How Tribe can respond to Twins' big splash

January 15th, 2020

CLEVELAND -- Last offseason, the Indians knew the Twins were going to be more competitive in 2019 than they had been in the past few seasons, but the Tribe may have underestimated just how powerful Minnesota was going to be. And now the defending American League Central champs reportedly have added free-agent third baseman Josh Donaldson.

Last offseason, Cleveland dangled Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer -- both of whom have since been traded -- on the trade market, but no blockbuster deal was made. Instead, the Indians traded DH Edwin Encarnación to bring back , but the rest of their moves were quite minor, picking up and outfield prospect in the Yan Gomes trade, outfielder from the Pirates and catcher from the Mets.

This offseason, the team has slashed its budget even further. With Kluber’s $17.5 million contract now in the Rangers’ hands, Cot’s Contracts projects the Indians’ Opening Day payroll to be approximately $90 million, down from $134 million in 2017 and $124 million a year ago. With the cost-cutting moves, there should be room to make at least one more signing. Now, they may be pressured to.

Meanwhile, Donaldson's addition is the just latest impact move in a busy offseason for the Twins, featuring the signings of Jake Odorizzi, Michael Pineda, Homer Bailey and Rich Hill for the rotation, backup catcher Alex Avila and experienced bullpen arms in Sergio Romo and Tyler Clippard. The Twins have now committed $134 million to free-agent acquisitions this offseason.

The White Sox also have had an impressive offseason, adding catcher Yasmani Grandal, Encarnación, lefty starters Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Keuchel and righty reliever Steve Cishek to their stable of talented prospects.

After winning the AL Central in 2016, ’17 and ’18, the Indians missed the playoffs last year for the first time since 2015. They’ve signed second baseman and acquired outfielder and hard-throwing reliever in the Kluber trade, but how can they make sure they don’t underestimate their division once again?

Unfortunately, the market has moved quickly this Hot Stove season and there is not much left on the shelf. Let’s take a look at couple options still remaining.

Re-sign Puig

The relationship the Indians established with in his two-month stint in Cleveland last year seemed to be positive. Both he and Tribe manager Terry Francona said they enjoyed working with one another, and although Puig didn’t bring the power the club expected, he was one of the most consistent hitters in the lineup, posting a .297 average with an .800 OPS in 49 games.

The Indians need a power bat. Their rotation is set with a solid infield behind it, but the outfield could use a solid veteran presence who can bring some pop to the middle of the order. Puig can serve that role. At the end of last season, he noted that he enjoyed playing with Francisco Lindor, José Ramírez and Franmil Reyes and said Santana helped develop him into being a better player and person.

“I’d love to,” Puig said last September when asked whether he wanted to rejoin the Indians. “I did the best I can here, and now see what’s going to happen. I hope to start talking to this team. I don’t know what the expectations are, but [if] we’re going to talk or ask if I can stay here, that’s fine. I’ve loved to play with this team the last two months.”

The longer Puig stays on the free-agent board, the more it’s giving the impression that he could fall into the Indians’ salary wheelhouse. Maybe they can sign him to a one-year deal in the $8 million range and possibly even add an option for 2021. But this is one signing that should absolutely be affordable.

Go big for Ozuna or Castellanos

is looking for a multi-year deal and already declined the Cardinals’ $17.8 million qualifying offer at the beginning of the offseason. Both will require a nice chunk of change -- and Ozuna would also cost Draft-pick compensation.

Castellanos hit .289 with an .863 OPS with 27 homers, 73 RBIs and a 121 wRC+ between the Tigers and Cubs last season. Defensively, he was closer to adequate in right field, which might be an upgrade on Reyes, who is currently penciled in to start there.

Ozuna posted a .241 average with an .800 OPS, 29 homers, 89 RBIs and a 110 wRC+ for the Cardinals. Defensively, he has played all three outfield spots, although has primarily been an average to below average left fielder the past two seasons.

Maybe a week ago, the Indians would not have considered the longer-term deal that would be required to land either Castellanos or Ozuna, but now that the Twins have signed Donaldson, the Tribe may need to act quickly if they want to assure that the division doesn’t just slip away to Minnesota and to also hold off the hard-charging White Sox.