If you log into the Indians’ website and click the roster tab, you can look at a depth chart which gives you a good view of the state of the roster as it stands right now. (Oddly, it includes Trevor Bauer but not Mark Reynolds, but that is probably a bookkeeping issue.) Looking at this depth chart, which is no doubt posted in some version on the wall of Chris Antonetti’s office, serves well as a to-do list for the Indians’ general manager for the rest of this offseason. This is how it looks:
Starting Pitching. Seven names listed: Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber, Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff, and Trevor Bauer. (Carlos Carrasco is left off, but there would be eight since the team seems to be planning as though he will be ready Opening Day.) The Indians say they would like to add to this list; I would be very cautious.
We spent good money on Derek Lowe last year (and would have spent more on Roberto Hernandez) on the theory that they would eat innings and take pressure off the younger guys. On a team with limited payroll dollars, I would avoid this strategy. All of the guys on this list except for Bauer have enough MLB experience that the prospect of going every fifth day should not faze them, so if we are going to add a free agent I would limit my search to guys who would be a definite improvement. In other words, a guy whose track record suggests he is a lock for double digit wins, such as Edwin Jackson.
If we sign Jackson, I would consider trading Jimenez if we can secure a young bat with upside whom we can control for multiple years. Contractually Jimenez is in the same situation as Choo was with less likelihood of being an asset next year, so trading him makes sense if the Tribe can replace him with someone better.
Relief Pitching. There are eleven names on this list. Two of them (Josh Tomlin and Blake Wood) are hurt, but the other nine all have MLB experience. In addition, I would expect Gomez or Huff to end up in long relief, so we definitely have a surplus here. It makes sense for one of these guys to go to Columbus for depth, but no more. Again, you have a limited payroll, so you cannot afford to keep an abundance of your resources in any one area. It’s like a middle class family buying a Mercedes but not being able to make their house payment. So this abundance needs to be leveraged to fill other needs.
Joe Smith and Nick Hagadone are not going to interest other teams enough to net real prospects who can come in and contribute, so the solution is to trade Chris Perez. That makes Vinnie Pestano the closer, with Smith, Hagadone, and Cody Allen in setup roles, and some combination of Scott Barnes, Matt Albers, and the other guys rounding out the relief corps. That is still a good enough bullpen that it won’t sink the team if everything else is good.
Catcher. This is a vulnerable area. If Yan Gomes were a good catcher he would not be spending time at three other positions, so let’s call him a project. We have seen three years’ work from Lou Marson, and he is at best a platoon option against lefties or a backup once a week. Which means that if Carlos Santana gets hurt or the Indians decide that he is better off at another position they have no other options. There is one option in the minors, Chun Chen, but he is 25 and still at Double-A Akron, so it would be foolish to call him a prospect. It is critical that Cleveland find a short term solution as a backup to Santana and also a prospect who can step in in two or three years. This should be a consideration when deciding whether to trade Perez.
Infield. Lonnie Chisenhall, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis, and Mark Reynolds. Probably 70-90 home runs here, with decent defense everywhere, and Mike Aviles available to back up at all four positions. There are several middle infielders among the top prospects in the system so at some point the Tribe can think about trading Cabrera, but for the coming season this may be the strongest part of them team, and I would leave it alone.
Designated Hitter. We have brought in half a dozen guys through minor league contracts and the Rule 5 draft. Russ Canzler is still here, and Matt LaPorta may be invited back. In addition there are guys like Cord Phelps and Tim Fedroff in Columbus who could probably step in. Odds are that out of all those guys we’ll find one who can hit .270 with 15 homers, which is enough. I saw Canzler play at Columbus all year, and he seems like the best bet to me.
Outfield. All you need to see is that Ezequiel Carrera is listed as the starting right fielder and Thomas Neal the primary backup to know that this is a problem. There is nobody in the farm system above Class-A who can help with this, so consider this an emergency. We have two good defenders in Michael Brantley and Drew Stubbs, but neither of them is a core player offensively.
Of course the plan is to upgrade this area, but I would make it an organizational priority to develop or trade for multiple outfielders with upside potential, using Perez and or Jimenez as my bait. In the meantime I would make this my priority in free agency. It’s hard to say whether money or is the main impediment to signing Nick Swisher, but if we can afford to pay Shane Victorino $11 million, Swisher is easily worth $14 or 15 million.
Now that Josh Hamilton is off the market, I believe Swisher will be the next outfielder targeted by the teams that missed out on Hamilton, so we will know soon whether the Indians should look elsewhere. The bang for the buck with some of these free agents has simply not been there this year, so I would hesitant to go overboard on a guy like Cody Ross, but I am virtually certain we can find someone who would be an upgrade on the guys we have.
So here’s the to-do list as I see it. I am assuming we can still spend $20-25 million in free agent salaries, based on shedding Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, Hernandez, Lowe, Casey Kotchman, Choo, and possibly Jimenez and Perez:
- 1. Try like hell to sign Edwin Jackson or the next best available pitcher who isn’t asking for more than two years. Again, I would rather spend $10 million on an impact guy than $8 million on a placeholder.
- 2. Trade Ubaldo Jimenez for prospects, preferably including a catcher or an outfielder. I am assuming there will be a market for a guy with his stuff, regardless of his recent performance. There is about a 20 percent chance that Ubaldo will go 17-5 next year, but that would just drive up his price as a free agent out of Cleveland’s range; either way he is gone after 2014, so better to maximize the return.
- 3. Try to sign Nick Swisher. If this fails, trade Chris Perez for the best outfield bat you can find. Since the Angels just developed a surplus, they would be my first call. If we sign Swisher, you still trade Perez, but your target becomes a low-cost guy with upside whom we can control for a while. Someone like Starling Marte, if the Pirates needed a reliever (which they don’t, so that would probably be a three-team deal).
- 4. Try to sign Justin Masterson to an extension. If he leaves, the Indians will end up spending big money on someone else, so let’s try to hang on to the guy we know. If Masterson shows no interest, the team should think about trading him in June if the season starts out badly.
I am more comfortable with Aviles getting 300 at-bats backing everyone up than 600 at-bats at the everyday shortstop and if he is the starter we don’t have a viable backup, so I am inclined to not trade Cabrera. But last week I would have said the same thing about Choo. If someone is desperate enough for a shortstop to give up someone like Trevor Bauer, you have to consider it.
One off-the-wall trade I would consider would be to offer Cabrera to the Yankees for Curtis Granderson, whom New York is looking to move. The Yankees are not completely certain about Derek Jeter being ready, and they would probably be more comfortable with Kevin Youkilis as the DH. If Nick Swisher doesn’t work out, or even if he does, Granderson in the middle of the lineup would look great.