Well, here we are. We’ve talked about what happened in 2008 and also how much we paid for it, but unless you all are gluttons for the punishment that only Skip Carey and Joe Buck can provide, it’s time to move on to 2009. The Tribe has some question marks heading into the off-season. Scott and I will do our best to identify those issues and put our collective keyboard to work to answer them.
Where to start? Let’s look at off-season issues for the Tribe, each in the context of: a) what are the holes; b) what’s available (either in-house of via trade/FA); and c) what we think the Tribe should and will do.
Before we get started, here’s the list of potential free agents—by position—that we will be referring to throughout this post. Also, something else that will come in to play are the number of options remaining for specific players:
|Two Options:||One Option:|
1) Who are the five members of the Tribe’s starting rotation when they break camp in 2009?
DP – Talk about a moving target… Obviously, Cliff Lee and Fausto Carmona will be there. Westbrook is hurt, and may be back by the All Star Break, but you can’t really count on him next season. So, there are three spots open. Assuming health for all of the following, I think we’ll see Anthony Reyes, Scott Lewis, and Aaron Laffey as our other three starters.
Obviously, Reyes and Laffey were shut down at the end of this season because of arm issues, so you can’t necessarily count on them, either. I think the first guy to step into the void is either of those guys can’t go is Zach Jackson, but another guy who forced his name into the discussion at some point is Brian Bullington, who pitched fairly well in his two appearances to end the season (one start, one five-inning scoreless relief appearance).
On the free-agent front, looking at the list the only guys I would be interested in are most likely out of the Indians’ price range; every off-season we see a run on starting pitching and fringe guys get way more money than they should. In terms of who the Indians could actually afford from this list (should they decide they want to bring in a FA starter), the pickings are pretty slim and grim. But, Shapiro did stick us with Jason Johnson in 2006, so anything is possible. I wonder if Shapiro might try another scrap-heap reclamation project on the cheap… someone like Mark Prior, whose ceiling is high if healthy, but likely wouldn’t cost them all that much.
SS – Yes, Lee and Carmona can be written in with a Sharpie. I really hope Reyes returns to the form he was in before being shut down with his elbow issues. The trick with this will be that he and Zach Jackson are completely out of options. The fact that Jake Westbrook will be out until (likely) the All-Star break helps their cause a bit. I’m not a big fan of Jackson, but can see him winding up as our fifth starter, with Laffey being the third/fourth depending on where Reyes slots. The only reason that I do not see Scott Lewis getting the nod from day one will be due to the Jackson/option issue. Lewis, Jeremy Sowers and David Huff (who I’m very high on) will all be playing in Columbus – and you can bet I’ll be watching.
Of course, this is all assuming that none of these young left-handers (Laffey, Sowers, Lewis, Huff) are dangled as trade bait for something that could fill in one of our gaps. The issue then arises: which of these guys have the best long-term value? I’d say Huff. But Scotty Lewis has shown that he may just be MLB-ready, something that teams love. Our window of what we have seen from Lewis at this level is pretty small, but could it give us a sell-high opportunity?
2) Who is the closer for this team, and after him who fills the setup roles in the bullpen? More broadly, which guys are in the bullpen?
DP – If I had to line up the bullpen right now with the current guys in it, I would leave Jensen Lewis as the closer to begin the year. Betancourt would be the seventh inning set-up man and Perez would be the eighth inning set-up man, depending on match-ups. I would use Kobayashi and Rundles as my righty/lefty matchup guys in the middle-innings if needed, though I have been under-whelmend by Kobayashi to this point; some consistency would help to alleviate those fears for me.
Honestly, I don’t know who my long-man would be right now. I wonder what–if anything–they might want to do with Mastny and Mujica, as neither has been consistent at all over the past couple of years. The free agent reliever crop is also pretty thin, with a lot of guys on the wrong side of 30.
SS – The team has already stated that Adam Miller’s future resides in the bullpen, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The bad thing is that the kid can’t manage to stay healthy for any extended period of time. Mark Shapiro has hinted toward Miller possibly being a closer – something that I would have to see to believe.
