Prior to the new Major League Baseball Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), many teams signed major league players with six or more years of service to minor-league contracts with opt-out dates either be on or before Opening Day or at some point in May or June.
One of the Indians’ more infamous opt-out contracts was Juan Gonzalez, who signed a minor league deal for 2005 that included a opt-out clause before opening day. Despite a strained hamstring in spring training he made the club which earned him a $500,000 roster bonus in addition to sending Grady Sizemore to Triple-A Buffalo. On the same day he was notified of making the roster, he re-aggravated the hamstring and didn’t make an appearance with the club until May 31st. In his first plate appearance he hit a grounder to third base and pulled up lame running to first. It was his last plate appearance with the Indians and of his career.
Under Article XX(B)(5)(2) of the new CBA, major league players with a minimum of six years of service time who sign minor-league deals must be released or added to a team’s 25-man roster (or disabled list) by five days before Opening Day. If the team opts to send the player to the minors he will receive a $100,000 bonus and a guaranteed opt-out date (if not added to 25-man roster or DL) of June 1st.
This offseason the Indians signed several minor-league free agents, including Rich Hill, Matt Capps, Jason Giambi, and Daisuke Matsuzaka, each of whom are affected by the terms of the new CBA. Putting aside whether or not any or all of these four players make the club out of Spring Training, the $100,000 retention bonus (on top of each respective agreed-upon minor-league salary) is not—despite their spending ways this winter—the type of spending that the organization usually takes on.
(There is a loophole in the process that the New York Yankees exploited last year and the Indians could find themselves using this year. When the Yankees had to make the decision on Russell Branyan in 2012, they released him from his minor-league deal then re-signed him to a new deal the next day—thus avoiding having to pay the $100,000.)
Which of the aforementioned players will find themselves on the 25-man roster, released, or in Columbus at the end of Spring Training is the real question that is up for debate as camp opens. I believe both Jason Giambi and Rich Hill were signed to be on the Opening Day roster. Both players fill a role that is not covered on the present 40-man roster. Giambi will be the part-time left-handed designated hitter, pinch hitter, and emergency first baseman while Hill will be the situational left-handed reliever out of the bullpen, paired with either Scott Barnes or Nick Hagadone.
Certainly each player has an associated risk which could change his fortunes at any point during Spring Training. For Giambi it is his age (he turned 42 in January), which could lead to obvious deteriorated skills or injury; for Hill it has been the inability to stay healthy (31.2 combined innings from 2010 through 2012). Giambi nor Hill won’t have to have positive results in Spring Training in terms of numbers to win a job—they will just have show that the skills (bat speed, velocity, movement) are still present in order to leave Arizona with the team.
Daisuke Matsuzaka’s spot on the team isn’t as secure as Giambi’s or Hill’s, but there is a big opportunity for him depending on how the Indians handle Carlos Carrasco‘s pending six-game suspension. Back in 2010, Carrasco threw at the head of Billy Butler immediately after surrendering a grand slam home run to Melky Cabrera. He appealed his suspension and made his next start versus the Boston Red Sox. Following the Red Sox game he dropped his suspension but two days into the suspension he was placed on the disabled list which voided the whole time served; he subsequently missed the 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
If the Indians are unable to re-appeal the suspension (logic being that he wouldn’t of dropped the appeal had he known he was injured) then the team would have to leave Arizona with a roster in a state of flux for the first week. They would first have to find a starter for one of their first five games, then probably send that starter to Columbus and bring in an extra position player or reliever until Carrasco was ready to make his next start. This could be Matsuzaka’s opening.
Based on the roster shuffling that may have to occur there is also the return from injury that has to be considered. Although more than 18 months removed from Tommy John surgery, Carrasco has yet to face a major league hitter since the procedure. The Indians may have the luxury to start him in Columbus to repeat his delivery, control some of his innings early in the year, and look for an opportunity to add him to the rotation later in the year when the suspension could be absorbed with much less impact on the club.
The combination of suspension and return from injury opens the door for both Matsuzaka and Scott Kazmir to make the rotation. Matsuzaka may have the inside track on the job based on his major league resume and familiarity with Terry Francona with their days together in Boston. Additionally, the Indians may want to see Kazmir for a few starts against Triple-A hitters as the last time he pitched stateside he was a member of the Sugar Land Skeeters in the Independent League—nor does he have a $100,000 bonus attached to his reporting to Columbus.
Matt Capps is the second wild card of the group, but unlike Matsuzaka, Giambi, and Hill’s situations the Indians are flush in depth at the right-handed reliever spot. He was limited last season to only 29.1 innings as he spent time on the disabled list due to shoulder and rotator cuff inflammation and is still rehabbing from a winter throwing program to strengthen the shoulder. Last season in his lone September appearance his velocity was down to 89 mph, which capped off a trend of decreasing velocity over the last several years.
The one tool that Capps offers the Indians is the ability to finish off games and pitch the ninth inning. He has 138 career saves, and outside of Chris Perez the group of relievers expected be in the Indians bullpen have a total of 13 saves (Vinnie Pestano leads the group with 5). Capps very well may begin the season in Triple-A and build his arm strength back up while providing the Indians with an experienced closer or back end reliever in the event of an injury to Perez, Pestano, or Joe Smith.