The Bare Bones: The Free Agency Problem(s)

On Monday, we went through the entire Indians roster and looked at all the built in pay raises that the club will be giving out for the 2010 season.  After taking a considerable amount of money off the books—in the form of Kerry Wood, Jake Westbrook, Jhonny Peralta and a few others—and adding in the raises that are due Sizemore, Hafner, Choo, Carmona etc., we ended up with an opening day payroll just shy of $50 million if we don’t add any pieces to mix.  Last season’s opening day payroll was between $60 and $65 million.

So if the Indians are comfortable with beginning the year at $60 million in a season that is not necessarily projected to be “contending”, that would mean the Indians have about $10 million to spend this off-season.

The question is: should we buy any players?  And if so, who and for how much?  Let’s look at our major areas of need.

Here are the holes, in descending order, that appear to me to be our biggest areas of need going into next season:

  • 3B, Average Bat, Above Average Defense (50% of budget)
  • Bullpen Arm, Veteran, 7th/8th Inning Guy (20% of budget)
  • RH Bat, Corner OF or 1B (10% of budget)
  • Role Players (20% of budget)

You’ll notice there are some positions I’m leaving off.  I didn’t include a second baseman on that list.  That’s not because I believe in Jason Donald or Luis Valbuena or anyone else.  But I do think Jason Kipnis could be a viable option later in the season, and either of those guys should be able to hold the fort until then.  On top of that, adding a viable 3B moves Nix back into the second base/utility pile of players.  So unless you are convinced Nix is going to solve all of his defensive woes at 3B in a few months of winter ball, I think the team might begin by putting its energy and budget into finding a stopgap to hold the hot corner for a year.  That way Chisenhall, who hasn’t played an inning above AA, will have some more time to develop.

I also didn’t include a starting pitcher in the list.  There are a couple of reasons for that.  First, by my count, we have at least eight guys who could be available to start for us next season.  In descending order, they are: Carmona, Masterson, Talbot, Carrasco, Gomez, Tomlin, Huff, and Laffey.  All of those guys have started in the Majors, so that’s not even including options like Alex White, Yohan Pino, Corey Kluber and others who might be on the way.  Since it’s unlikely that 2011 will be a contending year, I believe we need to separate the wheat from the chaff in that list, and adding another arm to the pile on a short-term deal doesn’t make a lot of sense unless the goal is to flip him at the deadline for prospects.  It would just muddy the waters.

Even further, adding starting pitching in the free agent market is a complicated issue for a team like the Indians.  It’s fairly clear we don’t have the resources to compete for the big names, so we’re stuck going through the scrap heap.  Even guys like Pavano and Westbrook will likely command close to $10 million per season, which would eat up our entire budget.  It’s just not wise to invest that much of your payroll (1/6th) for a player who is questionable at best.  Which leaves us looking at guys (as Paul Cousineau recently suggested) who are “third tier” starters with major injury and/or performance issues.  If it costs $2 to $5 million for one of these arms, what would we really gain?  There’s the potential of upside, I suppose, but hanging your playoff hopes on the likes of a resurgent Chris Young or Jeremy Bonderman sounds dubious to me, and for that reason, I’m leaving them off our target list.

So let’s get into the mix.  Because I believe third base should be our biggest priority, we’re going to concentrate our energy there.

If we have $5 million to spend on a third baseman for next season, who are we looking at?  According to Cot’s Baseball contracts, here’s the list of third basemen who can become free agents this off-season (* indicates club option):

Garrett Atkins FA
Adrian Beltre BOS *
Geoff Blum HOU
Miguel Cairo CIN
Jorge Cantu TEX
Eric Chavez OAK *
Pedro Feliz STL
Bill Hall BOS *
Brandon Inge DET
Maicer Izturis LAA
Melvin Mora COL
Nick Punto MIN *
Aramis Ramirez CHC *
Miguel Tejada SD
Chad Tracy FLA
Omar Vizquel CWS

Let’s cut some of these guys right away.  Beltre is worth at least $10 million per year.  He’s out.  Aramis Ramirez’s option will likely be picked up, and if not, he’s out of our price range too.  I also think it’s likely that Punto’s option will be picked up.  Brandon Inge signed an extension with the Tigers this morning.  Bill Hall is a crummy 3B, and Eric Chavez’s career is likely over.