We are never going to pay for a big name closer, and apparently refuse to take risks on bounce-back candidates like a Brad Lidge. Instead, we opt for the high-80s heat of guys like Bob Wickman and Joe Borowski. Alas, I do not see any major overhauls to our current bullpen. A very sad statement, I know. I’m sure the team will make a run at certain closers, but I also feel that they will play the “we tried” card and fall short. Thankfully, Eduardo Mujica is out of options. He gone. Rafy Perez is sans options as well, but I don’t think that’s a huge concern. Slap him in as the match-up, set-up guy, and I’m fine with his 10 Ks per nine innings. With that said, I think Jensen Lewis becomes the closer just by default. Another arm that I would not count out if he keeps locating his killer heat is John Meloan. But in typical fashion, he’ll likely start in Columbus and then be called up when someone (Juan Rincon?) implodes for the fourth or fifth time in a row.
3) Who is the Tribe’s third baseman in 2009, and also beyond? How does that affect the rest of the infield lineup?
DP – Obviously, Andy Marte is done in a Tribe uniform. This is not another Brandon Phillips situation: Marte has shown next to nothing at all in his three seasons with the Tribe organization. That said, I think the first option should be a move of Jhonny Peralta to third base. He’s played third base in his career in the minors, and I think if he spends a lot of time working on it in Spring Training that he will be serviceable there. And, the other main reason I would try it is that nobody in the third base free agent category except for maybe Hank Blalock really excites me… and he has an option with Texas. When I wrote that Chipper Jones column, it was really just a joke, as I can’t imagine that the Braves would trade Jones. But, when you look at how thin the FA third basemen crop is, I wonder if Shapiro could give the Braves a call. I really, really, really (really) hope they don’t resign Blake. I have always hated him, and while his versatility and decent stats have been well-documented I still haven’t forgiven him for striking out or hitting into a double play with RISP roughly 82,375 times over his Tribe career.
As for the second base dilemma, I don’t know what they will do with Josh Barfield. If they move Peralta to third, I suspect they will give Barfield the chance to sink or swim at second to begin the season, with Asdrubal Carbera at short. If they don’t move Peralta to third, Barfield becomes the proverbial odd-man-out—especially since he has a minor-league option remaining. If they don’t pick up Carroll’s option, Barfield then probably has a spot, but he won’t crack the every-day lineup until he shows he can hit. I’m honestly baffled at what happened to him between San Diego 2006 and his Tribe tenure. Couple that with what Cabrera has been able to do in terms of his time in AAA to make adjustments, and it magnifies Barfield’s struggles that much more. Given the relatively low price of Carroll’s option ($2.5MM), I can’t see them going out into the FA market for a second baseman. There’s not a lot to pick from, though I would be curious in a vacuum how Orlando Hudson would look on this team (.305, .817 OPS in 407 ABs in 2008; age 31).
SS – Regarding Peralta, I’ve been on board with this one for quite some time. My biggest concern is, say you move him there and bring in a second baseman at whatever cost. If Peralta is a huge failure at the hot corner, then what? Move him back to short and sit whichever second baseman you brought in? You are not going to sit Peralta’s bat, so this is a move that the team has to be completely sold on. I’m not sure that Wes Hodges will be ready to play third at the big league level right out of the gate. Jamey Carroll played decently well, but given his lack of power we cannot rely on him as the long-term option. So, as bad as things currently are at third base, does this make it better?
And that leads us to the rest. Assuming that Cabrera is at short, Barfield will definitely get his shot. If he fails miserably, for the third year in a row, he could be sent packing. The argument will then be, do you keep Carroll, knowing what you get, or keep Barfield and hope that the upside finally appears? If this team could somehow manage to pry Brian Roberts from Baltimore, I would not ask for any other moves to be made. Lead-off caliber guy with excellent speed, and a great glove at second. This would also allow us to move Grady to the third slot, but that’s a whole other argument. Two other intriguing names are Mark Ellis out of Oakland (power, not great average) and Dan Uggla out of Florida. He would cost a lot of money, but is a huge bat with a 28-home run season. Oh, and he’s up for arbitration. Florida hates the “A” word, so it isn’t far-fetched.
4) There’s a bit of a log-jam in the outfield. Obviously, Grady is in center. Who else is playing OF for the Tribe in 2009?
DP – As we noted above, there are a lot of guys on this team with options. I thought Ben Francisco was out of options for some reason. That definitely streamlines things a little bit, at least until they can get rid of Delucci. Sizemore is in center field. Shin-Soo Choo has done enough—including hitting better against left-handed pitching as well as playing good defense and showing off his arm—to be the every-day right-fielder at the beginning of the year. That leaves one spot, and a few candidates. As much as I hate the idea, I think we’ll see a Dellucci/Gutierriez platoon in left-field, with Dellucci playing against right-handed pitchers, and Gut playing against left-handed pitchers and being the late-inning defensive replacement for Dellucci in games the Tribe is leading.
