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Tribe's option decisions will impact free-agent needs

CLEVELAND -- Terry Francona understood the challenge ahead, but he did not let that deter him from taking on the role of Indians manager. In a recent discussion with reporters, Francona cracked a smile when asked how good he thought the club might be next season.

"Right now, we're not going to win very many games," Francona said. "We don't have a first baseman, a left fielder or a DH."

Francona paused, allowing the light round of laughter to dissipate.

"But, that's going to change," he continued. "It'll be interesting."

Indeed, this is the time of year when things can get very interesting around baseball.

Fresh off the conclusion of the World Series, teams are entering the early stages of offseason maneuvering, plotting and planning ways to upgrade their respective rosters. With the World Series ending Monday night, clubs must make decisions on contract options within three days. Players can start signing with other clubs after midnight ET on Friday.

Francona hit the main points of need for the Indians, who are coming off a 94-loss showing that sent them tumbling to fourth place in the American League Central in 2012. Now, Cleveland is on the hunt for help for first base, left field and designated hitter. The Tribe is also exploring ways -- through trades or free agency -- to upgrade its starting rotation.

"We have to make a number of decisions," executive vice president and general manager Chris Antonetti said recently. "I think our starting pitching, and then our position-player club, we certainly can complement. I feel good on the position-player side, that we have a young nucleus of players that are still very talented."

At the forefront of Cleveland's decisions are the club options for DH Travis Hafner, sinkerballer Roberto Hernandez and right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez.

The expectation is that the Indians will decline Hafner's $13 million option, electing instead to pay the full-time DH a $2.75 million buyout. Cleveland is also likely to decline the $6 million club option for Hernandez, who missed the first four months due to legal issues and then made just three starts in August due to a right ankle injury.

Jimenez -- eligible for arbitration if his option is declined -- is expected to have his $5.75 million option for 2013 exercised by the Indians.

There is some chance that the Indians could bring Hafner or Hernandez back for 2013 on a renegotiated contract.

Cleveland's two free agents (first baseman Casey Kotchman and outfielder Grady Sizemore) will be allowed to test the open market. Kotchman turned in a disappointing showing for the Indians after signing a one-year contract worth $3 million last winter. Sizemore signed a one-year deal worth $5 million last offseason, but injuries kept him off the field all season.

"We're going to have to assess where are we and how do we best move forward," Francona said. "That's not easy. That's why we just had [organizational] meetings, where you're trying to honestly assess where you are and how you can get better. A lot of opinions fly, and that's healthy."

Here is a glance at the Indians' situation as the free-agent period approaches:

Contract issues

Free agents: Kotchman ($3 million in 2012) and Sizemore ($5 million).

Club options: Hafner ($13 million salary or $2.75 million buyout for 2013), Hernandez ($6 million) and Jimenez ($5.75 million or $1 million buyout).

Arbitration eligible: RF Shin-Soo Choo ($4.9 million in 2012), 3B Jack Hannahan ($1.135 million), INF Brent Lillibridge (first time), RHP Justin Masterson ($3.825 million), C Lou Marson (first time), CL Chris Perez ($4.5 million), LHP Rafael Perez ($2.005 million), LHP Tony Sipp (first time), RHP Kevin Slowey ($2.75 million) and RHP Joe Smith ($1.75 million).

Non-tender candidates: Hannahan, Lillibridge, R. Perez and Slowey.

Top trade candidates: Choo and C. Perez.

Areas of need

Rotation: Expecting Masterson and Jimenez to both rebound in a big way would be a big roll of the dice for the Indians. The same could be said for expecting youngsters Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber to emerge as staff leaders, or expecting a smooth return from right elbow surgery from Carlos Carrasco. Whether through trades or free agency, the Indians need to try to find a way to add to their rotation this winter.

First base: Kotchman lived up to the hype defensively, but labored all season at the plate and will hit the free-agent market this winter. Cleveland could try to shift catcher Carlos Santana to first, or give Russ Canzler a shot at the job. For the second offseason in a row, the Tribe heads into the winter without clarity at the position.

Left field: Cleveland cycled through 10 left fielders -- Shelley Duncan, Johnny Damon and Ezequiel Carrera were each tested as the starter -- and never found a reliable full-time solution. Carrera and Canzler are two in-house possibilities for 2013, but the Tribe might try to find a potential upgrade through a trade or free agency.

Designated hitter: The Indians might consider re-signing Hafner on a reduced contract, but the ballclub could also benefit from taking a more flexible approach to the DH role going forward. With Interleague Play now mixed throughout the schedule, continuing to carry a full-time DH (let alone one with a long history of injury) such as Hafner could present a challenge.

2013 payroll

If all 10 of Cleveland's arbitration-eligible players are back in the fold -- an unlikey scenario -- and the club declines the club options for Hafner and Hernandez, the Indians' payroll projects to sit around $52-55 million before any additions. That would give the Tribe some wiggle room for acquisitions, considering the team operated on a budget around $68 million in 2012, and the team can likely afford to operate in the same range for '13.

Cleveland Indians, Travis Hafner, Roberto Hernandez, Ubaldo Jimenez, Casey Kotchman, Grady Sizemore