Since we’re highlighting defense, I’ll include career UZR/150 at third base (positive numbers are good, negative bad) along with 2010 wOBA to get a feel for offense (.325 is league average):

Player

UZR/150 @ 3B

2010 wOBA

Garrett Atkins FA

-5.8

0.256

Geoff Blum HOU

6.2

0.300

Miguel Cairo CIN

2.3

0.343

Jorge Cantu TEX

-16.6

0.305

Pedro Feliz STL

14.9

0.234

Maicer Izturis LAA

3.7

0.307

Melvin Mora COL

-1.9

0.344

Miguel Tejada SD

-9.9

0.306

Chad Tracy FLA

0.1

0.284

Omar Vizquel CWS

-3.1

0.303

So let’s throw a few more players off the list.  Garret Atkins, Jorge Cantu, Miguel Tejada, and Chad Tracy all look to be no real improvement over Jayson Nix.  That leaves us with Geoff Blum (reasonable defense, below average offense), Miguel Cairo (above average defense and offense), Pedro Feliz (good defense, awful offense), Maicer Izturis (average defense, below average offense), Melvin Mora (average defense, above average bat), and Omar (fan favorite).

Who on this list excites you?  To me, the only ones I’d spend any money on are Cairo and maybe Mora.  If we can get them for $3 to $5 million on a one-year deal, I’d take it.  They’re both over the hill, but might be able to improve the infield defense, which is definitely needed on a staff with so many groundball pitchers, while bringing some semblance of a bat to the plate.  Not exciting options, but if I were Chris Antonetti, I’d be on the phone to these two.

But really, I’m not crazy about the options on the free agent market.  There’s the possibility that a few more guys could play into the mix as well.  Juan Uribe (he of the walk-off sac fly!) is an option, though his defense is pretty questionable at both SS and 3B.  Kevin Kouzmanoff, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jose Lopez are some of the bigger names who could be non-tendered this off-season, and each might be worth a look.  But again, are these players really an upgrade over a cheap Jayson Nix?  I’m not so sure.

The problem with the market then, is that there will certainly be some players happy to take our money, but it’s unclear whether any of them can make the team appreciably better.  Or as Billy Beane put it to Peter Gammons recently, “The way the system is right now, there really is no difference between a $75 million and $40 million payroll.  I think a lot of small-market clubs […] ask, ‘Why pay $75 million when $40 million will buy me as many wins?’”

It’s a prudent question.  Are there any 3B out there in the $3 to $5 million range who are significantly better than what we have?  Guys who can add wins to the team?  And if not, does it really make sense to go after anyone?  Should the team spend an extra $10 million just to say that it did?

Or, do we do what I’ve always thought of as a losing strategy: bring back Omar to sell some tickets.  I’ll be honest: it might not be the worst option, considering the dearth of choices out there.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com DP

    Great write up, Jon!

    I wouldn’t count out Cord Phelps in the 2B Jamboree, either. And, who’s to say one of the Phelps/Kipnis duo couldn’t try some third base? Neither of them could be worse with the glove than any of the dudes we trotted out last year. Phelps, specifically, was pretty solid with the glove (by my eyeball test) with Columbus last year at second.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Scott

    The Omar thing would be huge for PR – especially if they made an Omar bobblehead night and sold like V shaped pretzels and stuff… At the very least, it’d put to bed those that have been clammoring for nostalgia over marginal wins. I’m fine with my 3B hitting 2 HR with maybe 40 RBI as long as it gets people to the stadium for a year or so.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Jon

    @ DP:

    Yeah, I’ve read that Phelps is playing 3B in winter ball, and could emerge as an option.

    When I started writing this piece, I was thinking that we should definitely invest in a third baseman–it’s such a huge weakness. But after looking at the numbers and players available, I’m starting to wonder if there’s any point: 90% to 95% of the value in a club like the Indians has to be produced in-house. It’ll be interesting to see what they do.

  • S-Dub

    I’ve never heard Miguel Cairo associated with above average offense! But, that’s a good spin on things lol.

    Sign Geoff Blum so he can play till the All-Star break until Chisenhall can come up and be our 3B of the future. Omar also wouldn’t be bad but he seems to be ring chasing at this point.

  • Kunal

    I would bring back Omar because not only does he fulfill the nostalgia part but he would be a great mentor for our young middle infielders especially considering Cabrera and Valbuena are both from Venezuela as well

  • b

    If they go with the advice in the column, I think there’s a slogan somewhere in there that will really put butts in seats come April. “The 2011 Cleveland Indians. We spent half our free agent budged on a average bat/decent glove corner infielder!” “The 2011 Indians, now slightly better at third base than they were with Jayson Nix!” No criticism of you of course, Jon. You put together a really good assessment of what these tightwads could possibly do to scrap together a team on a shoestring budget.

  • S-Dub

    PAY CHOO!

  • DC Tribe fan

    Really good assessment, Jon. I’m not sure, given what you’ve written, that the Indians front office should do a thing at this point. Obviously, the fans don’t care–if they did, they’d show up to root the youngsters on. Yes, it’s a catch-22, but it breaks my heart as an out of town Tribe fan to see the amount of disinterest. And yes, we have the same problem in DC (but DC fans are all fickle out of towners anyway, with no loyalty to anything but the Redskins.)
    Oh, for the Jacobs Field sellouts of yesteryear, eh?

