We are so close to pitchers and catchers reporting to Arizona, that baseball starved fans like me can taste it. Football season officially ended Sunday with the New York Giants holding the Lombardi Trophy for the second time in four years. While I am a hardcore college basketball junkie (which in this town is like being a leper), I always have one eye looking towards my first love, the Cleveland Indians.
The upcoming season has a ton of intrigue. The winter leading up to this campaign had so many ups and downs. Everyone looked at the offseason as a time where the Indians would do everything they could to get that middle of the order, right-handed power bat to place between a healthy Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana. GM Chris Antonetti wasted no time improving his roster. Just after the World Series, he acquired veteran pitcher Derek Lowe from Atlanta presumably as the fifth starter. The thought was that he would stabilize that final spot, throw his usual 200-plus innings, and offer some veteran presence to the clubhouse of this young team. Little did we know how valuable adding Lowe would be.
Then the bat search began. Early talk surrounded Michael Cuddyer, but he was quickly priced out of the market. We moved on to Josh Willingham, who wanted a three-year deal, which the Indians did not want to give him. Then the Carlos Beltran rumors quickly surfaced. Within 24 hours, Beltran spurned the Indians two-year, $24 to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals. At least the Indians showed they were serious and willing to spend. After Beltran, Antonetti moved on to the three-headed first base free agent monster – Derrek Lee, Carlos Pena, and Casey Kotchman. Lee never seemed to have the interest in the Indians that the Indians had in him. Pena looked like the guy who would finally be the answer. Though left-handed, Pena had the 35-40 home run power and the defensive acumen than the Tribe coveted. A reported one-year, $8 million offer was on the table for him, but instead he chose to go back to Tampa, where he spent 2009, for $7.25 million. In the end, they settled on the contact hitting Kotchman last week, one a one-year, $3 million deal. (SIDE NOTE – I still say the Tribe should have pursued a trade for Carlos Lee of the Houston Astros. While his defense is Matt LaPorta-esque at first, he was a right-handed bat power bat that could have been had for almost nothing.)
Meanwhile, somewhere in between the Pena and the Kotchman talk, a major story broke that would change the face of the starting rotation and would rock the organization. The man we all thought was the 28-year old Fausto Carmona, was found out to be Roberto Hernandez Heredia, a 31-year old and arrested in the Dominican Republic trying to renew his Visa to get back to the States for Spring Training. The situation was such that the Tribe couldn’t count on Carmona for the season. Antonetti was forced to strike quickly, and he did, trading for former Minnesota Twins starter Kevin Slowey.
Worst of all for the Indians, was what would follow in Detroit. Their main rival for the AL Central crown, the Tigers, lost Victor Martinez for the season with a torn ACL. While nobody in our city would ever wish anything bad on Victor, perhaps the most popular Tribe player of the last decade, it seemed as though the Indians chances at catching the Tigers had gotten better. But less than a week later, that excitement was tempered when Super Agent Scott Boras called his old friend, ancient Tigers owner Mike Illitch, and worked out a nine-year, $214 million contract with Prince Fielder. It was a punch to the gut of everyone in Wahoo World.
In addition to the Slowey, Lowe and Kotchman acquisitions, the Indians attempted to collect as many players with major league experience on minor league deals as they could. Guys like Dan Wheeler (expected to fill the Chad Durbin role in the bullpen), Felix Pie, Robinson Tejeda, Ryan Spillborghs, Andy Laroche, Matt Pagnozzi, Chris Ray, and Jose Lopez were brought in with a chance to make the club out of spring training, but more so to add depth. They also added AAA Player of the Year Russ Canzler (Tampa) and Aaron Cunningham (San Diego) via trades as other right-handed bat options.
So this is how we got to today. It looks as though the Indians are done adding to the roster unless something else too good to be true pops up. The one thing currently hanging out there is the contract negotiations with shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. He is the last remaining arbitration eligible player on the roster. The Indians are said to be attempting to sign Asdrubal long-term, which would be a great thing for the organization, but nothing has been deemed close to being finalized.
What is interesting to note is that the Indians do not currently have a single player signed to a contract past the 2013 season. The real question is what are they positioning themselves for? While I love the outlook for the next two years, it seems as though the Tribe has a two-year window remaining before the cycle of rebuilding would begin again. This is not negativity; this is the reality of our situation and our market. I admire what Antonetti is attempting to do. He wants to win now and is doing what is within his powers to improve the team for today. That was proven with the Ubaldo Jimenez trade last July. He sacrificed his top two pitching prospects for two and a half years of an in-his-prime top of the rotation starter to pair with Justin Masterson. He has infused the organizations top two position player prospects – Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall – into the mix with veterans Choo, Cabrera, Travis Hafner, and Grady Sizemore. Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana should be ready to bust out into the next step towards their prime years. A deep bullpen has been built with a mix of quality veterans and youth.
Now is the time for the Indians to make their move. But will they? If 2012 turns into a colossal failure, which I don’t see happening, the Indians will be shedding plenty of payroll, while being able to keep their young core in place. Lowe ($5 million), Sizemore ($5 million with potential for $8 million if he hits incentives), Hafner ($14 million), and Carmona ($8 million – which he isn’t getting unless he plays this year) will all be off the books at the end of 2012. That’s a nice chunk of change.
If a long-term deal can be reached with Cabrera, you will still have AC, Kipnis, Santana, Chisenhall, Brantley, and Choo along with Masterson, Jimenez, and Josh Tomlin in the rotation, and a bullpen with a bevy of arms that include Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith, Frank Herrmann, and lefty Nick Hagadone (who will more than likely replace Rafael Perez who will be a free agent at season’s end) for 2013.
Whatever happens after 2013 is the great unknown. That is why it is imperative that the Indians come through over these next two seasons.