If you were surprised by the Indians’ signing of Edwin Encarnacion, then you’ll be downright shocked by the news foxsports.com’s Ken Rosenthal is reporting: “The Indians might not be done.”
According to Rosenthal, the Indians have maintained contact with several remaining free agents, including Encarnacion’s former Blue Jays’ teammate, Jose Bautista. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like “news,” since it’s clear every front office maintains a certain level of contact with available players based on diminishing cost. But Rosenthal brings up several levels of depth making this story increasingly interesting.
Minor League Signings
Rosenthal discussed the likelihood the Indians would focus on cheaper, minor league signings, but would strike if the iron was hot, and the prices would drop. Clearly, the Indians are playing with a soft salary cap far above what anyone was projecting prior to the season. Their current payroll sits just below $110,000,000, which is already about $5 million over what many speculated was their cap.
This payroll also doesn’t include any of the 40-man roster yet to hit arbitration. While those numbers are just a formality at this point, it will add in the neighborhood of $15 million to the overall salary cap, if all things remain equal. This isn’t taking into account the potential of long-term deals the club may reach with pre-arb players such as Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. It’s also not taking into account the potential of a trade or two, should the Indians decide to unclog the outfield.
But the question remains, do the Indians really have this kind of money in the hoppers after a playoff run, and with new season-ticket sales? While every ounce of my expanded holiday gut says hell no, my mind is telling me something else completely. The Indians have the money, and are willing to spend it if the right deal comes along.
But who would they be looking at Jose Bautista, a right fielder, when they seem to have an over-abundance of outfielders already in play, and with Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen knocking on the door in the coming 12 months?
The Michael Brantley Factor
It’s clear the Indians are concerned about Michael Brantley. No, they haven’t said anything publicly, but you just have to look at the facts to know there is a real worry he won’t be able to return to his former level of play, let alone return at all.
The most interesting Rosenthal tidbit regarding Brantley discussed the Indians’ recouping insurance money. “Brantley is guaranteed $7.5 million in ’17. The Indians, who hold insurance on his contract, would collect on their policy from the start of the season due to the amount of time he missed a year ago, sources said.”
Obviously this is money on top of added revenue, but many believed this was also money allowing them to make a serious run at Edwin Encarnacion. If Brantley can’t play this year, the insurance money would assuredly increase. Confused yet?
But this could go even deeper. When the Indians signed Encarnacion as a full-time DH/1B, it eliminated any chance for Michael Brantley to move to a position defensively, allowing him to continue hitting without putting defensive stress on his shoulder, either as a DH, or to a lesser extent, at first base. This would lead one to believe Brantley is either ready for full-time left field duty, or he’ll be on the DL. He’s not going to be able to stash away on the bench as a DH-only player until he’s “more healthy.”
If this is the case, the Indians may want to address the offense soon, and a player like Bautista, at the right price, would certainly make things easier to deal with offensively. While Bautista is clearly on the downturn of his career, and while he doesn’t exactly have a fan following in Cleveland, his on base skills and offensive numbers aren’t anything to scoff at.
The only problem with a Bautista signing is he doesn’t play center field, and as Jeff Nomina mentioned earlier in the offseason, there are a multitude of players who are figured into the roster already. Past Brantley, you have Abraham Almonte, Brandon Guyer, Tyler Naquin and Lonnie Chisenhall, who were going to round out the outfield roster. While Almonte (one) and Naquin (three) still have options remaining, Chisenhall and Guyer do not. A player will either have to be moved, or they’ll have to send one of their two center field options down the Columbus, in which case they’d have to have Lonnie Chisenhall play center.
There are other options here as well, including Yandy Diaz (who played center in winter ball), Zimmer (the front office oddly mentioned him as a center field option less than two weeks ago), and Allen (seems at least a half-year away, although I think it could be sooner than most think). You could even pencil in Jose Ramirez, if the Indians bring up a guy like Diaz, Giovanni Urshela, or sign a player like Trevor Plouffe, who Rosenthal also mentions. Of course, adding multiple players creates 40-man issues (bye bye Jesus Aguilar and Erik Gonzalez), but only if you think there aren’t players on the 40-man roster worthy of getting rid of (you saw I mentioned Aguilar and EGone, right?).
If you are Terry Francona trying to take the next step towards a World Series title, adding two major pieces from the Toronto Blue Jays’ run to the ALCS in Encarnacion and Bautista, to an already loaded Indians roster seems a no-brainer. You put Bautista in right, and figure the rest of the outfield as you go.
Defensively it’s a completely different story. The best fit move for the Tribe would be a defensive center fielder, but with options limited, it’s unlikely to happen.
The Carlos Santana Factor
This is Carlos Santana’s final year as a member of the Cleveland Indians, right? But I wonder if the statement is even true. In theory, Santana is going to get a fairly substantial deal next year. I’ve been an Indians’ fan for far too long to believe they could get a small town discount. But will he get the substantial deal he thinks he’ll get, or we think he’ll get?
