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Indians steer clear of wild winter spending spree

GM Antonetti in search of under-the-radar moves that paid off in 2013 @castrovince

CLEVELAND -- On the day Robinson Cano got $240 million from the Mariners and Curtis Granderson got $60 million from the Mets and Scott Feldman got $30 million from the Astros, Chris Antonetti met with reporters in the Terrace Club at Progressive Field to discuss ... uh ... the chicken marsala lunch special?

No, no. The Indians general manager had plenty else to discuss in this little pre-Winter Meetings gathering. Starting outlook and bullpen roles and Carlos Santana's flirtation with the hot corner and David Murphy's kindergarten teacher somehow breaking the news that the outfielder had signed with the Tribe a couple of weeks back.

It's just that all of this discussion pales in comparison to the seemingly daily round of ridiculous news emanating elsewhere in the Major League landscape.

And that's pretty much what the Indians expected all along.

Antonetti wanted absolutely no part of this wild winter. He saw it coming a little more than a year ago, when the new national television contracts were negotiated and it became clear clubs would have new revenue streams come 2014. Better, Antonetti surmised at the time, to overpay at that point for a weakened free-agent crop than to drastically overpay for an even weaker crop here in 2013-14.

And Antonetti was right, not only because the prices this winter have been unbelievable even by free-agency standards but because the Indians' surprising investments of a year ago (borne out of their own regional TV deal) help orchestrate a 24-win upturn and the top American League Wild Card spot.

Alas, the good vibes from a one-and-done playoff berth only last so long, and the AL Central is increasingly complex (maybe not better or worse, but certainly more complex), based on what we've seen thus far from the Tigers, Royals and Twins this winter. With a hole ripped through his rotation and the back end of the bullpen, Antonetti has found the business of augmenting what should still be a solid club predictably difficult.

"We came into the offseason in a much better position than we have in prior offseason with the quality and quantity of our alternatives that we currently have on our roster and within the organization," Antonetti said. "That said, we're going to continue to try to find a way to improve it."

Pitching is the central focus, because the Indians seem to feel good enough about the offense, now that Murphy is aboard as a left-handed bat, to let it ride. They're careful to downplay the importance of Santana's dabble in the Dominican with third base, but the mere possibility of that proving a worthwhile pursuit is enough to add another layer of intrigue to their Spring Training plotline, which would otherwise revolve around praying Lonnie Chisenhall turns it on.

Granted, I, personally, don't have the slightest bit of money or job security or even personal pride riding on this statement, but I wouldn't put it past Santana to make it work at third. The motivated professional athlete is a powerful thing, and Santana, bound to the Indians under the terms of a team-friendly deal that they have no need to shop, has to be motivated to become something other than a 28-year-old DH.

As far as the pitching is concerned, Scott Kazmir is gone, and Ubaldo Jimenez is presumably not far behind, even though the Draft pick compensation that will be owed to the Indians has undoubtedly impacted his market. This left Antonetti dabbling in the middle tier of the dilapidated starter's market, and that tier has all but disappeared quite quickly.

When it became clear Kazmir would accept a one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer, the Indians, concerned about his injury history and the number of minor injury issues that cropped up over the course of his comeback season, opted not to offer it to him. Kazmir went into the offseason more inclined to take a one-year deal to further build up his value, but that was before teams like the A's got increasingly serious with the bidding.

Kazmir might turn out to be the biggest steal of the offseason, or maybe those small issues will turn into something more substantial. Whatever the case, the Indians didn't want to pay $14.1 million -- or $22 million, for that matter -- to find out, and it's hard to blame them.

They were aggressive on Tim Hudson, but they weren't alone. The Giants lured him with a pitcher's park and $23 million over two -- an impressive haul for a 38-year-old coming off an ugly ankle injury.

They talked to Feldman's agent and liked him as an under-the-radar signing with upside. But a $30 million guarantee for Scott Feldman? What a world.

Maybe you could fault the Indians for this cautious approach if you didn't factor in the extension they hope to work out with staff ace Justin Masterson. Or the possibility that there might be other bounceback candidates a la Kazmir -- John Lannan is one such guy that would seem to make sense -- looming on the horizon. Antonetti did say he has offers and proposals on the table on both the free-agent and trade front, so we'll see.

What's increasingly clear, though, is that the Indians, given the starter's market conditions, are probably better off devoting what limited financial resources remain to adding another option or two to the reconstructed bullpen. Even there, though, the internal depth is not quite as bleak as you might assume after the loss of Joe Smith and the dismissal of Chris Perez.

Carlos Carrasco, for instance, will be on the Opening Day roster one way or another, and there is ample reason to believe, given his high-velocity fastball, his solid career ground-ball rate and his struggle to put everything together as a big league starter for a significant stretch, that a long-term relief role might suit him well.

As it stands, Carrasco, Josh Tomlin and the enigmatic Trevor Bauer will compete for the final spot in a rotation currently set to include Masterson, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister and Danny Salazar. That's a lot to dream on and not much to bank on, but I'd expect Antonetti to be aggressive in the unheralded but sometimes productive area of Minor League signings to try to find another diamond in the rough.

Hate to say it, but Murphy might wind up being the Indians' most significant financial expenditure this winter. And when you note that Garrett Jones, who has similar career splits against right-handed pitchers, is close to signing up for two years with the Marlins and is slated to make $4.5 million less than Murphy over those two years, you wonder if that expenditure was entirely worthwhile.

But this, for better or worse, is the kind of 2013-14 Antonetti envisioned when he went on a protected-Draft-pick-aided spending spree in 2012-13. He knew the free-agent market was about to spiral out of control, and, with manager Terry Francona aboard, he opted to speed up the timetable, so to speak.

It's only natural for fans to want the follow up to a fascinating season to be a fascinating winter, but the price tags scrolling across your screen demonstrate how unrealistic that was.

For all their activity last winter, the 2013 Indians became a playoff team largely on the might of the under-the-radar moves, and Antonetti will have to come up with more of the same to build a winner for 2014. Fortunately, he's not in need of another 24-win improvement. And fortunately, his pantry isn't barren in a winter in which the market prices have skyrocketed.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

Cleveland Indians, Carlos Carrasco, Lonnie Chisenhall, David Murphy, Carlos Santana