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Cleveland Indians: Looking Ahead at the 2014 Roster and Potential Free Agents
As disappointing as the Wild Card loss to the Tampa Bay Rays was, it’s hard to be upset with what the Cleveland Indians did in 2013. As impressive as a 92-win season is, especially when expectations weren’t that great (Vegas set the preseason over/under at 77.5), this team now must build on their success.
If we can learn anything from the past it’s that we can’t just sit idly by. We all remember the 2007 Indians squad that won 96 games and came one game away from the World Series. They followed that up in 2008 by winning 81 games and finishing 3rd in the AL Central. Tinkering was done, but no serious moves were made and the Indians were irrelevant for the next several years.
The front office has hopefully learned from this mistake. This isn’t to say an entire roster overhaul is necessary either. It’s hard to argue that there is a strong core on this team, however, if the Indians are to repeat any sort of success they had this past year a few things must be done this offseason.
First and foremost, the Tribe must address the starting rotation.
Whether this means inking Ubaldo Jimenez to a two or three-year deal, re-signing Scott Kazmir or letting both walk and bringing in a quality free agent starter at this point remains uncertain. What is certain is that the Indians don’t win 92 games without the performance the starting rotation gave them. It’s unlikely the Indians will resign both Jimenez and Kazmir, and both of them do come with risks. However, letting both players walk freely would also be a mistake.
Kazmir seems to have found some of what once made him one of the league’s best young pitchers and there was no starter better in the second half of the year than Jimenez. If one or both players leave, the Tribe must find themselves in the conversation for guys like Ervin Santana, Matt Garza or Ricky Nolasco. While none of these guys have ace written all over them, they’d be a welcome addition to a solid rotation consisting of Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar and of course, Justin Masterson – assuming Jimenez and Kazmir sign elsewhere.
An interesting free agent to watch will be Rich Harden.
Harden, who spent some time with the Twins last season, asked for and was granted his release at the end of July. He hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2011 due to injuries, but if he can regain his former stuff Harden would be a solid addition to any team willing to take a flyer on him. The Kazmir signing tells us the Indians are a team willing to do just that.
Pay attention to Josh Johnson as well. He had a down year in Toronto but was also injured. He did just undergo elbow surgery but is expected to be ready for the start of Spring Training. The Indians must also keep an eye on potentially re-signing Masterson, who can become a free agent in 2015.
Keeping with the pitching theme, tinkering with the bullpen is almost a yearly thing for most teams. This year though, the Indians should look to upgrade in a big way at the closer position. What’s more troublesome than Chris Perez blowing a few saves is his telling manager Terry Francona he doesn’t want to cost the team wins because he can’t locate pitches. Once a closer loses that mental toughness things go downhill fast.
This year’s free agent class has quality closers in Fernando Rodney, Edward Mujica and Grant Balfour. The Indians should also make it a priority to re-sign free agent Joe Smith as he is a very reliable arm in the bullpen and somebody who is also capable of closing. As far as middle relief, bullpens are a very difficult thing to predict year to year. The Tribe’s seemed to get better as the year went on, and with Cody Allen, Marc Rzepczynski and Bryan Shaw definitely returning in 2014 (barring a trade) they have quality arms in the pen. It’s worth noting that in addition to Smith, Matt Albers and Rich Hill are also free agents.
Offensively, the Indians are actually not in a bad spot.
They control players like Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana and Michael Brantley for the foreseeable future (Brantley being arbitration eligible in 2014 and Kipnis in 2015, they are both under control of the Indians until 2017 at the earliest) and last year’s free agent signees Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn are under contract through 2017. Having said this, the offense could use another quality bat and third base is still an issue as Lonnie Chisenhall has failed to really take hold of that position.
Unfortunately for the Indians, the free agent market for quality third basemen is dry, with Michael Young being considered the best available, so it looks like Lonnie will man the position at least for another year barring a trade. Being that (on paper) the Indians biggest offensive position need can’t be addressed due to lack of talent, they will have to get creative if they want to take advantage of this free agent class.
A couple players who could provide some offense are Carlos Beltran and Corey Hart. Beltran, whom the Indians have pursued before, is a bit older but still a reliable hitter.
More intriguing is Hart, who will be 32 to start the season and has had surgery on both knees in 2013. However, this means Hart might be signed at a discount and there is no doubting his production historically. He has hit 20 or more home runs in each season he’s played in 130 or more games, and is a lifetime .276 hitter. Certainly not hall of fame numbers, but Hart has been a consistent bat for the Brewers his entire career. Before his injury, he was also able to play all three outfield positions as well as first base–which would give Francona flexibility with the lineup, a lineup that admittedly has a slight logjam at first base and outfield. However, the depth would be quality and would allow Hart to ease his way back into playing. If the Indians miss out on both Beltran and Hart, Kendrys Morales and Delmon Young would both be viable options to add some offense while keeping the quality depth intact.
Unfortunately for the Tribe, this free agent class lacks two things they sorely need – a quality third baseman and a big bat. This doesn’t mean that the Indians shouldn’t make any moves in free agency as quality players are available. Surly the front office will be active in trades as well, with Perez (arbitration eligible) and Asdrubal Cabrera at the forefront of those conversations.
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