Offseason Outlook: Cleveland Indians

Fed up after a 2012 season in which they went 68-94 and allowed 178 runs more than they scored, the Indians attempted to force their way into contention by signing Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn the following offseason. Cleveland improved by 24 games in 2013 and made the postseason for the first time since 2007, falling in a one-game playoff against the Rays. They'll aim to repeat that success in 2013, but first they'll need to patch up their pitching staff.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration Eligibles

Contract Options

  • Ubaldo Jimenez, $8MM club option, $1MM buyout; Jimenez may void option after being traded by Rockies
  • Jason Kubel, OF: $7.5MM mutual option, $1MM buyout

Free Agents

The Indians' additions of Swisher and Bourn were important parts of the their 2013 season, but those weren't the only reasons they succeeded. Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana continued to emerge as top young players. Yan Gomes, acquired the previous offseason in a relatively minor trade with the Blue Jays, caught 85 games and was one of Cleveland's best hitters. And Ryan Raburn posted a ridiculous .272/.357/.543 line in a part-time role. Meanwhile, the Indians' starting pitchers — primarily Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Corey Kluber, Scott Kazmir and Zach McAllister — were very reliable, which might not have seemed that likely at the beginning of the year.

The Indians' rotation will likely be the focus of much of their offseason. Kazmir is a free agent, and Jimenez essentially is as well. Danny Salazar, coming off a brilliant season split between Double-A, Triple-A and the Majors, will take over one of their spots, but that still leaves one opening. It's not impossible that Kazmir will be back, but it's very unlikely that Jimenez will be. After Masterson, Salazar, Kluber and McAllister, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer are probably the Indians' next options; Carrasco is a perfectly reasonable depth piece (if not more), but Bauer did not even pitch well at Triple-A in 2013.

The right side of the Indians' infield is relatively set, with Swisher as the primary starter at first and Kipnis at second. (Swisher could also start in the outfield if need be, freeing the Indians to pursue another first baseman, but the free agent market at first base is not particularly strong.) Asdrubal Cabrera is still Cleveland's shortstop, although the Indians could consider trading him this offseason, given his $10MM salary and the presence of top prospect Francisco Lindor. Lindor does not turn 20 until November and probably will not make his big-league debut until late 2014, at the earliest, so if the Indians were to trade Cabrera, they could look for a free agent shortstop or hand the position to Mike Aviles.

Lonnie Chisenhall will likely play third; the former first-round pick has not managed to stick in parts of three seasons in the Majors, but he only turned 25 this month and has hit well at Triple-A. Aviles, who got 37 starts for the Indians at third in 2013, will likely pick up starts at third yet again if Chisenhall continues to struggle. Gomes and Santana will continue on as the Indians' catchers, with Santana also picking up starts at first and DH. The Indians also apparently have interest in keeping Jason Giambi for 2014, either as a player or a coach.

Bourn and Michael Brantley will occupy two outfield spots, which leaves one open. Drew Stubbs hit just .233/.305/.360 in 2013; given his defense and the fact that he's relatively cheap, it might still be worth tendering him a contract, but the Indians likely won't want to go into Spring Training with him penciled in as a starter. The Indians do have an in-house alternative in Ryan Raburn, who was revelatory in 2013. His spectacular hitting was so far out of character, though, that it's hard to see him repeating it, particularly if he doesn't get 45% of his plate appearances against lefties again. Anyway, even if the Indians acquire another outfielder, finding at bats for Raburn shouldn't be hard.

In the bullpen, the Indians may find themselves looking for a new closer, given Chris Perez's struggles down the stretch and his projected 2014 salary of $9MM. If the Indians do indeed non-tender Perez, young righty Cody Allen, who posted 11.3 K/9 while throwing mid-90s gas last season, would be an excellent candidate to replace him. In addition to Perez, several other relievers could depart, including Joe Smith, Rich Hill and Matt Albers. Along with Allen, Bryan Shaw and Marc Rzepczynski are the only obvious returnees. The Indians could promote an arm or two for the minors, but it still looks like they may need to sign a reliever or two out of free agency.

The Indians, then, could have three key items on their to-do list: replacing Jimenez and/or Kazmir; adding a hitter to play either first base or right field, whichever Swisher doesn't occupy; and buying themselves a new bullpen. Even after drawing just 1.5MM fans in 2013, the Indians say they'll be able to field a "contending team" in 2014, although they haven't explained what their payroll might be. Without knowing the Indians' financial plans, it's hard to say how their offseason will go. The early signals, however, aren't that encouraging for Indians fans, as it already appears very unlikely that the team will be able to re-sign Jimenez. It doesn't take much money to patch up a bullpen, but it does take money to sign a slugger or a good starting pitcher.

On the field, the Indians' 2013 season was a success. But they drew fewer than 20K fans even for some weekend home games in September, when they were in the thick of a playoff race. The previous offseason's acquisitions of Swisher and Bourn were reasonably successful from a baseball perspective, but they did not appear to help attract fans who might have been put off by the team's awful performance in 2012. Swisher and Bourn are under contract for the next three seasons, regardless. Even with the new TV deal to which the Indians agreed before the 2013 season, it remains to be seen whether the team will shell out more money now that it's clear the last spending spree wasn't particularly effective at bringing fans through the gates.

Bullpen and Jimenez aside, then, unless the Indians get creative on the trade market, the key players on the 2014 team may end up being fairly similar to last season's. They won 92 games in 2013, so clearly, that's not the worst thing in the world. But it's fair to wonder if Gomes, Raburn and Kluber, in particular, are really as good as they were in 2013, and whether the Indians have the pitching depth they need. Even if not, the Indians could well make up the difference with slightly better performances from Swisher, Bourn, Chisenhall and Cabrera (if he's still around), along with a full season of Salazar. But a much clearer path to success would be to spend a bit of money to address the rotation and the outfield, and right now, it's not clear whether the Indians will be willing to do it.

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