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Inbox: Will Tribe pursue Morrison for first base?

Beat reporter Jordan Bastian answers fans' questions
December 18, 2017

With the Winter Meetings over and the 2017 year coming to an end, it's time for another edition of the Indians Inbox.

With the Winter Meetings over and the 2017 year coming to an end, it's time for another edition of the Indians Inbox.

Before news of Carlos Santana's deal with the Phillies, Indians manager Terry Francona was asked during the Winter Meetings if Cleveland had enough internal options to handle first base, if Santana signed elsewhere.
"We have guys we could [play there]," Francona said. "[But] I think we'd probably like to sign somebody."
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So, if we're going off that quote, then it sounds like free agency is the most likely route for the Indians. Cleveland has been linked to free-agent first basemen Logan Morrison and Matt Adams in reports. Others on the market include Yonder Alonso, Lucas Duda, Mike Napoli, Mark Reynolds and Adam Lind, among others.
Among the names listed there, Morrison is an interesting possibility. For starters, let's take a look at what Morrison did in 2017, compared to Santana.
Santana: .259/.363/.455, 112 OPS+ in 667 plate appearances
Morrison: .246/.353/.516, 135 OPS+ in 601 plate appearances
Santana had 23 homers, 37 doubles, 79 RBIs and 88 walks vs. 94 strikeouts in '17 for the Indians. Morrison had 38 homers, 22 doubles, 85 RBIs and 81 walks vs. 149 strikeouts in '17 for the Rays. Cleveland is trying to find a way to replace Santana's offense, and Morrison presents a sample of production that was similar last season.

The difference between the two is consistency. Both players debuted in 2010, and Santana's showing last season was right in line with his career rate entering the year (.247/.365/.444, 122 OPS+), while Morrison's performance was significantly better than his career (.245/.325/.416, 104 OPS+).
In June, Morrison discussed his improvement with MLB.com:
"I'm not missing pitches down the middle," Morrison said. "And when I do get them down the middle, I'm getting them in the air and they're going out. Everybody misses stuff. But the majority of my at-bats, I'm getting to enough pitches in the middle of the plate, and getting them in the air for homers or doubles."
So, what we have here is a case of a player who made changes in his swing and approach 2017, when more players were joining the so-called "air-ball revolution." The result was a 100-point jump in slugging for Morrison last season, compared to his career to that point. When looking at a player like this, should a team put more stock in the career year or in the career track record?
Without mentioning Morrison specifically, Chris Antonetti, the Indians' president of baseball operations, said that is a topic that is often debated among front-office evaluators.
"We spent an hour or two talking about that specific thing with a particular player," Antonetti said last week at the Winter Meetings. "How do the changes in his mechanics affect the way we value him? Is it sustainable? Is it not? In one case, if a guy makes a change to get back to where he was, does that make us more optimistic about his future value?"
Now, is a player like Morrison a realistic option for the Indians? Well, he just watched Santana get a three-year contract worth a reported $60 million. He's coming off a similar season and is nearly two years younger than the former Indians first baseman. That pact with the Phillies could influence Morrison's asking price and, while we don't know the specific ceiling for Cleveland's payroll, we do know the club does not have an excess of spending room right now.

Let's see, Ian Happ is 23 and is not eligible for free agency until 2024. He switch hits and can play second base or outfield (all three spots), and even logged some time at third last season. If you could build a model for the kind of player the Indians like to target, Happ would be the guy.
So, I'd characterize interest in Happ as being real on Cleveland's part. Now, whether the Cubs and Indians can get something done is the real question. That's a lot of talent and a lot of years of control. The Indians could certainly float a starting pitcher like Danny Salazar, but given his recent history of injury, it's not hard to imagine more being required in that kind of deal.

Parting with Jason Kipnis' contract (roughly $30.5 million owed over the next two years) might enable the Indians to better target a player in free agency. That said, Kipnis is coming off not only a down season, but one marred by multiple injuries. It's hard to imagine Cleveland getting much of a return for Kipnis, unless the Tribe paid a considerable portion of the contract. That, of course, defeats the purpose.
• Kipnis not letting rumors affect focus
If the Indians are willing to simply accept salary relief, I think it'd be more realistic that a deal gets done. That said, with Santana gone, and Jay Bruce exploring his options via free agency, Cleveland better be confident it can acquire an impact bat, if it's going to trade Kipnis away.

I'm not sure if Francisco Mejia (the Indians' No. 1 prospect, per MLBPipeline.com) will fit into the Opening Day plans, but I can definitely see him impacting the big league team this season. His bat might be Major League ready, or close to it, so experimenting with him at third in the Arizona Fall League was a way to see if his path to the bigs could be expedited.

With a veteran pitching staff, it's hard to imagine Cleveland handing the keys over to Mejia behind the plate right away, especially when Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez have such a strong rapport with the arms. I don't see Gomes to first happening right now.

There have been no rumblings on the Francisco Lindor front since last spring. The Indians still have some arbitration cases to work through this offseason ahead of Spring Training. If Cleveland is going to try to reopen extension talks with Lindor, Spring Training would present the most likely setting.

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.