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Inbox: Are the Indians a contender or rebuilding?

I don't know what to make of the Indians right now. Are they a contender, a rebuilding team or a combination of both with Terry Francona coming in as manager? And will the front office and ownership step it up and make some moves to better the Tribe for next year?
-- Kenny K., Elyria, Ohio

I do not believe the Indians are on the verge of a complete rebuild. There are undeniably a handful of players who can and should be dangled as trade bait, but it seems like Cleveland feels -- especially in the American League Central -- things can be turned around relatively quickly. Does that make them a contender in 2013? Let's not go that far, yet.

This offseason, Cleveland will likely listen to trade offers for multiple players. The list of moveable parts is long, but is highlighted by Shin-Soo Choo (a free agent next winter), Chris Perez (two years of arbitration eligibility left) and Asdrubal Cabrera (under control on a reasonable contract through 2014). Justin Masterson and Carlos Santana could also be on the block.

Listening to trade offers does not mean the Indians will trade these players. Trying to trade Choo and Perez is the most logical approach right now. The upper tier of Cleveland's farm system is barren of impact prospects, especially arms, and the organization needs to look for ways to add some more young talent to its depth chart via trades.

Indians general manager Chris Antonetti has stated multiple times that he is anticipating a busy offseason for the ballclub. The focus is not solely on improving the roster for 2013, though. Coming off a 94-loss season, the Indians can't afford to be short-sighted. They need to take a hard look at their foundation and try to make moves that improve the depth for the next few years.

Other than trying to save face on the horrible trade, what was the possible motivation for picking up Ubaldo Jimenez's option? Let's face it, Big U was in serious decline when traded, and is only getting worse. It seems like a waste of $5.75 million when the team has so many needs.
-- Bill B., Fairview Park, Ohio

For starters, there is the fact that Jimenez would still have been eligible for arbitration had his $5.75 million club option been declined and Cleveland taken the $1 million buyout. Through arbitration, Jimenez would have made much more than $4.75 million (the savings from declining the option), and he would have had a case. I wrote about this issue in a recent blog post.

Beyond the financial reasoning, cutting ties with Jimenez (i.e. non-tendering him to make him a free agent) would remove 175-200 innings from the rotation (he logged 176 2/3 in 2012). Cleveland is already likely down 215 innings from 2012 (Derek Lowe, Josh Tomlin, Roberto Hernandez and Chris Seddon). Parting with Jimenez would up that to 391 2/3 lost innings for 2013.

Each year, every team needs to project at least eight starters (ideally 10) who can chip in at the big league level. Right now, Cleveland's list includes Justin Masterson, Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber, Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff and Carlos Carrasco. Masterson and Gomez are coming off down years. McAllister and Kluber were rookies in 2012. Carrasco is coming back from an elbow injury. Huff only logged 20 2/3 innings as a starter in the Majors last year.

It can get expensive to try to replace all the lost innings with enough experienced arms to also properly stack the depth chart. Finding just one starter capable of offering 175-200 quality innings via free agency can cost more than Jimenez's option. Cleveland needs roughly twice that total. It does help that the team declined the $6 million club option included on Hernandez's deal.

Given that the bullpen was a bright spot for the team last year, and the fact that Esmil Rogers was just traded to Toronto, can the Indians afford to part ways with another reliable hard thrower like Perez or Vinnie Pestano?
-- John G., Newbury, Ohio

Through all the woes of the past few years, the one area that has remained solid for Cleveland has been its bullpen. From the Majors to the Minors, the Indians have a recent history of developing some solid relievers. While a bullpen can be volatile, the Tribe's depth there makes it a good pool to pull from in trade talks.

Entertaining offers for Perez makes sense because the Indians have a closer-in-waiting in setup man Vinnie Pestano, and Perez's salary could climb north of $7 million through arbitration this winter. That said, trading away Rogers did indeed strike a blow to the team's middle-relief situation. He looked like a setup man in the making.

I don't think Cleveland should trade Perez unless the team is confident it can add some experienced relievers to the mix this winter. Bumping Pestano to the closer role -- without having Rogers to slide into a setup job -- puts a great deal of pressure on youngsters such as Cody Allen, or the untested arms residing in the Minors.

With a huge need at first base and for a right-handed hitter for the middle of the order, why don't the Indians go after Kevin Youkilis? He can back up third base as well. He is a consistent hitter and does have some pop. It makes perfect sense.
-- Will B., Boardman, Ohio

Throw in the fact that Youkilis played under Francona in Boston, and it starts to make even more sense. I think Cleveland will at least explore the possibility of adding Youkilis to the fold. The Tribe tried to trade for him during last season before he wound up with the White Sox.

In closing...

Ahh, the Inbox, the thing that gets me through the next five months has arrived! Too many questions to count. The main thing on my mind is the payroll. I read a few weeks ago it was rumored that the Indians may possibly expand the payroll by about $20 million or so. Is this true?
-- Rex H., Cedar Rapids, Iowa

I would expect the payroll to be around the $65-70 million range, which is where it sat last season. If Cleveland signs all its arbitration-eligible players -- an unlikely scenario -- the payroll stands around $55 million (this includes arbitration salary projections) before any additions. If a few players are non-tendered, the Tribe could, in theory, have $15-20 million to spend.

Cleveland Indians, Mike Aviles, Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Ubaldo Jimenez, Chris Perez