Inbox: Will Tribe spend more on FA market?

Beat reporter Jordan Bastian fields Indians fans' questions

January 26th, 2018

There was a report saying the Indians were in talks with before he signed with the Brewers. Does that surprise you? I thought the Indians were tapped out financially.
-- Ed A., Cleveland

Shortly after news spread that Cain had reached his five-year, $80 million deal with the Brewers, a report by ESPN's Jerry Crasnick noted that the Cubs, Giants, Dodgers and Indians each expressed interest in the veteran outfielder. Was it surprising? On a need level, no. A right-handed-hitting outfielder fits Cleveland's roster puzzle, and Cain looked like a possible solution.
That said, yes, it was surprising from a financial standpoint. After Cleveland inked free-agent first baseman to a two-year, $16 million pact last month, Chris Antonetti, the team's president of baseball operations, said that signing "will represent the vast bulk" of the team's offseason payroll flexibility. So, how was it then that the Indians were in on a player (Cain) who netted $16 million annually over five years?
:: Submit a question to the Indians Inbox :: confirmed that the Indians were in on the Cain sweepstakes, but the situation was a bit complicated. Cleveland would have needed to create some more payroll space in order to add a player making that kind of money in 2018. That means, for example, that someone like (set to earn $13.7 million in '18 and $14.7 million in '19, and the subject of trade rumors all winter) may have needed to be traded to make such a signing possible.

What the news of the Indians' interest in Cain does show, however, is that the Tribe is not sitting on its hands, while dozens of free agents wait for the winter freeze to thaw. It might also show that, while Cleveland does not have a surplus of available funds, it is looking for ways to still upgrade its roster with an impact acquisition. Antonetti has a history of having surprise moves up his sleeve ( and in recent years), so maybe it is still too early to count Cleveland out on the free-agent front.
A -Domingo Santana trade seems like a match made in heaven. The Brewers need pitching and we need a young, controllable right-handed bat. How likely do you think a trade like this is?
-- Adam T., Long Island, N.Y.

From a value standpoint, that actually would be a realistic one-for-one trade. Santana is 25 years old and under contractual control through 2021. Salazar is 28 and under control through '20. Last year, Santana had a breakout season for the Brewers, hitting .278 with 30 homers and an .875 OPS. He hits from the right side and plays right field. That fits Cleveland's needs. Salazar is coming off two injury-marred seasons, but he has been an All-Star and still has front-line starter potential.
During the Winter Meetings, Antonetti said it has become increasingly difficult to make trades in recent years. One thing that can create a better environment for getting a deal done is a situation of surplus. In this case, the additions of and Cain give the Brewers a surplus of outfielders. On the Indians' side, they have a surplus of rotation options heading into Spring Training. That is a good base for trade talks.

Here's what I could see holding back the Indians in this scenario: the depth behind the Major League rotation. True, Cleveland has a great starting staff with , , , Mike Clevinger, Josh Tomlin and Salazar. That's six arms for five jobs. Someone will be the odd-man out come Opening Day -- unless there is an unforeseen setback.
Behind that group, the Indians have an option in lefty , but the number of experienced options for the rotation gets thin behind him. If any injuries arise, or if someone takes a major step backward, suddenly that sixth arm (Clevinger, Tomlin or Salazar) becomes critical. It is rare to make it through a full season (and playoffs) with only five starters. That makes trading someone like Salazar a risk.

The Brewers acquired Yelich from the Marlins in exchange for outfielder , infielder , outfielder Monte Harrison and right-hander Jordan Yamamoto. Brinson (No.1), Diaz (No. 6) and Harrison (No. 14) were among Milwaukee's Top 30 prospects, per MLB Pipeline. Looking at the Tribe's farm system, catcher (No. 1 prospect) would surely have been a required piece. From there, it likely would've taken two more from Cleveland's Top 10 list. That includes prospects like righty Triston McKenzie, first baseman and shortstop , among others.

I feel like I answered the same question about Carrasco multiple times between 2011-14. There were injuries, inconsistent pitching, stints in the bullpen and trade rumors. History is seemingly repeating itself with Salazar. Cleveland remained patient with Carrasco, and he eventually emerged as a top-of-the-rotation arm and Cy Young contender. What the Indians do not want to do is give up on a player too soon, only to see him blossom in another uniform. That is another reason why I think Cleveland is reluctant to trade someone with Salazar's potential.

If (recovering from right ankle surgery) isn't ready for Opening Day, things could get interesting. Kipnis would be an option to slide to left field to start the season in that scenario. Or, if Cleveland can go out and acquire a corner outfielder, could adjust accordingly, playing right or left field. If all are healthy, Brantley would be in left, in center and Chisenhall in right when a righty was on the mound. Melvin Upton Jr. (if he makes the Opening Day roster) could then be a versus-lefty option for all three spots, but especially in the corners. This still feels like a puzzle with a piece or two missing.

I think the days of Chisenhall playing third are done, barring some sort of emergency scenario where , , and are suddenly unavailable. could be a possibility for the bench, but it seems most likely that he will open the season with Triple-A Columbus, get regular playing time and continue his development. Mejia will probably open in Triple-A as well, but he is knocking on the Majors' door. If an injury or poor play comes up with one of Cleveland's catchers, Mejia looks to be waiting in the wings.