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Tribe Happenings: Why the time is now for the Cleveland Indians to go after a bat

The Indians have seemingly done nothing but go after big name free agent bats at the winter meetings, and the IBI's Tony Lastoria explains why...

The third and final full day of the winter meetings are almost in the books, and I have to say, aside from the big Chris Sale trade and a few other signings and trades, this has been about as quiet a winter meetings in regards to rumors and news as I have ever seen.

Such is the problem when you do not have very many big name free agent pitchers on the free agent market and you have a repressed market for the position players because it is saturated with outfielders and first baseman. A lot of players like to have deals in place before Christmas, so if there is little news over the final hours of the winter meetings then we could surely be in for a lot of rumors and news over the next two weeks.

The Offseason Plan

Like I was saying with the news and rumors, things have been as quiet on the Indians front as I have ever seen. Normally, they are tied to many different players throughout the winter meetings, and most of them low cost budget fits. But that has not been the case as besides the Edwin Encarnacion talk and their meetings with Mike Napoli, Mark Trumbo and some other first base/DH types they are considering, they have been linked to no one at any other position.

Not a single reliever or outfielder to fill those areas of need on the roster. Not a single rehabbing veteran starter to add to their rotation depth. Not a single minor league contract option to bring depth options for the infield, outfield and pitching staff. Nothing.

Now, this could be two-fold.

On one hand, the Indians needs are very well defined. This is a very complete team at the moment with a five-man rotation that is set, a backend of the bullpen that is set, and a lineup with five proven All Star caliber players along with a solid platoon option in center and right field and a good defensive catching tandem. So, the Indians do not have a lot of needs to fill, and thus, they may not be in on a lot of guys at the moment.

On the other hand, the Indians are 100% focused at the moment on adding a first base-DH type. With a saturated market they look certain to get *someone* who is as good or better than Mike Napoli – be it a return of Napoli or an upgrade in the form of Mark Trumbo or Edwin Encarnacion. With that in mind, they are pulling out all the stops and leaving no stone unturned in their pursuit of a first base-DH option.

The Indians very much need a proven left-handed reliever and is a need I expect them to address later this offseason. They could also use a short-term upgrade in center field, but that is something they may not be hard-pressed to address now and may wait to reassess until midseason and see how Tyler Naquin and Abraham Almonte do and if the need is still there then explore the trade market at the trade deadline or consider a promotion of someone like Bradley Zimmer or Greg Allen if they are deemed ready. And the roster depth through minor league deals should continue to flow in all throughout the next several weeks leading into spring training.

So right now the focus is solely on getting that right-handed bat.

The Indians saw the impact that getting a big bat in the middle of the order had this past season. Not only with the power and production that Napoli showed, but how settling the cleanup spot helped others relax and perform at or above their abilities.

Preparing for loss of Santana

Another thing to consider is that this is Carlos Santana’s final year under contract as he will be a free agent after the 2017 season. With the new CBA in place and taking effect for free agents next offseason, Santana and other to-be free agents should see a pretty good pay day in a market that is no longer repressed by the qualifying offer where teams had to forfeit first round picks to sign them. The Indians will still get a pick, but now teams will be free to sign who they want with no worry about losing such a high level pick as many teams have no problem losing a second or third round pick to sign a free agent.

If Santana just performs to his average season which would be a .247 average, .365 on-base percentage, 24 homers, 81 RBI and .809 OPS, he is going to see a good pay day as a 30-year old entering the market. He should have no problem getting a deal of at least four or five years and for $15-18M per year. Such a deal will be hard for the Indians to consider giving him, especially with him wanting to test the free agent market and the Indians not wanting to be held hostage by such a situation.

This means the Indians need to not only look to add a first base-DH option for this coming season to fill the void left by Napoli’s departure, but they also need that first base-DH option to be someone who is here beyond this season to give them some certainty at a position they have limited options at right now beyond 2017. Also, considering how the market will shift back to higher value contracts next offseason, this offseason represents the last time the Indians have an opportunity to work in such a repressed market.

Focusing on First Base

This is why the Indians are so focused on first base this offseason and why they are entertaining high profile options like Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Trumbo and others. They not only have a little extra spending cash from their deep postseason run, but with a saturated market that is also repressed, they have a chance to get a stud cleanup hitter for .60-.75 cents on the dollar, maybe even less.

