We’re just a short ways away from the MLB’s Hot Stove season kicking into full-swing, which means that we can now officially start to think about who the Cleveland Indians should go after in free agency.
So who do you got?
Of course, many of us can long for the chances that the Indians sign Carlos Beltran or Nelson Cruz, but we know that the chances of either of those signings happening seems a tad unrealistic. That’s just not how the Indians operate.
As a small-market team, the Indians have no choice but to be creative in the way they approach free agency, and that will assuredly be true this season.
We know that one of the most pressing needs for the Tribe is a legitimate power hitter, but we’ve also already touched on the complications that surround that need. Acquiring legitimate power bats is not a cheap endeavor, and it’s almost impossible to believe that the Indians will be able to get into a bidding war with some of the other MLB teams.
So where does a team like the Indians go for solutions?
There’s plenty of second-tier type free agents out there, but one of the first players that comes to mind is first baseman Corey Hart. Make no mistake about it, this type of signing would have the Indians written all over it.
For years, Hart has been a very productive power hitter for the Milwaukee Brewers. The majority of his playing time was spent at right field, but the right-handed hitter then made the move to first base in 2012.
As we all know, Hart has unfortunately not played since the 2012 season. He is coming off surgery on both of his knees, so it’s fair to say that there are some serious question marks that surround him.
Yet, the upside to Hart cannot be denied. For his career, the Bowling Green, KY, native owns a .276/.334/.491 line. Also, in the last three seasons that he’s actually played, Hart has hit at least 26 home runs in each of them.
While it’s true that there are sexier power hitters on the market, do you really see the Indians making a play at any of those players?
Robinson Cano? Uhh… Is it even worth mentioning him?
Mike Napoli? Seems unlikely.
Carlos Beltran? I wish.
Nelson Cruz? Possible? Sure. Probable? No.
Then there are also some other names that the Indians could actually have a chance at. It’s not inconceivable to think that the team could land players like Kendrys Morales, Marlon Byrd, Jhonny Peralta and Justin Morneau. But do any of them have the potential upside of a signing like Hart if the longtime Milwaukee Brewer is indeed healthy?
The other thing to consider here is money. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that the Indians need to sign at least one of their two starting pitcher free agents in Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir. But we also know that starting pitching does not come cheap, and both Kazmir and Jimenez are locks to get paid big this offseason.
For a small-market team like the Indians, it makes sense to be more creative in its pursuit of a power hitter because then the team will have more money at its disposal to use to try to retain Jimenez or Kazmir.
Given his status, we know that Hart is not going to receive a huge payday this offseason. In fact, it seems probable that he’ll have to settle for a one-year deal with incentives before reentering the free agent market next season when his value is reestablished.
We know the Tribe’s top need outside of starting pitching is to lockdown a middle-of-the-order bat, and Hart may fit the bill. What makes an acquisition like this even better is the fact that the Indians may be able to receive him at a price that is more than manageable.
The only hesitation in making such a move is the knee injuries that Hart is coming off. He did not play in 2013, so we have to go back to 2012 to get a read on what he brings to the table.
As the table below indicates, a healthy Hart clearly brings a lot to a team in terms of power.
(Graph courtesy of FanGraphs)
Throughout his entire career, he has essentially posted an above-average ISO, and he does profile as a legitimate power hitter. Also, from 2010 to 2012 (the last three seasons he’s played), Hart has averaged an ISO of .235. Compare that to the three-year averages of some of the Indians’current “power hitters” (These numbers are from 2011 to 2013):
Indeed, the numbers do not lie. A healthy Hart would be a significant upgrade in the power department over any of the current players on the Indians.
Like many power hitters, Hart is prone to strikeouts. He also does not walk all that much either. However, despite his flaws, he does still manage to get on-base at a slightly above average clip. The graph below shows that it’s not like we’d have another Mark Reynolds on our hands with the acquisition of Hart.
(Graph courtesy of FanGraphs)
Although, the best thing about signing Hart is that it essentially allows he Tribe to get BMW value at a Chevy price. Ask yourself this, what if Hart was not injured and was coming off a fourth-straight season where he hit at least 26 home runs?
What do you think his price tag would be then? I think it’s clear that the Indians probably wouldn’t be talking to him.
The one negative with Hart is that he likely can no longer play the outfield and would probably be relegated to first base and designated hitter. That may require that the Indians get a bit creative, but this could also be an opportunity for the Indians to look into dealing Michael Bourn.
If Bourn were dealt and Hart was signed, Swisher could then slide back over to right field while Drew Stubbs could move over to center. Even if Bourn is retained, the Indians could look into moving Stubbs into the fourth-outfielder role and then have Swisher return to right field.
Either way, it’s clear that the Indians would be a better team with Hart than without him.
So, with that being said, what’s to stop the Indians from making such a deal? All the positives have been outlined, and it does seem as if this type of signing makes sense for both sides. The Indians would be able to attain a legitimate power bat while Hart would get to reestablish his value for one year on a contending team. Simply put, a move of this nature just seems to make sense.
Unfortunately, the one thing standing in the way of getting a deal like this done may be Hart himself.
In interviews, he has expressed his desire to return to Milwaukee and has even said that he would be willing to offer the Brewers a hometown discount to return. Yep, there’s another positive for Hart — character — he clearly has it.
Players entering free agency typically don’t go on record of using the terms “hometown discount,” but that’s exactly what Hart said, so we really have no choice but to take him at his word.
MLB Trade Rumors estimates that Hart could be in line for a contract in the range of one-year, $8 million with incentives, but it would likely have to be less than that if he is indeed serious about offering the Brewers a hometown discount.
If that’s the case, the Indians may have to up the ante and offer him a one-year deal worth between $9-10 million. It may be a hefty price for a player coming of two knee injuries, but the reward seems to outweigh the risk.
Somehow, the Indians are just going to have to sell Hart on the notion that signing with Cleveland is more beneficial than a return to Milwaukee. Even when they’ve been a contending team, the Indians have never been exactly great at luring in free agents, so this may be where the Terry Francona factor comes into effect.
We saw how Francona played key role in helping the team attain Swisher and Bourn last season, so now we’ll have to see him try to again spin that magic wand this offseason.
There are a number of free agents that the Indians and Francona will likely be after, but it’s hard to find one that may be a more ideal fit than Hart.