There arises a certain degree of skepticism among Indians fans when the subject of signing free agents is mentioned. This feeling is not without cause, nor is it worth going into any great detail searching for an explanation. We know that whatever free agents we add are likely to be of the complementary nature—a utility player here or a bullpen arm there. We’ve been conditioned to believe that we play in the shallow end of the pool when it comes to free agency due to circumstances that are, by and large, beyond our control.
On the other hand, there is some reason to believe that the Indians might be willing to add some talent and (yes!) even some payroll this off-season. For one thing, Chris Antonetti said so himself. For another, the 2012 season looks like that “contending” year that we’ve been waiting for. Did it make sense to sign a big name before the 2010 season? Not really, we were at our nadir as a team. But now? One or two pieces could make a big difference to a club that is otherwise ready to start competing.
The problem, of course, is that the free agent pool isn’t looking all that advantageous for us. To say nothing about the dangers of signing unathletic sluggers without a natural position who might not age well, we really can’t afford Pujols or Fielder. So stop thinking about them. For the first base pile beyond those two? Yikes. Russ Bus? Carlos Pena? Derrek Lee? Anybody there you wanna throw $6 to $8 million at? Me neither.
The same goes for free agent outfielders, at least in my opinion. Take a look at the names on this list and tell me you see someone you’d feel comfortable paying in 2012 to put the team over the hump.
So if the free agent market isn’t going to be the place to make improvements, we’re left playing in the trade market. And I think we might be better off here than you might at first think. Let’s talk about some of the Indians most valuable commodities that I’d be comfortable parting with.
Tony Sipp, Raffy Perez, and/or Joe Smith: There isn’t a doubt in my mind that we could part with Raffy Perez and replace him with (a cheaper) Nick Hagadone. Raffy is entering his second year of arbitration-eligibility, probably fetching him somewhere about $1.5 million for the 2012 season, so trading him could free up salary space and net us some additional talent. Sipp is in his last pre-arbitration year, so could be slightly more valuable to an acquiring team since he’s still being paid close to the league minimum. And Joe Smith is coming off a career year that might really attract some of the upper echelon teams. (Assuming they don’t look too closely at his peripherals, which weren’t so good. Quiet, you.)
Chris Perez: Speaking of guys who might have looked a bit better than they actually were…. Did you know that among AL closers, nobody struck out fewer batters than Perez did in 2011 AND nobody walked more batters than he did? That’s not a good sign, kids. When you throw in the fact that he’s arbitration eligible (and about to become expensive, it makes tons of sense to turn the closer role over to Vinnie Pestano now. Did I mention that Vinnie was third in K-rate in the AL in 2011? And that I heart him?
Paul Cousineau suggested that we might be able to turn Chris Perez into Gaby Sanchez. While I don’t think he could net us nearly that much, I do recognize that teams tend to overvalue the save statistic. And disirregardless, I’m not a huge fan of paying closers lots of money; it reminds me of this guy, and I don’t like it. I think we should trade Perez for as much as we can get, and ride with Vinnie Boy.
Lou Marson: I know this is blasphemy. You like Lou. I like Lou too. I like him so much that I think he could be a viable starting catcher. But for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere, I want Carlos Santana to be our starting catcher. And more importantly, so does the front office. So that means that the most Lou will play for the Cleveland Indians is once or twice a week. Is that the best use of a commodity that might be valued more highly by another organization? I’m not sure. If there’s a team out there that would give Lou the keys to catcher job from day one, would they be willing to pay for him with some talent in return? I’m not sure, but I think that keeping him as a backup is a waste of resources: I see a mediocre starter there, and that’s worth something on the trade market. Which brings me to….
Jason Donald: I would argue that Jason Donald is the single most valuable trade chip on this list. He is plenty good enough to start for a lot of teams—even playoff teams. Let’s demonstrate briefly. The St. Louis Cardinals could replace Ryan Theriot with Jason Donald, save $3 million, and get better production. The Detroit Tigers have been in dire need of a second baseman all season. The Diamondbacks were getting such putrid production from second base that they traded for Aaron Hill. The point is, we tend to think of second base as a premiere position because of guys like Cano and Pedroia and Weeks and Utley, but beyond those top guys, Jason Donald ain’t so bad. Throw in his versatility and his league minimum salary, and we might just have a valuable commodity on our hands.
And that’s it. There’s not a lot more on the major league roster that I’d be ok with trading right now (unless you count Cord Phelps; if he has value, trade him). I could be talked into Choo or Tomlin, but you’d have to be offering quite a bit, and I just don’t think that offer is out there. I’d obviously be willing to trade Hafner or Talbot, but I don’t think anybody’d take them. And for the record, I still want to hold on to Fausto: I just don’t see how the upside in cutting him loose would be greater than the upside of a workhorse who will throw 200 innings that might be good. But that’s just me.
What would I do? I’d be working the phones hard to package some of these guys for a first baseman. With Gonzalez and Papi in Boston, Papelbon wearing out his welcome and a new GM, do the Red Sox think about parting with Youkilis for some young talent like Marson, Donald and C-Pez? Could we pry Smoak from the Mariners for any combination of these guys? I just don’t know. Thankfully, that’s not my job.
But what I do know is that the trade chips we have right now are likely more valuable now than they will be this time next year. Chris Perez’s ERA will likely catch up with his peripherals. Jason Donald will rot on the bench behind Kipnis and Chisenhall. Lou Marson will play sparingly.
The time to act seems to be upon us: it’s time to start filling out the team, and the trade market might be the only avenue available to us.