This offseason, Sports on Earth is asking baseball writers what they would do if they ran the front office.
Unless you are an absolutist or, put in baseball terminology a Yankees fan, you likely consider the 2013 Cleveland Indians season a roaring success. Certainly they exceeded most pre-season expectations, which consisted of lying next to the Twins covered in cobwebs. Instead, the Indians made a run of it, winning 92 games and reaching the Wild Card game. A loss to the Rays denied Cleveland a shot at the eventual champs, but even so, for a team that hadn't won so many games or reached the playoffs since 2007, it was a successful campaign.
So it must be that Cleveland has a nice foundation to build an even more successful 2014 season upon. On to the moves, right? Not so fast. The record was nice, but in order to proceed towards 2014, we have to assess what kind of team Cleveland had in 2013. So, just how good were the 2013 Indians really?
Offensively the Indians were - apologies for resorting to vernacular -- pretty darn good. They tied Baltimore for the fourth-most runs scored in the American League and they did it without any spectacular individual performances, although Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana both were quite good. Mostly Cleveland did it by keeping their good players on the field. Kipnis and Santana missed a combined total of 21 games. Nick Swisher and Michael Brantley both stayed healthy and productive all year. When Santana wasn't catching, Yan Gomes stepped in and perfectly replicated his production. Ryan Raburn contributed 87 games of .901 OPS. On offense, the Indians were both healthy and good.
Pitching-wise, the team was more above average. They gave up 662 runs, the seventh most in the American League, but they were much closer to Detroit's league-leading 601 than Houston's league-worst 848. They also walked a higher percentage of hitters than any team except the Astros. How'd they get away with that? By striking out a higher percentage of hitters than any team except Detroit. That seems like a sustainable strategy, except two of the Indians three most productive pitchers are free agents. One, Scott Kazmir, has already signed elsewhere, and the other, Ubaldo Jimenez, seems unlikely to re-sign. With Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar slated to follow Justin Masterson, not to mention Shaun Marcum (signed to a minor league deal) and Trevor Bauer as fill-ins, the Indians have quantity but not quality.
If you had to pick one thing that held the Indians back in 2013, it would be their defense. As a team, the Indians turned batted balls into outs at a lower rate than 23 of the 30 Major League teams. Part of that is pitching of course, but a larger and more prevalent part of that is overall team defense. Other than adding David Murphy for Drew Stubbs in right field, a wash at best, the Indians will return their entire starting lineup next season. This means, unless you think the rest of the lineup will take a big leap forward defensively, any improvements will likely be marginal. That doesn't have to be a deal breaker though. It just means the team needs to get production elsewhere.
This off-season hasn't offered much in the way of improvement so far, however. The aforementioned David Murphy signing happened. The team also picked up John Axford to serve as closer. Some assorted bench bats and bullpen arms later, and that's where we are. Looking at the team, it seems clear the Indians need to upgrade their starting pitching in at least one if not two rotation slots if they hope to return to the playoffs in 2014. What's more, Cleveland's need for starting pitching dovetails nicely with what is available on the current free agent market.
The obvious best candidate available is 25-year-old Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka. As a bona fide top of the rotation guy (though more likely a number two rather than an ace) who should give the team that signs him quality innings for years to come, Tanaka is the consensus best pitcher on the market. Considering their needs and place in the success cycle, few teams could get more value out of Tanaka than Cleveland. The sad reality is that the Indians probably don't have the money to pay the $20 million posting fee and the $100+ million contract it would cost. I don't know their internal financial situation, so they might be able to afford it (which is why I'm mentioning it here), but considering their off-season to date, the rumors, and their recent attendance figures, it seems unlikely.
If Tanaka isn't happening, then re-signing Jimenez is the next best option on the market. Doing so has the benefit of not robbing the Indians of a draft pick (they won't add a pick like they would if Jimenez signs elsewhere, but that's not the same thing as losing one). There's been little talk of that though so a Jimenez return to Cleveland seems unlikely, as does adding the next best free agent pitcher, Ervin Santana. Santana would cost a draft pick should the Indians sign him, so it would make sense for the Indians, were they to spend in that free agent bracket, to focus on Jimenez. If the money exists, I'd add Tanaka first and Jimenez second, but if it doesn't, and that's likely, then we're forced to dig deeper.
If the Indians are looking for something a bit cheaper, maybe Matt Garza fills the bill. Signing him won't cost the Indians a draft pick, and though roughly a league average starter, he's an upgrade over three and arguably four of the Indians current starters. Beyond Garza, Johan Santana is a free agent who was still an effective starter while dealing with injury issues with the Mets. He'll command much less than the deals Tanaka, Jimenez, and Santana are asking for. Jason Hammel, late of the Orioles, might be another buy-low candidate. When healthy, he's pitched quite effectively for Baltimore in recent seasons. The trick is, like with Santana, keeping him healthy. Adding Hammel and Santana could net the Indians 300 above average innings. Or it could give them 120 below average ones. But then that's why they cost less, right?
The one other option is the trade market. The Rays' David Price has been rumored to be available and with two years left until free agency, he wouldn't be a rental. He wouldn't come cheap either. The Indians would likely have to give up Francisco Lindor, their only blue chip prospect, plus more. Still, that might make sense even at that cost, as Price would be a huge upgrade for Cleveland. If the Indians want to win in 2014, you can't do much better than Price and, if the money exists, one of Jimenez or, more likely, Garza.
Of course, all this presupposes that the Indians want to win in 2014. There is an argument that the current team, minus Kazmir and Jimenez, and with Justin Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera entering the final seasons of their contracts, should look more to the future than the present. There might be some validity to that. Maybe the team could get a king's ransom for Masterson on the trade market. Maybe the going rates for improvement on the free agent market are too much for the team to financially bear. But that ignores that Cleveland has Masterson and Cabrera signed right now, this season. They also paid not a little bit for Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher last off-season and neither of those guys is getting younger. The farm isn't exactly stacked either so other than Francisco Lindor, the team might be looking to trades and the free agent market as a source of improving the roster anyway.
In the end, the Indians play in a winnable division. The Tigers and Royals are both good teams, but Cleveland only needs to finish ahead of one of them to make the playoffs, and their moves this off-season should reflect that. The Indians have a good young lineup and a good if not great top of the rotation starter in Masterson. Their bullpen is fine. To compete in 2014, they'll need to compensate for the losses of Kazmir and Jimenez. Fortunately, the arms are out there. Cleveland's needs aren't a secret. The only question remaining is, can they afford it?