CLEVELAND -- With a long list of questions to answer this offseason, combined with limited financial resources, the Indians opted against extending any qualifying offers to their free agents prior to Friday's deadline.
All-Star left fielder Michael Brantley, relief ace Andrew Miller and closer Cody Allen were the most likely candidates for the one-year, $17.9 million offer, which was due by 5 p.m. ET on Friday in order to potentially secure Draft pick compensation if the players signed elsewhere. In the end, the Indians made it clear that the offer was too steep a price to risk locking in so early in this important offseason for the ballclub.
"That was a big part of it," Indians' president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said in a conference call Friday afternoon. "Ultimately, the first week of the offseason, as we looked at our path ahead, it wasn't the best decision to potentially allocate [$17.9] million dollars right now."
Brantley, Miller and Allen are among Cleveland's 12 free agents, along with Brandon Barnes, Melky Cabrera, Lonnie Chisenhall, Rajai Davis, Josh Donaldson, Brandon Guyer, Oliver Perez, Adam Rosales and Josh Tomlin. Donaldson was ineligible for a qualifying offer due to being traded to Cleveland by Toronto during this past season.
Given the uncertainty that hovers over all three outfield positions for the Indians, it seemed possible that Brantley -- who has been with the Tribe for parts of 10 seasons -- might receive the one-year proposal. One issue is that the Indians are still sorting out where Jason Kipnis (due to earn $14.7 million in 2019) will fit on the roster. Barring a trade, Kipnis' future in Cleveland might involve playing left field.
The Indians are considering giving Yandy Diaz an opportunity at third base -- a move that would keep Jose Ramirez at second base. Kipnis moved to center field from second down the stretch last season, but he may need to shift to left if Leonys Martin (signed to a one-year contract on Wednesday) is healthy and ready to patrol center for '19.
Position alignment aside, if Brantley were to have accepted the $17.9 million offer, that would result in $32.6 million of the Indians' payroll being committed to him and Kipnis. That is a hefty sum for a Cleveland club that could have more than $30 million added in '19 through arbitration raises and raises built into guaranteed contracts. Even with a dozen free agents, the increasing internal salaries restrict the Indians' flexibility.
Antonetti emphasized that the Indians still have interest in re-signing Brantley, who hit .309 with 17 home runs, 36 doubles, 76 RBIs, 89 runs and an .832 OPS in 143 games this past season.
"I talked to Michael this morning and reiterated that. The interest is undoubtable," Antonetti said. "We could not have any more respect for any individual than we have for Michael. He's the guy that epitomizes, as I've shared before, all of the things we look for in a player. He's exceedingly productive on the field, he defines professionalism in the clubhouse and he's an extraordinary teammate. The interest and desire is there.
"What we will have to work through is, can we make the pieces fit? How, with the balance of our roster and all the other decisions we have to make? And Michael will have to assess how we fit within what his market might be."
Friday's decision not to extend a qualifying offer to any free agents does nothing to change the fact that the Indians need to search for outfield help and bullpen reinforcements throughout this offseason. That approach does, however, give the Tribe's decision-makers more time to weigh alternatives, explore trades and continue dialogue on different types of contracts with its free agents.
"We will be creative in looking at ways to improve our team," Antonetti said. "Certainly, one of the avenues we could pursue is to trade from an area of depth to address another area of our team."
Barnes elects free agency
The Indians outrighted Barnes off the 40-man roster Friday, but the outfielder elected free agency rather than accepting a Minor League assignment. Barnes, 32, appeared in 19 games for Cleveland down the stretch last season, but spent the majority of the year with Triple-A Columbus. He had been eligible for arbitration prior to becoming a free agent.
In a series of other paperwork moves Friday, the Indians activated right-handers Cody Anderson, Nicholas Goody, James Hoyt and Danny Salazar, as well as outfielders Tyler Naquin and Martin from the 60-day disabled list. Cleveland's 40-man roster now consists of 34 players.