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Tribe eyes ways to improve at Winter Meetings

Club looking for reinforcements at first base, in lineup, in bullpen
MLB.com @MLBastian

CLEVELAND -- The Indians are coming off one of the best regular seasons in club history, but the team's quick exit from the playoffs has left a bitter taste lingering. Even with a strong foundation in place for next year, Cleveland knows it needs to strengthen its talented cast.

"Our goal," said Chris Antonetti, the Indians' president of baseball operations, "no matter where we stand presently, is to try to find ways to improve."

CLEVELAND -- The Indians are coming off one of the best regular seasons in club history, but the team's quick exit from the playoffs has left a bitter taste lingering. Even with a strong foundation in place for next year, Cleveland knows it needs to strengthen its talented cast.

"Our goal," said Chris Antonetti, the Indians' president of baseball operations, "no matter where we stand presently, is to try to find ways to improve."

The offseason has been slow to develop around Major League Baseball, and the Indians will likely remain patient on the free-agent front as they weigh their needs. During the upcoming Winter Meetings in Orlando, Fla., Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff will continue their search for reinforcements with four days of face-to-face dialogue.

Hot Stove Tracker

The Indians have the opportunity to head into 2018 with the majority of its MLB-leading pitching staff intact and appear primed to contend for a third consecutive American League Central title. With Carlos Santana, Jay Bruce, Bryan Shaw and others hitting the open market, though, there are holes that could be filled. The Indians will need to attempt to do so with less monetary wiggle room than a year ago.

Video: Tribe's offseason checklist: 1B, OF, relievers

Club needs
First base:
Maybe. It's complicated. On the surface, first looks like a need with Santana on the free-agent market. Internally, though, Cleveland might consider moving left fielder Michael Brantley to first and having him split time there and at designated hitter with Edwin Encarnacion. If the Indians want to keep Jose Ramirez at second base, then that kind of move for Brantley would open the door for Jason Kipnis to play left. Or Brantley could stay in left, Kipnis could return to second, Ramirez could move back to third base and then third baseman Yandy Diaz could get a look at first base. Outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall is also an internal possibility for first base. There are a lot of moving parts.

Offense: Cleveland could use another hitter -- especially one who hits from the right side -- to help balance out the lineup. With both Santana and Bruce on the open market, the Indians lost some thump. Given the position flexibility that exits on the roster right now, the Indians could target help for corner infield, corner outfield or DH.

Bullpen: The Indians had Shaw, Joe Smith and Craig Breslow hit the free-agent market this winter. Shaw is the biggest potential loss for Cleveland's bullpen, which led the Majors in ERA last season, and looks like a candidate to net a multiyear deal. For the Indians, it would be more realistic to try to re-sign Smith to help shore up the relief corps. Cleveland still has depth internally, but it could stand to add some arms to lengthen out the 'pen.

Video: CLE@NYY Gm3: Smith retires Castro, strands two

Who they can trade if necessary
RHP Danny Salazar:
Salazar is 27, eligible for arbitration, under control for three more seasons and had a strikeout rate of 12.7 per nine innings in '17. That's a lot to like and reason enough for teams to have interest in the hard-throwing right-hander. That said, Salazar has dealt with arm issues for the past two seasons and has yet to reach his potential. Dating back to the start of July in '16, Salazar has a 5.20 ERA and 1.48 WHIP in 147 innings.

C Yan Gomes or C Roberto Perez: Gomes is set to earn $5.95 million in 2018 and is under contract through '19, with team options for '20 and '21. Perez is set to earn $1.62 million in '18 and is under contract through '20 with team options for '21 and '22. Both are top-notch defenders, but have had their share of offensive issues. And now, catching prospect Francisco Mejia is waiting in the wings. Cleveland also added catcher Eric Haase to the 40-man roster this winter. Gomez or Perez could be dangled as trade bait.

Top prospects
The Indians' Top 10 prospects per MLBPipeline.com are (in order) Mejia, right-hander Triston McKenzie, first baseman Bobby Bradley, shortstop Yu-Cheng Chang, third baseman Nolan Jones, outfielder Quentin Holmes, outfielder Greg Allen, outfielder Will Benson, shortstop Willi Castro and righty Aaron Civale. Mejia and Allen reached the Majors last September and could impact the big league club again in '18.

Members of the Indians' Top 30 prospects list who are currently on the 40-man roster include Mejia, Chang, Allen, Castro, right-hander Julian Merryweather (No. 12), lefty Shawn Morimando (No. 16) and lefty Ryan Merritt (No. 21). Merritt will head into Spring Training out of Minor League options, so he will be competing for a spot on the Indians' Opening Day pitching staff. Mejia spent time playing third in the Arizona Fall League to increase his versatility.

Video: WEST@EAST: Mejia hits a double in the 4th inning

Rule 5 Draft
The Indians' 40-man roster is at capacity, meaning the club would need to clear a spot if it wants to make a pick in the Rule 5 Draft. Last year, Cleveland took lefty Hoby Milner, but he did not make the roster and was returned to the Phillies. Prior to selecting Milner, the Tribe had not made a Rule 5 pick since 2012 (Chris McGuiness). In addition to the prospects listed above, the Tribe added Eric Stamets to its 40-man roster earlier this offseason to protect him from being exposed to the Rule 5 process.

Big contracts they might unload
2B/OF Kipnis: Kipnis is a man without a clear spot on the field right now and is set to earn $13.7 million in 2018 and $14.7 million in '19, with a $16.5 million team option for '20. When the second baseman returned from injury down the stretch last season, Kipnis played center field in place of Bradley Zimmer (on the DL at the time). When healthy, Kipnis has been an All-Star caliber player, so the Indians might bank on him having a strong bounce-back season. But if the team needs to shed salary to help another acquisition, this is one possible avenue.

Video: Must C Catch: Kipnis makes diving grab in center

Payroll summary
A year ago, the Indians made a big splash by signing Encarnacion to the largest free-agent contract (three years, $60 million guaranteed) in franchise history. The team's payroll also climbed to around $130 million, which is the highest it had ever been. This winter, it looks like Cleveland lacks the same kind of flexibility. The payroll for 2018 projects to include roughly $30 million in raises via arbitration and guaranteed deals. All contracts considered (arbitration, guaranteed deals and pre-arb renewals), the Indians are already looking at a payroll in the neighborhood of $126 million even before any external additions.

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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