CLEVELAND -- Much of the focus was on shortstop Francisco Lindor at this month's Winter Meetings, but it ended up being hurler Corey Kluber who was dealt days after team executives departed San Diego.
The two-time Cy Young Award winner was traded to the Rangers on Sunday for reliever Emmanuel Clase and outfielder Delino DeShields. Clase is certainly a reason to be excited, but in addition to the pieces picked up in the deal it's clear the Indians were hoping to move Kluber to clear some payroll space after they picked up his $17.5 million option in October.
Now that Kluber is heading south, the Indians' Opening Day payroll has moved in the same direction. When adding what's already owed to MLB Trade Rumors' arbitration projections for the club's five candidates, the team sits just north of $90 million for next season. In 2018, that number was $134.9 million. Last offseason, they decided to axe $15 million to open the year with a $119.6 million payroll, which they felt was a more sustainable figure. If that is the sustainable mark, Cleveland now has some wiggle room with its budget and the club has indicated that it isn't just going to sit on the extra $17 million it now has lying around.
"With the way the finances in this deal work," Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said, "we will have more resources available to re-invest in our team and that's our expectation here as we head on into the rest of the winter is that we will continue to look for avenues to improve our Major League team, both in trades and in free agency."
What could those avenues be?
The Indians need a second baseman. The hole on the right side of the infield is even more glaring now that the Tribe designated utility man Mike Freeman for assignment to make room for the pair of Rangers headed to Cleveland on the 40-man roster. But the free-agent market isn't flooded with second-base options. The Tribe could consider guys like Eric Sogard, Yolmer Sánchez or Scooter Gennett, but if their best route to land a second baseman is through free agency, César Hernádez could be their top choice.
The 29-year-old was non-tendered by the Phillies after hitting .279 with a .741 OPS, 14 homers and 71 RBIs in 161 games in 2019. Is he worth the $11 million MLB Trade Rumors projects he'd earn in arbitration prior to being non-tendered? It depends on what other options the team thinks it has, though MLB Network Insider Jon Heyman reported Sunday night that the Indians have expressed interest in Hernández.
But while we're discussing free agency, there are other areas of need to address. Yes, the club's 40-man roster is cluttered with nine outfielders, but outside of Oscar Mercado, none of them -- excluding Tyler Naquin, who is recovering from ACL surgery -- have quite proven that they can handle an everyday role. Franmil Reyes' bat needs to be in the lineup, but his defense needs to improve tremendously in order to man a corner outfield spot. DeShields now falls into the Greg Allen-Jake Bauers-Jordan Luplow group of deciding who will start and who will serve as the fourth (and fifth) outfielders.
It seems like a lot to throw yet another outfielder into the mix, but the Indians could really use a quality, experienced player in the grass who brings a little bit more to the table, offensively. Could that mean Avisaíl García, Corey Dickerson or a reunion with Yasiel Puig is more possible? Maybe. Now that they have a little more flexibility, all three of these options -- among others -- should be more attainable.
The blockbuster deal is done. Will there be another with a certain shortstop? It still seems unlikely. When Antonetti was asked whether the Kluber trade impacted any decisions regarding Lindor for the remainder of the offseason, he said it did not and reiterated that he strongly believes Lindor will be their shortstop on Opening Day 2020.
Maybe the Indians still feel like they have enough pitching depth to move a Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale or prospect like Scott Moss or Logan Allen. Maybe they find a way to hang on to their pitchers and still make a decent offer to another club. But if a second baseman is what they're seeking, it may not be the worst idea to check in with Adam Frazier of the Pirates. The 28-year-old is under control for the next three seasons, and is projected to make $3.2 million in 2020 per MLB Trade Rumors. He hit .278/.336/.417 with 10 homers and 50 RBIs in 152 games in 2019, posting a career-high 2.2 WAR with a 97 wRC+.
Let's talk extensions
Don't let this "extension" word bring about too many false hopes. It's still a long shot to think the Indians could sign Lindor long-term, as he's set to be a free agent after the 2021 season. But maybe this is an effort to give it another college try. The front office is constantly in talks with the superstar shortstop and may be finding a way to get him his $30-plus-million contract per year for however long they feel they can afford it. And maybe that's wishful thinking.
So, if a Lindor extension isn't what comes of all this seemingly extra cash, the extension talks can turn toward Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber. Clevinger would likely be the first target over Bieber, since the 24-year-old won't be arbitration-eligible for two more years. But locking either of these two up long-term would be a win for the Tribe.