CLEVELAND -- The top item on the Indians' holiday wishlist has arrived. On Saturday, Cleveland officially announced that it has signed free-agent first baseman Yonder Alonso to a two-year contract, filling the largest vacancy on the team's roster as it plans for the new year.
When long-time Indians cornerstone Carlos Santana departed via free agency this winter and signed a lucrative pact with the Phillies, that left big shoes for the Tribe to fill. Cleveland found its answer in Alonso, who is coming off a career year in which he was an American League All-Star and displayed new swing mechanics that made it easier for the Indians to believe that his dramatic improvement was no fluke.
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For Alonso, joining a team capable of contending for a World Series title outweighed everything else.
"All of it was a good situation for me," Alonso said. "I think one of the biggest things, and the thing I focused on not only with myself, but my family and my agent, was to go to a winning team. I know, like I told [Indians manager Terry Francona] and the rest of the guys there, I know all the losses I've had throughout my career and I'm happy now to call Cleveland my home, because I know it's a winning attitude. It's a winning organization."
Cleveland's two-year commitment to Alonso is worth $16 million guaranteed, which includes a $7 million salary in 2018 and $8 million in '19. The contract also includes a $9 million option that can vest if Alonso reaches 550 plate appearances in '19 or compiles 1,100 plate appearances across the '18-19 seasons combined, and passes a physical at the end of the '19 campaign. If Alonso does not reach those benchmarks, the third year becomes a team option with a $1 million buyout.
With the signing, the Indians' payroll projects to around $130 million when factoring in pending arbitration raises, guaranteed contracts and contract renewals. Cleveland still has offseason needs (bullpen help at the top of the list), but Chris Antonetti, the team's president of baseball operations, hinted that the Alonso signing will likely be the Tribe's largest financial move of the winter, barring a trade to free up payroll.
"We'll continue to be active," Antonetti said. "We had a certain amount of flexibility heading into the offseason that we had to use judicially and this will represent the vast bulk of that flexibility. The cost of retaining the nucleus of our team is more expensive. To retain that same group is about $25-30 million more based upon escalating contracts and what guys ultimately sign for in the arbitration process.
"Our expectation at this point is that this will be one of our significant free-agent acquisitions of the offseason, but we'll have to see how the next few weeks continue to evolve and what opportunities present themselves on the trade and free-agent market."
Antonetti noted that the Indians "were involved until the end" with Santana, who signed a three-year, $60 million contract with the Phillies after being a fixture in Cleveland's lineup for the past seven seasons.
Alonso, who will turn 31 in April, split last season with the A's and Mariners, turning in a .266/.365/.501 slash line with a career-high 28 homers in 142 games. Prior to last year, the left-handed hitter's career high was nine homers in 2012. His production last season also included 22 doubles, 67 RBIs, 68 walks, 72 runs scored and a 133 OPS+, indicating that he was 33 percent above average as a hitter.
"We think there's still some more upside in him," Antonetti said. "And he's still relatively young and he's solidifying his approach -- the adjustment that he's made. We think he has some very productive years in front of him. You blend that with a very good defensive reputation ... and we think he'll complement us."
Much of Alonso's offensive success was due to a change in his approach and swing mechanics, with the idea of getting more pitches into the air and making contact with more authority. The result was a 43.2 percent fly-ball rate, compared to 33.3 percent in 2016 and a drastic spike in power production. Alonso's performance tapered off down the stretch (.756 OPS in his last 78 games, compared to a 1.000 OPS in his first 64 games), but he felt he identified some of the issues.
Alonso pointed out that he enjoyed a strong finish to the season. To that end, he had an .865 OPS in his final 38 games with the Mariners, following a .666 mark in the previous 50 games.
"In general, I was learning a lot last year. Everything for me was new, right?" Alonso said. "So, I got off to a really good start and then towards the middle of the season I kind of plateaued a little bit and then [played better in August and September]. So, I made some adjustments. I learned through my adjustments."
The acquisition of Alonso effectively ends the talk of left fielder Michael Brantley possibly moving out of left field and to first as an internal solution. The bigger question now is whether Brantley's rehab from October surgery on his right ankle might linger beyond Opening Day, and how his status might affect Jason Kipnis. The Indians are still weighing where to play Kipnis (second base or outfield) and Jose Ramirez (second or third).
"We'll try to make sure that by the time we get to Spring Training, we have enough depth," Antonetti said, "whether it's through additional players or the players we have having more versatility to go out and play other positions."