Indians searching for bargains in free agency
FEB 06, 2014 5:06p ET
Spring training officially kicks off a week from today for the Indians. The equipment truck has already arrived in Goodyear, players are already filtering into the complex, and later this week a lot of the front office staff will head for the Valley of the Sun.
The arrival of spring training typically means teams are finished with their offseason tinkering of their rosters and have changed their focus to the season that lies ahead. But that was not the case last year when the Indians added Jason Giambi and Michael Bourn into the fold at the outset of spring training. That could be the case yet again this spring as there are several interesting free agents still unsigned, which could lead to a flurry of activity over the next seven to ten days for players panicking to find a home for the 2014 season.
This will lead to several free agent bargains, with some players signing minor league deals or for higher-end free agents, agreeing to discounted multi-year deals or high dollar one year deals.
It's a buyers market, and one the Indians should strongly consider being active in.
The Indians payroll currently projects to be about $85 million, the second highest in franchise history. They appear to be stretched to their limits, but the Indians have maintained silence all offseason about their finances and have really never let on to what their budget is for 2014.
Also, while they have hinted that they are done with making any significant moves to the roster, they have said all along that they would add a player if the value aligned and that they have the financial flexibility to make such a move if they feel the player is a good fit. There is no greater example of this than the Bourn signing last season, a transaction that came completely out of nowhere.
If the Indians go into the season with the roster as currently assembled, they definitely have a chance to compete for the AL Central Division and compete in the playoffs. But there are some interesting free agents still searching for jobs that the Indians should really consider adding to the mix to improve those chances to compete for a World Series championship.
The big five free agents still available are AJ Burnett, Nelson Cruz, Ubaldo Jimenez, Kendrys Morales and Ervin Santana, and all five could help the Indians. Morales and Cruz are interesting bats while Burnett, Jimenez and Santana are interesting front to middle of the rotation starting pitching options.
The Indians are at least kicking the tires on some of these players as there were reports last week that they contacted the representatives for Burnett. That is not a lot of known interest, but then again, the Indians operate with the utmost secrecy when it comes to trades and free agent signings so their true interest for many of these players is unknown.
The Indians have one unknown spot in the rotation and plan to let Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin, Shaun Marcum and Trevor Bauer duke it out for that spot this spring. But there is no question that the addition of Burnett, Jimenez or Santana to the rotation would greatly improve it and add less uncertainty. At the same time it would improve their depth by pushing all of those fifth starter candidates to Columbus or the bullpen.
The lineup looks pretty strong, but with Carlos Santana expected to play a good amount of third base and catcher this season it leaves the designated hitter spot open for a regular bat. At the moment, the plan with the DH would be to just rotate players in and out like they did last season, but there is no doubt that the addition of someone like Cruz or Morales would help the lineup and add a much needed bat to the middle of the lineup.
Of the big five remaining free agents, the three which would make the most sense for the Indians to make a last minute splash with are Burnett, Jimenez and Morales -- and in that order. Cruz looks like he is heading to Seattle and rather than sign Santana the Indians would probably prefer to resign Jimenez or take a shot at Burnett, both of whom don't have draft compensation tied to them if they sign them.
Burnett has pitched very well the last two seasons, is a frontend of the rotation starter, and most importantly will probably only require a one or two year deal to be signed. Sure, his salary on a one year deal or his per year salary on a two year deal will be costly, but his risk is reduced greatly on a short term deal. The Indians have also had interest in acquiring Burnett before and there is no doubt his addition to the rotation would suddenly make it much stronger with him, Justin Masterson and Danny Salazar anchoring the top of it.
All of this puts Burnett right into the aforementioned "aligned value" that the Indians talk about when signing a free agent. It just comes down to whether his price tag is fair and if he would even be interested in signing with the Indians.
Burnett may be the best available option to impact the roster, but Jimenez may be the easiest of them all to sign given his very limited market. The Indians are the only team that would not have to pay any draft compensation if they sign him. Also, while there are some concerns with his focus, mechanics and there are several risks involved with bringing him back, his return would still bolster the starting rotation. The key to his return may reside in the hands of the Blue Jays -- a team that is very interested in adding one or two of the remaining big name starting pitchers.
Morales is probably a long shot as he has draft compensation tied to him and the Indians appear to be set with the lineup, but he would be a nice part-time first baseman who mostly DHs but adds some much needed production to the middle of the Indians lineup, a place they are really thin with options presently. One thing to consider is he may not sign with a team until after the draft in June, which would eliminate the draft compensation. He could be a hot commodity for teams looking for a bat in advance of the trade deadline, and could be attractive to the Indians at that time.
Outside of deals for Burnett, Jimenez, Santana or Morales, the Indians probably won't offer anything more than a minor league deal to anyone else they sign. While there are several interesting second or third level free agents available like Chris Capuano and Paul Maholm, they appear to be inclined to go with the starters they have for the fifth starter role.
But can you imagine a rotation with Jimenez or Burnett added to it? Or a lineup with Morales in it?
These would be solutions to areas of uncertainty on the roster and at a significantly reduced rate on the open market. They would need to be creative with how they fit any of these players into their 2014 budget, but the Indians would be wise to strongly consider adding one of them.
The market they have an opportunity to dip into with these players is one that does not present itself often, and probably will be corrected in a few years once the current CBA expires and the league fixes the compensation process at the behest of the player's association. So the time to strike is now.
The addition of a key player this late in the free agent game might prove to be the difference to the Indians overtaking the Tigers in the division and having an even more successful showing in the postseason.