He’s younger than Encarnacion and Bautista, so in theory, he should be worth more. He’ll likely get the tilt at first base, which should help his value as well. But, with a massive free agent market coming in 2018, and coming off this freakishly weird 2016-2017 hot stove season, it’s hard to say what kind of deal Santana will ultimately get. If teams don’t value him as much as Encarnacion, he immediately becomes a value to the Indians. If they can put up a competitive offer with other clubs, and I think this year proved they can, who would you rather have in 2018 and beyond: Santana or a 37-year old Bautista?
If you say Bautista, your last name is probably Bautista.
Of course, this piece is about the Indians potentially signing Bautista, not Santana, who turned down the $17+ million qualifying offer, and still hasn’t signed. So perhaps the Santana factor isn’t as big as some might think. If the Indians truly believe Santana is going to walk, they could put together a two-year deal for Bautista, as Rosenthal mentions, paying him less this year, and backloaded to next year. The assumption is the club will be losing both Santana’s salary, and likely Brantley’s option, which then gives them the payroll to give Bautista the backloaded deal.
But if you step back and look at the big picture, would the Indians be looking at the 36-year old Bautista on a two-year deal to cover Santana, when you have two potential top-five outfield prospects on the horizon in the next 18 months at the latest, a full stock of fairly middling outfielders already rostered, the potential of Brantley, and likely, the ability to sign Carlos Santana to a bigger deal than some think, if they really want to?
Remember, Chris Johnson’s albatross of a deal ($9 million) is off the books after this year as well.
It all depends on how good the Indians’ front office perceive their offense to be, and what sort of value a player like Bautista can bring them at whatever they could offer. While Santana would be an unknown heading into next year, it feels like they could sit back this year with an offense as good or better than last year’s, still be the best team in the American League, and figure out a way to keep Santana next year.
Why do I think I just said something controversial?
The Rest of the Roster Factor
The Indians could go a completely different route here, than the aforementioned Jose Bautista. They could sign some starters and bullpen arms to much lesser deals, even though both seemed set and ready for 2017. As we all learned last year, you are never set in the rotation, as late year injuries to both Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar left the Indians with a patchwork quilt behind ace Corey Kluber.
Adding Andrew Miller loaded the bullpen, but we can’t forget the volatility bullpens represent from year-to-year. The Indians do have a fruitful bullpen cupboard, but even saying such statements out loud makes me exceedingly nervous.
The Indians could go all in on Bautista, or the more likely approach the front office takes is to add a multitude of pieces to really small deals, counting on one or two to hit, as they do every year. But this doesn’t feel like every year, does it?
So, let’s get to the question at hand…
What if they do bring in Jose Bautista?
Forget about money.
Forget about years.
Forget most every baseball fan in Cleveland hates him because he’s a whiner.
What does he add to the team?
Sure, Bautista’s skills are diminishing. He’s a lackluster defender in right field, and while he brings more contact to the Indians offense, his overall numbers have dropped three straight seasons. But his numbers are still good.
His power didn’t diminish, nor did his contact. He walks almost as much as he strikes out, maintains a yearly .350+ OBP, and still has 25+ power (his 22 homers came in only 116 games because of injury last year). Where would he hit in the line-up as a replacement for Brantley? Let’s have some fun.
- Carlos Santana 1B
- Jason Kipnis 2B
- Francisco Lindor SS
- Edwin Encarnacion DH
- Jose Ramirez 3B
- Jose Bautista RF
- Brandon Guyer/Abraham Almonte/Lonnie Chisenhall LF
- Tyler Naquin/Abraham Almonte/Lonnie Chisenhall CF
- Roberto Perez C
(You’d swap Yan Gomes with the eight slot, if he’s in the line-up)
And what if Brantley is healthy at some point?
- Carlos Santana 1B
- Jason Kipnis 2B
- Francisco Lindor SS
- Edwin Encarnacion DH
- Michael Brantley LF
- Jose Ramirez 3B
- Jose Bautista RF
- Tyler Naquin/Abraham Almonte CF
- Roberto Perez/Yan Gomes C
(Gomes would shift to eighth, if he’s in the game)
Now obviously 1-3 and 5-6 are all subject to movement, depending on the pitcher and performance in the first line-up. The same goes for 1-3 and 5-7 in the second. My point in both?
If Brantley is healthy, players in the outfield become expendable in theory, if they aren’t already. Having permanent right and left fielders would give the Indians Chisenhall and Guyer as trade pieces, if they want to keep both current center field options in Almonte and Naquin, who also have minor league options remaining.
And you’d still have Zimmer and Almonte waiting in the wings.
The options would just be substantial, which as a lifelong Indians’ fan, seems odd.
No, there isn’t a Bautista deal imminent, and I’d still say the chances of bringing the right fielder in are fairly slim, but sometimes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. What the Indians’ front office of Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff have proven since July of 2016, they aren’t afraid to strike the match.