  • http://www.heyhokie.com Vengeful Pat

    After reading your article, Jon, which was awesome as usual… I don’t see much benefit to adding a 3B free agent. All of those players are so ridiculously average (at best) that I can’t see them being a big enough upgrade over Nix to warrant the move. In fact, I think I might even be in favor of blowing just about the whole thing on a starting pitcher. Probably not Westbrook or Pavano, but somebody who has played well in the past who maybe had a down year and the pitching staff thinks they can turn around. I dunno, I guess you’d have to get creative, but getting a starter might also help with the bullpen situation. Maybe Gomez can turn into a lock-down 7th/8th inning guy.

  • Nicko

    I would just give Andy Marte 400 more at bats at third base. I think he has a proven track record.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com DP

    Why not bring Kouz back so all the Josh Barfield nay-sayers can gloat?

  • Max

    Can we just give that 10 mil to Hafner to make his contract end sooner?

  • Ben

    Take all excess money and try to lock Choo up right now. Or try and buy Hafner out.

  • JNeids

    Absolutely excellent piece(s), Jon. Thanks to my short attention span, I usually have a hard time sticking through to the end of the longer, more analytical articles, but I’ve been soaking up every last word of this series.

    I agree that there is no need to spend money just for the sake of spending. I’d rather take whatever money we might spend on an “upgrade” and save it for next off-season. But I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing Omar back for the right (cheap) price.

  • Max

    @ Ben- I like the way you think, unfortunately I doubt Scott Boras would agree

  • PNR

    Excellent piece, as always.

  • Gerry Nason

    Very persuasive argument that you make. Of the players you narrowed it down to, I think that Pedro Feliz is the ONLY 3B to consider. As you stated, the Tribe has a staff full of ground ball pitchers. I believe that Feliz would go a long way in plugging the hole on the left side of the infield and bolstering our young, developing pitchers confidence. That confidence boost would be worth the $5 million many times over.

    You can’t have a staff full of pitchers who are afraid to throw the ball over the plate, because the defense has let them down time and time again. Let’s give them a break and show them that they don’t have to survive by nibbling the black or striking every batter out. This is the intangible that you DON’T factor into your thinking.

  • Gerry Nason

    You make for a very persuasive argument. However, Pedro Feliz is the only third baseman that I would consider from that list. As you pointed out, the Tribe has a staff full of ground ball pitchers. Feliz would finally close the hole on the left side of the infield.

    What’s more, it would be well worth $5 million to bolster our young pitcher’s confidence level. After being victimized by poor range and defensive skills, how many of them are trying to be too fine, living on the black and/or trying to strike everyone out. Let’s allow them to actually believe in forcing the batter to put the ball in play and trusting in the defense to do their job.

  • Jamie

    I agree there isn’t an affordable 3B free agent who is much better than Nix. Just wait for the youngsters to come up. But adding a free agent starting pitcher might not be a bad idea. Baseball Prospectus had an article today suggesting Brandon Webb if he stays healthy.

  • Gren

    I wouldn’t say Omar is a bad option at all. His batting average alone from last season would have put him at the top of the Indians rankings.

  • Matthew R

    The thing that surprised me most about this article was that I had no idea Geoff Blum was still playing. How is he still around? Even when he was good, he sucked.

  • mgbode

    Does Omar make the same barehanded grabs at the hot corner?

    I’d love to have Omar back but between Omar and Grady, can the ladies of the northcoast handle it?

    i’d rather just keep the spot open for The Chis unless Shapiro is reasonably certain he can trade away another middling IF midseason and get more prospects.

  • Tommy

    @Gerry

    I agree with you on the importance of the infield defense. So you are making the argument that not only would a guy like Feliz save runs with his glove, but his defensive difference would give our pitcher’s a higher confidence in their defense, to the point that they are now giving up fewer runs becuase of it? Giving Feliz’s defensive acumen some sort of multiplier effect?

    Boy that’s a tough argument to make when you are talking about giving up millions for it. I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with you, just thought it was interesting. But I would definitely question if one guy can make that difference.

    Plus, what will it do for the pitcher’s “confidence” when Feliz is yet another black hole in our lineup, and they are constantly losing games 1-0, 2-0, 2-1? Doesn’t having no run support make a pitcher feel like he has to be perfect just as much as having a shaky defense does? If Feliz was struggling to tread water offensively in the NL, its hard to imagine him being viable enough with the bat in the AL to even keep his glove in the lineup everyday.

  • Foghorn Leghorn

    Lock every infielder we have in a 20 yd. wide tunnel for the entire off season and blast 1000 baseballs at each of them every day. If a ball gets by more than 50 times, they dont eat that day. Defense fixed. Your welcome Shapiro.