The Indians face major decisions in center field and in the rotation this offseason. GM Chris Antonetti begins the winter with the expectation that payroll will rise following a promising 2011 season.
Arbitration Eligible Players (estimated salaries)
- Justin Masterson, SP: $3.6MM
- Jack Hannahan, UT IF: $1.3MM
- Asdrubal Cabrera, SS: $4.8MM
- Shin-Soo Choo, OF: $4.3MM
- Chris Perez, RP: $4.2MM
- Joe Smith, RP: $1.6MM
- Rafael Perez, RP: $1.9MM
- Grady Sizemore, OF: $8.5MM club option with a $500K buyout (no Elias ranking)
- Fausto Carmona, SP: $7MM club option (would be arbitration eligible if Indians decline option)
The Indians' offseason begins with a pair of difficult decisions for GM Chris Antonetti. Cleveland has options for Grady Sizemore and Fausto Carmona, two of the club's longest tenured players. Neither one is guaranteed to return in 2012 and the Indians' decisions regarding the pair will shape the rest of their offseason.
The Indians have a $7MM option for Carmona, who would be arbitration eligible if the team declines the option. MLBTR projects Carmona would earn about $7.8MM if the Indians declined his option and went to arbitration with him, so it's the option or nothing in 2012.
Carmona doesn't strike many opponents out — Indians starters as a group placed 27th in MLB in strikeout rate — but there were some positives in 2011. He pitched 188 2/3 innings and though his 5.25 ERA wasn't pretty, his xFIP of 4.17 and SIERA of 4.18 suggest his ugly ERA may have been due to bad luck. Carmona had a 54.8% ground ball rate in 2011, so he could have trade value to teams in homer-friendly parks, like the Rockies, Rangers and Yankees, even if the Indians pick up his option and guarantee him a $7MM salary. I expect Cleveland to pick the option up and given how difficult it is to obtain starting pitching, that decision would be justifiable.
Regardless of how the Indians handle Carmona's option, they'll probably pursue starting pitching depth. Ubaldo Jimenez, Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin will lead the rotation, possibly with Carmona. David Huff, Zach McAllister and Jeanmar Gomez provide manager Manny Acta with internal alternatives and Antonetti will likely add an arm or two from outside of the organization.
Sizemore's knees have limited him to 104 total games in the past two seasons, so exercising his $9MM club option ($500K buyout) would be a bet on Sizemore's health. Why would a small-market team even consider such a gamble? From 2005-08, Sizemore combined power, speed and on-base skills as one of baseball's premier center fielders. When he's healthy, he's a force, but the Indians don't seem confortable paying him $9MM in 2012.
Sizemore offers more offensive upside than free agent alternatives such as Rick Ankiel, Cody Ross and former Indians center fielder Coco Crisp. The Indians already have 24-year-old Michael Brantley, who posted a .702 OPS in 114 games and spent considerable time in center field. Rookie Ezequiel Carrera played 55 games in center, but had an OPS of just .613. If the Indians decide to pursue experience and certainty in center field and are unimpressed by the available free agents, they could turn to trade targets such as Angel Pagan and B.J. Upton.
The Indians may pursue corner outfielders, regardless of how they handle Sizemore's option. Right-handed hitting outfielders such as Josh Willingham and Michael Cuddyer could appeal to the team. Sizemore, Brantley, Carrera and Shin-Soo Choo all bat from the left side and the Indians lineup also includes three other left-handed hitting regulars, so they may pursue right-handed hitting outfielders if possible. One such player, Matt Murton, hit .311/.339/.423 in Japan in 2011 and could be available this offseason. He just turned 30 and boasts a .788 OPS as a Major Leaguer, so Antonetti may decide to offer an incentive-based deal should Murton become available.
Jim Thome intends to play in 2012 and though he made a triumphant return to Cleveland in 2011, a new deal seems unlikely, since the Indians already have a left-handed hitting designated hitter in Travis Hafner.
First base presents more uncertainty for the Indians. Carlos Santana is a regular contributor, but Matt LaPorta hasn't produced enough at the plate in two-plus seasons and Shelley Duncan probably isn't an everyday first baseman. The Indians could pursue free agents such as Casey Kotchman if they're losing confidence in LaPorta as their primary option at first.
Second baseman Jason Kipnis and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall have the minor league pedigree LaPorta boasted a few seasons ago. They'll enter the 2012 season with a chance to build on the successes of their rookie seasons. Meanwhile, 24-year-old Cord Phelps is another homegrown option on the infield and the versatile Jack Hannahan is also under team control.
The Indians have just $17.7MM in guaranteed contracts for 2012, but that figure will rise to the $40MM range if the club retains all of its arbitration eligible players, as expected. If the Indians pick up the options for Sizemore and Carmona, payroll would be over $55MM before accounting for minimum salary players or potential acquisitions. Antonetti says he expects the Indians to exceed this year's $49MM payroll and accommodating both Sizemore and Carmona without a substantial increase would be difficult.
Joe Smith, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp and Vinnie Pestano will return to a bullpen that will mostly remain intact. Closer Chris Perez struggled down the stretch after making his first All-Star team, so he'll look to pitch as effectively as he did in 2010. Nick Hagadone, the 25-year-old southpaw who came to Cleveland in the Victor Martinez deal, posted a 3.35 ERA with 9.9 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9 at Triple-A before making nine appearances as a September callup. He could be ready for a season-long stint in the Indians' 2012 bullpen and while there's no guarantee he'll replicate his minor league success, he deserves a shot.
Once the option decisions have been finalized and free agency has slowed down, Antonetti could explore extensions for Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera. Cabrera is closer to free agency than Santana, so the Indians would likely prioritize an extension for their shortstop. It's unlikely agent Scott Boras would encourage an extension for Choo, whose bargaining power dipped after a frustrating season.
Antonetti's first offseason as the Indians' GM led to an extended playoff run. They'll enter the 2012 season with elevated expectations and, if the winter goes according to plan, depth in the rotation and answers in the outfield.