The Cleveland Indians President Mark Shapiro and GM Chris Antonetti have done an admirable job at diagnosing young talent and signing that talent to payroll friendly extensions. The tribe has a core of players in place that will keep them competitive for the near future. Yan Gomes, Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana are highly valued baseball players that the Indians are paying premium rates to. There is also a wealth of talent controlled by the Indians that is still in the Arbitration years or yet to reach that point. With these pieces in place it becomes about the procuring of pieces that will push this group over the top. The Indians are in that mid-market window of potential success and they need to take advantage of it. So far this off-season, Antonetti has exercised the team option for 2015 on Mike Aviles and most importantly signed esteemed Manager Terry Francona to an extension that will have him in Cleveland until at least 2018.
The Indians problem is that after all the favorable contracts there are two enigmatic long term deals mucking up the waters. The free agent signings of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn have turned out to be disconcerting thus far and their contracts combine to command $28.5 million in 2015 and 29 million in 2016. David Murphy was the main Indians acquisition last off-season and after a promising start to the season proved to be of little value while his contract will oblige $6.5 million of the Indians 2015 payroll. That makes $55 million in contracts plighted to the payroll before they dispense another $10 million in arbitration and league minimum contracts. The Indians have $70 million in payroll spoken for before the even make a move this offseason.
The Indians payroll target is somewhere between $80-$85 million, which would leave Chris Antonetti with somewhere between $10-15 million to supplement the 2015 roster. The problem is that in 2016 stud reliever Cody Allen and Cy Young Winner Corey Kluber will enter arbitration and receive respectable pay bumps along with Carlos Carrasco should he be able to sustain the elite caliper of pitching we saw at the end of 2014. This means that even though the Indians contracted portion of the payroll will stay very similar to 2015’s their arbitrations cost will likely double. So if Antonetti had thoughts of signing an impact player worth upwards of $10 million a year this off-season he would be unable to negotiate a multi-year deal which would certainly handcuff him considerably.
The Indians need a right handed bat that can hit with some power and preferably play Right Field. The other positions on the field can be filled admirably with the existing roster. The starting rotation will be strong and very deep with Kluber, Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin, Zach McAllister and T.J. House. The bullpen has key pieces in place already with Allen as the Closer and very effective arms in Bryan Shaw, Scott Atchison, Marc Rzepczynski, Kyle Crockett and Nick Hagadone. The Indians can approach their payroll and this off-season several different ways.
- They could take on the arduous task of unloading Swisher’s contract. Antonetti would have to find a suitor and then offer to pay a portion of Swisher’s 2015 contract in return for them taking on the rest of his deal. This could still leave $10 million a year to spend this year and room to negotiate a multi-year contract. This would allow the Indians to shop in a younger and much better pool of players.
- The next option could very likely be the choice of this front office but would be by far the least appealing and more than likely unsuccessful in improving the team to the next level. They could account for the payroll bump in 2016 this offseason and do very little this offseason. Antonneti would bring in several players on the cheap using low risk short term deals to play in a platoon in RF or DH. We have seen this before.
- The best option for the Indians to add an impact upgrade would be to shop in the veteran pool of players where they could use a higher priced one year deal to improve this team. Colby Rasmus would be an upgrade in RF and could be had on a 1 year deal. Kendrys Morales and Corey Hart are players that the Indians could bring in to DH and let Swisher and Murphy battle for RF. The Indians have an abundance of outfield prospects and if Antonetti is willing to part with some long term assets he could trade for a short term solution in RF like Jason Heyward, Shane Victorino or Gerardo Parra. In Victorino’s case Boston would likely eat a portion of his salary for the right prospects.
Some combination of the last option is what the Indians should do. They are in a window where they have a chance to win and they have core players locked in for a couple years. Antonetti has to be willing to part with his abundance of outfield prospects in order to win now. This team is not far off, they could take the field with what they have and win the division if Swisher bounced back and everything fell into place. That is not something the Indians can bank on though, they need to bring in substantial upgrades at RF or DH and then fill in the spaces. It will be critical to improve on what is already in place. Players the caliper of Brantley, Kluber, Gomes, Kipnis and Santana being paid at bargain rates with a Manager like Francona is Mid-Markets dream come true. Time to make a move.
By: Brad Ward
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