing year in Triple-A but the Indians must have seen something they liked that made them trade for him in July. Newly acquired Yan Gomes had a disappointing MLB debut campaign in 2012 but OPSed .938 in a half-season in the minors. And then there’s Matt LaPorta, who is no longer on the 40-man roster but maybe—maybe—could get one last real chance to prove himself now that Manny Acta is gone.
The case for the Tribe’s staying put at first base isn’t as strong as it is in left field; Carrera and Neal seem like better bets for 2013 than Anderson and LaPorta. But again, the organization has at least four possible internal options to fill the hole. There wouldn’t be much production difference between the best of this group and a Casey Kotchman 2.0. Would it really be worth writing James Loney‘s name in the lineup over Canzler’s? If Cleveland can manage to bring in a substantial improvement—say, trading for Mark Trumbo—that would be fantastic. But signing a scrap heap stopgap wouldn’t give the Indians anything they don’t already have.
The final hole in the lineup is at designated hitter. Here there’s a clearer case for bringing someone in. With the possible exception of Fedroff the Indians don’t have any in-house options who could really hold their own as a full-time DH. Getting a decent DH shouldn’t be too expensive—re-signing Travis Hafner would probably cost less than it would take to get a marginal upgrade at a corner spot.
What about the starting rotation? Surely that needs some attention. And it does—but not as much as you think. For better or worse, Justin Masterson, Zach McAllister, and Ubaldo Jimenez are all but guaranteed spots in the 2013 rotation. You can probably pencil Carlos Carrasco in, too. That’s four of the five slots filled right off the bat.
What of the fifth spot? There are plenty of options. In roughly decreasing order of likelihood, Corey Kluber, David Huff, Jeanmar Gomez, Chris Seddon, and Hector Rondon all have legitimate, if small, chances of winning the job. That’s five guys who could potentially take the ball every fifth day, including four who have already done so in a Cleveland uniform. Now there’s a reason why none of them has a guaranteed role for 2013, but basic probability would suggest that at least one of them could be a respectable MLB starter in 2013. Signing Brandon McCarthy would be great, but the Indians shouldn’t have too much trouble filling out their rotation without him.
This takes us to the bullpen, where—as Merritt explained last week—there’s really no need for reinforcements. Chris Perez has the ninth inning. Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith are the setup guys. Nick Hagadone and Tony Sipp give the Tribe a pair of strong lefties, with Hagadone potentially capable of taking on a late-inning role as well. Rafael Perez will be back off the disabled list too. Cody Allen, Scott Barnes, Chen Lee, Frank Herrmann, Blake Wood, and whoever is leftover after the rotation is sorted out would all be viable options as well. This can all be filled internally.
Same goes for the bench. Mike Aviles has one spot down. Another belongs to either Lou Marson or Gomes, whoever wins the backup catcher job. Throw in Carrera or Neal as a fourth outfielder. That leaves one (or maybe two) spots open for utility men, but with Jason Donald, Jack Hannahan, Cord Phelps, and Gomes all waiting in the wings that shouldn’t be too hard to settle.
The point in all this is that there are at most two spots on the roster (first base and designated hitter) that absolutely must be upgraded if the Indians want to put a respectable team on the field in 2013. A starting pitcher (or two, if Ubaldo Jimenez’ job isn’t safe) and a left fielder would be nice, but only if the Tribe can bring in some real impact talent. For all the failures and frustrations this team has suffered in the last few years, there’s no denying that the organization has built up some impressive depth.
But this depth presents its own problem. Though having decent-to-good options across the board puts a floor on how bad the team can reasonably be expected to play (the 2012 collapse was far worse than could have been rationally predicted), it also imposes a low ceiling. With apologies to Shin-Soo Choo there are no stars on this roster, no one to really build a team around. However we got here, the Indians have essentially built a team around complementary players. That’s a good way to be average, but it’s almost impossible for such a team to be great.
This makes it much harder to improve the team. Making a player transaction isn’t just adding a new player to a team, it’s replacing whoever held the lineup or rotation spot before. It’s easy to upgrade when you have an Achilles heel—even an average player can give his new employer two or three whole wins over a perennially overmatched predecessor. But when a team has respectable players across the board, it takes a star to make a real improvement. And players of that caliber tend to be out of the Tribe’s price range.
There’s no question that the Indians need to improve if they want to contend in 2013. But signing players for the sake of signing players isn’t an efficient way to run a baseball team. The reality of the situation is that the talent the Indians already have will make it much harder to upgrade—there isn’t a whole lot of room for improvement this winter.