Cleveland Indians analysis, part III: free agency
The Cleveland Indians have had an active offseason involving key player options, trades and the start of free agency. The Tribe has decided to keep Fausto Carmona and buyout Grady Sizemore, making Sizemore a free agent. They’ve also completed a trade with the Atlanta Braves for starting pitcher Derek Lowe. This trade, coupled with the re-signing of Carmona, stabilizes the starting rotation.
A rotation of Ubaldo Jimenez, Justin Masterson, Lowe, Carmona, and Josh Tomlin is very formidable and likely considered the best in the American League Central. On the other hand, this move leaves a hole in the outfield. Michael Brantley and Shin-Soo Choo will fill two of the spots, but Shelley Duncan or Ezequiel Carrera are not capable everyday outfielders for a playoff-caliber team.
Sizemore is not out of the picture, but he is now a free agent. By declining Sizemore’s contract and trading for Lowe, who will be $5 million on the salary cap for 2012, the Cleveland Indians have about $10-$14 million to spend in free agency. The Tribe will be looking for an outfielder and a power-hitting first baseman to help them get over the hump and into the postseason. Cleveland also could also use veteran leadership in the infield. While the Tribe is searching for a first baseman, veteran leadership and durability should take precedent. I think it is fair to say Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder will be out of their price range, but there are other quality free agents this offseason.
Other first base options include (with estimated 2012 salary):
Of these options Lee or Cuddyer seem like the best fit. Both provide a quality locker room presence, leadership, fill positional needs, fit the budget and are still productive on the field. Lee would come cheaper at $5-$7 million, but Cuddyer coming at $9-$11 million would fill needs at first base and outfield. Pena could be a locker-room liability but may be looked at as a last resort.
Acquiring Cuddyer may depend mostly on how the front office views Matt LaPorta. If the front office wants to give LaPorta another chance, then Cuddyer could fill the third spot in the outfield and allow LaPorta to play first. This seems like a big risk to place the overall impact of a free agent on an unproven and struggling LaPorta. I don’t think this is a risk worth taking because you are resting the fate of the season on LaPorta’s ability to stay in the lineup. However, if the front office feels LaPorta is ready to be an everyday first baseman, Cuddyer would be a great sign this offseason.
Lee would fill the need at first base if LaPorta is, in fact, a lost cause, which many believe to be the case. Lee was a desired asset at the trade deadline this past season and would be a welcome addition at a cost-conscious price. Putting Lee at first base and anywhere in the lineup solidifies the defense and the lineup. Signing Lee still leaves an additional $4-$5 million to file the hole in the outfield.
Outfield free agents the Tribe may consider include (with estimated 2012 salary):
The Indians have the option of re-signing Sizemore or Fukudome, or they can look elsewhere to fill the gap in the outfield. Signing either Sizemore or Fukudome to an incentive-laden contract seems highly likely, even though both come with questions — Sizemore’s health and Fukudome’s consistency. Kubel or Ross would be welcome additions, bringing postseason experience and a lot of talent. This is a tough decision to make by the front office.
Below is the current roster of the Cleveland Indians (with expected salaries):
C Carlos Santana ($500M)
2B Jason Kipnis ($500M)
3B Lonnie Chisenhall ($500M)
SS Asdrubal Cabrera ($500M)
RF Shin-Soo Choo ($3.5MM)
OF Michael Brantley ($500M)
DH Travis Hafner ($13MM)
OF Ezequiel Carrera ($500M)
IF Jason Donald/Matt LaPorta ($500M)
IF Jack Hannahan ($1.5MM)
U Shelley Duncan ($500M)
C Lou Marson ($500M)
With the estimated payroll near $65 million, this leaves roughly $10-14 million to spend this free agency period. These three options below are near the budget I envision for the 2012 Cleveland Indians. If the front office was able to make these lineups possible for the 2012 season, the Indians would have to be considered a top contender for the division title and a force to be reckoned with in the postseason, in my opinion. Quality pitching from a talented pitching staff, coupled with a formidable lineup with talent spread throughout, puts the Indians over the hump and in the postseason.
Below are three batting-order options the Indians may consider when constructing an opening day 25-man roster.
2B/SS Jason Donald
1B/3B Jack Hannahan
C Lou Marson
OF Ezequiel Carrera
The front office has tough decisions ahead of it in order to build a postseason-caliber team. With strategic moves, the Tribe will be on their way to popping champagne in September and hopefully October.