Such an opportunity probably won’t come their way again and they probably realize that.

Someone like Encarnacion or Trumbo in a normal offseason probably gets a five year deal for at least $20 million or more, but while the Indians may still end up paying that per annum amount, they may only end up with two or three year deals which are significantly cheaper than what they normally would get.

Again, I have said this for years, and that is the Indians would be more receptive paying any star player $20-25M for one season. There is little risk if such a player had a deal like that and you know you are getting top notch production in return. If they could sign Mike Trout for one year, $25 million, they would do it yesterday.

It is not really the per year money that is the issue for a team like the Indians, it is the length of that commitment. If that same player were to get a five year deal at $20-25 million per year, now you are committed to an additional $80-100 million for four years beyond just the one season – and if there is any hiccup where the player doesn’t live up to that contract due to injury or performance, a small market team like the Indians can’t recover from that.

On a one year deal, the Indians could just wipe the slate clean at the end of the year if a player busted because of injury or performance issues, but on a multi-year deal, they can’t do that and it impacts future moves and limits what they can afford moving forward. Just look at recent examples with the Travis Hafner, Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn contracts to see how they hampered the Indians. The Indians are STILL paying for the Swisher-Bourn deal even though they haven’t been in town since August of last year in that they still owe Chris Johnson $9 million in 2017 and a $1 million buyout in 2018! That’s $9 million on next year’s payroll that would go to a usable player but instead is just written off as a sunk cost.

Also, the Indians have few first base options to turn to internally. High profile prospect Bobby Bradley won’t be a full time Major League option until the first half of 2019 if all goes right with him. Jesus Aguilar is on his last legs in the organization and will likely be designated for assignment or traded by the end of spring training. And Nellie Rodriguez is interesting but brings a lot of the same limitations and concerns people had with Aguilar. They can keep trying to plug in one-year options at first base from free agency for the next few years, but what is the likelihood they get as lucky on future deals like they did with Napoli last year? It just doesn’t happen that often.

So with Napoli gone and the prospects of Santana gone after next season, the Indians could be without their two big power threats by the end of next season – and going into their final year in 2018 with the current core intact. In other words, they need to make sure they maintain that power presence to not only fill the void left by Napoli, but protect from the loss of Santana next year.

Why the time is now

All of this brings us back to why it would be so impactful to the Indians if someone like Encarnacion or Trumbo get signed on a three year deal – and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Indians were not shooting for a two year deal.

The Indians current window of opportunity with this team is two years. After the next two seasons the bullpen advantage they have will be completely gone as Bryan Shaw, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen will all hit free agency by the end of 2018 and there is no way they can retain any of them with the contracts being doled out to relievers this offseason. If Miller and Allen are healthy the next two years, they could easily command $100 million deals after 2018. Along with that trio of dominant pen arms, the Indians will also lose Carlos Santana and Michael Brantley as well by the end of the 2018 season. Those are two big hits to the lineup.

Now, the Indians are certainly well situated with the rotation for the next four years and with several young position players, so their window certainly exceeds two years, but for this group as-is the time is now and after the next two years there will be a reconfiguring of the roster and retooling of players to offset the pieces that are lost.

That is why the Indians feel it is important to strike and get that big bat now. Not just because of the unique market advantage they have at the moment, but because of the window of opportunity with this current group.

Just look at the Kansas City Royals. They may be torn apart just as fast as they emerged because so many players are nearing free agency. The Indians are better situated with their roster than they are, but the time will soon come where we say good-bye to a lot of these standout players we have come to love over the past season. The reality is that the Indians will lose a great many of the soon-to-be free agents and maybe only retain one.

A big bat on a two or three year deal may not impact the financial stability too much, especially if they front load the contract to help offset some of the cost in future years in order to use some of their postseason profits now.

So it is time to go for it, and is why they are so gung-ho on trying to add a high profile free agent bat. In the end, it may not work out and those players may end up elsewhere, but you can believe they will make every effort to take advantage of the opportunity at hand. They did it four years ago with Swisher and Bourn in the first offseason of the qualifying offers, and may do it again in the last offseason of the current qualifying offer setup.

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