Rotation depth on Tribe's free-agent shopping list
Indians could fill vacancies on market if Ubaldo, Kazmir, trio of relievers go elsewhere
CLEVELAND -- If the goal for the Indians a year ago was to reorganize, the idea now is to reinforce. Cleveland's roster overhaul last winter paved the way for an incredible one-season turnaround that has the franchise hoping for more in the next campaign.
The Indians rattled off 92 victories and clinched the American League's top Wild Card spot only one summer removed from a disastrous 94-loss showing. The nightmare turned into a dream season, though the Tribe only tasted the postseason for one game before heading into the offseason.
With the free-agent season now here, the Indians are in the hunt for ways to take the next step.
"Our goal is: 'How do we build the best team?'" Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "And I'm confident we'll have the resources we need to build a contending team."
The Indians will not be able to simply stand pat with their roster, considering right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez exercised his right to void the final year of his contract on Friday, while left-hander Scott Kazmir is also eligible for free agency this winter. Cleveland also has unanswered questions laced throughout the bullpen, which could lose setup man Joe Smith, ground-ball specialist Matt Albers and lefty Rich Hill to the open market.
Antonetti has maintained that he has interest in re-signing Cleveland's potential free agents, including Jimenez, who will almost certainly be offered a one-year, $14.1-million qualifying offer in order to secure Draft-pick compensation. Teams have until five days after the end of the World Series to offer a qualifying offer to their free agents, and they hold exclusive negotiating rights with those players during that window.
Last winter, the Tribe used both free agency and trades to retool the roster, and the club brought in manager Terry Francona. Not only did Francona lead the Indians to the playoffs on the field, he served as a strong recruiter in the free-agent process before the season began.
"It was evident last offseason, as we were talking to free agents," Antonetti said, "how much players wanted to play for Tito. That will hopefully be reinforced now this offseason, not only with Tito continuing to lead our Major League team, but we've had a successful season and we're building in the right direction."
Francona downplayed the concept that free agents were becoming more attracted to playing in Cleveland.
"I don't know if I can speak to that," Francona said. "I think money speaks. I think that's pretty realistic, when you think about that. I do think, though, that you would like to have your players, when they're talking about the Indians, say, 'Hey, we enjoy playing here. We like it here.'"
Here is a glance at the Indians' situation as the free-agency period begins:
Free agents: Albers, DH Jason Giambi, Hill, Jimenez, Kazmir, OF Jason Kubel, C Kelly Shoppach, Smith
Arbitration-eligible: OF Michael Brantley (first time), RHP Frank Herrmann (first), C Lou Marson ($1 million in 2013), RHP Justin Masterson ($5.6875 million), CL Chris Perez ($7.3 million), RHP Vinnie Pestano (first), LHP Marc Rzepczynski ($1.1 million), RF Drew Stubbs ($2.825 million), RHP Josh Tomlin (first), RHP Blake Wood ($560,000)
Non-tender candidates: None
Options: Jimenez and Kubel became free agents on Friday when Jimenez exercised his right to void the final year of his contract and the Indians declined their option on Kubel's deal.
Cleveland's deadline to make Jimenez a $14.1 million qualifying offer is 5 p.m. ET on Monday. If the Indians make the offer and Jimenez accepts, he will be considered signed; if he declines the offer and signs with another team, the Indians will receive a Draft pick as compensation.
Areas of need
Starting pitching: With Jimenez and Kazmir both possibly gone via free agency, the Indians will have two holes in the rotation. Cleveland likes what it has in place in Masterson, Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar and Zach McAllister, but there are too many question marks behind that foursome on the depth chart. Cleveland will be in the market for a mid-rotation arm.
Relief pitching: The Indians have some talented arms in place, but could possibly lose three relievers through free agency this winter. The back end of the bullpen is muddled at the moment, and Cleveland could use some improvement with its left-handed relief situation. The Tribe will be looking to identify its relievers for the seventh, eighth and ninth innings before Opening Day.
Closer: Perez lost that role on the final weekend of the regular season, and following a year with injuries and inconsistency, was released, leaving the club to find a replacement.
Third base: Lonnie Chisenhall remains young and contractually controllable, but he has been around long enough now to no longer be considered a prospect. His ceiling remains high, but persistent struggles against lefties have hurt his chances to seize an everyday job. Cleveland could stick with Chisenhall, or this could very well be an area addressed over the offseason.
Right-handed power: The Indians thought they found their right-handed run producer in Mark Reynolds, but he struggled across May, June and July and was released in August. Cleveland will continue to look for a power-hitting presence for the heart of the lineup, and the preference would be a righty. This need might be better solved through a trade than free agency, though.
The Indians have not announced a payroll ceiling for 2014, but the team currently has $47.75 million tied up in six guaranteed contracts. Including option buyouts and other obligations, the payroll sits a touch north of $50 million before including the Tribe's 10 arbitration cases, which could require between $27-30 million. That puts Cleveland around $80 million (similar to the 2013 payroll) before any moves are made. The club has some flexibility, but trades or non-tender situations would certainly free up some more spending money for free-agent acquisitions.