SS – With the emergence of my man Choo, Francisco just very may well be the odd man out and will likely see some time in Columbus just to keep his at-bats coming. It pains me to say it, but David Dellucci will likely be here until Matt LaPorta is ready to rake with the big boys. More on this later…
5) Likewise, there’s a bit of a log-jam at the combination of catcher, first base, and DH. Shoppach, Martinez, Garko, and Hafner: who plays where, and how often?
DP – This is going to be a point of contention, because when you have a talent like Victor Martinez that you can play at a non-offensive position, it’s obviously an asset. That said, Kelly Shoppach more than held his own as the every-day catcher in 2008. If you had asked me this question around the All Star Break in 2008, I would have said it was time to either put Garko on the trading block (or send him back down), start Martinez every day at first (have him catch every fifth game for Carmona), and have Hafner as your DH unless/until he proves to truly be the second coming of post-big-contract Bobby Higginson.
Somehow, though, Garko managed to pick it up in the second half to get his average up over .270 and drive in 90 runs, which again convolutes things. Because Garko has the option left, I would still start him in AAA for the year and play Victor and Shoppach as the everyday first baseman/catcher respectively, and give Hafner the chance to re-establish himself as the DH. If Hafner falters, or if Garko is hitting so well at AAA that he can’t be left down, then you have to make a move. The dark-horse scenario of course is that, because of Hafner’s contract and Shoppach’s great season, the Tribe brass elects to move Shoppach while his value is high to fill other holes.
SS – Do not count out Matt LaPorta at first base either. I would love to have his bat in the outfield, but in the even that it doesn’t work, the Indians will have to find a way to keep him around as long as possible (given the price we paid). Garko having an option left could wind up being huge for this team – and maybe not so great for him. If he comes out swinging like he did at the end of this past year, then he’ll have a spot on the team. If he looks like the Garko of May/June, then to Columbus he goes.
Hafner has to get back to the shape that he was in when he signed that contract. If he doesn’t, that’s a multi-million dollar sunk cost. Also if he doesn’t, this opens up a slot for Garko as well. Perhaps even LaPorta, or at worst case scenario, Jhonny Peralta if the team can nab a second AND third baseman. But we’re getting carried away at this point…
The main trading chip going into the off-season will be Shoppach. If they do not move him, we then have a 20-home run back-up catcher because I think the team definitely gives the job to Victor Martinez. Sure, he’ll play the occasional day game at first, but that’s about it. Does this maximize the team’s potential? Not at all, but sometimes you’re just stuck.
6) Who’s ready down on the farm if the big boys stumble next season?
DP – Obviously, all eyes will be on LaPorta, the centerpiece of the Sabathia trade. He potentially could fill holes at the corner OF spots and even at first base if a need should arise. Trevor Crowe hit .323 in 49 games at AA Akron, and .274 in 35 games at AAA Buffalo, and will start the season in AAA Columbus this year. Other players to watch are third baseman Wes Hodges who played in AA in 2008.
SS – First, we’ll have to look at whomever gets their final options exercised. We will likely have plenty of major league caliber players at the minor league level, which isn’t a bad thing. LaPorta, Crowe and Hodges will definitely top the list as position players. Don’t forget Jordan Brown as a first baseman and Beau Mills at third as well. David Huff, Scott Lewis, Sowers and Tony Sipp lead the way with arms. Crowe will be interesting, especially if we do acquire Michael Brantley from Milwaukee.
Another player that needs to be monitored: Carlos Santana. There is no doubt in my mind that there will be a point in time where fans say, “Wow, we got this guy for Casey Blake?!?” He won’t get the nod next year, but by 2010, he could be the guy that allows Victor Martinez to finish his career as a first baseman. The guys in between Martinez and Santana project to be solid back-up catchers; even more of a reason why moving Shoppach makes sense.
So, what have we learned? First and foremost, we’ve learned that next March Eric Wedge is going to earn his paycheck by making some tough decisions. We’ve learned that Shapiro has a lot of spinning plates to keep in the air with this team and all of the young talent in that AAA/AAAA category. And, we’ve learned that, even though they are never big spenders, the Tribe does have a lot of options to work with at many of these positions. How well they work those options may make the difference as the AL Central looks to be extremely winnable for the Tribe in the foreseeable future.