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The hot stove season begins at the Corner of Carnegie & Ontario

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There are a lot of expectations brewing outside the home offices at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario, and it all has to do with a standard that the Cleveland Indians set beginning in October of 2013.

And the clock just started ticking.

A year ago this month, the Indians started swinging for the fences.

They offered the best free agent manager an opportunity to hop on board, and he incredulously said yes.

They were able to swing a deal for the potential of a top pitching prospect in all of baseball, and didn’t have to give up much of anything to get him. Well, I know that Choo was a high price, but they were going to lose him anyways.

They were able to sign two of the top five-to-ten free agents in Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher.

There were other shrewd moves during that hot stove season that certainly were resounding by year’s end, and showcased an insightful front office that could pick out both diamond’s in the rough (Gomes) and older diamonds that just needed buffed out a bit (Ryan Raburn and Scott Kazmir).

Last offseason certainly built up the hype for the 2013 major league season, and really put the focus on the front office to continue to build the Indians into a legitimate championship contender.

If the offseason didn’t create a stir, the Indians run to the playoffs certainly did.

The team went from a 68-win team to a 92-win team, and dominated teams in the final weeks of the season to guarantee them a spot in the one-game, wildcard playoffs.

Phase one for Chris Antonetti and Terry Francona was complete.

The Indians made a significant move in this ‘new era.”

Now comes phase two.

The Cleveland Indians have to have a phase two.

In 2011, they traded for Ubaldo Jimenez, and many thought that Chris Antonetti and the Indians were making the first move of many.

Then came an offseason in which nothing was done.

Then came a trade deadline that brought the Indians Lars Anderson.

The Indians can’t follow that same path in 2014.

Here’s what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that the Indians need to sign one of the top five free agents this offseason.

I’m not even saying that the Indians need to swing one of the top three or four trades this offseason.

It would be nice, but not necessary.

They just need to continue to fill the gaps that this team has.

I talked a few weeks ago about some things that I would love to see the Indians do in 2014. Those were just some personal beliefs with regards to some players on the 2013 roster or in the minors that could make a major impact.

I still believe in everything I said in that piece.

I also have been engulfed in a study of all the free agent pieces that will be available to the Indians over the next couple of months, as well as prospective trade partners.

While it’s not really conducive to waste the time pondering the Kendrys Morales’ of the world while the World Series is still being played, it’s what we do.

The Indians set the bar high in 2013.

The expectations are that it was the start of the improvements, but certainly not the end.

What will this offseason really bring?

At the end of the day, it’s impossible to look at the free agent market with any clarity based upon the simple fact that the only three or four potential free agents that the Indians are likely dealing with right now are internal.

As has been mentioned several times by myself and several other writers much better than myself, the Indians have to figure out what they are going to do with their 2014 starting rotation. Until that hand is played, there will be no movement whatsoever. How much money they spend (or don’t spend) on Scott Kazmir, Joe Smith and Ubaldo Jimenez will ultimately decide the fate of this coming offseason. In dealing with this three, they will indirectly be dealing with Justin Masterson as well, who will become a free agent after the 2014 season.

They also have to decide what to do with Chris Perez. Will they allow him to come back, in which he’ll be an arbitration eligible player who will command something in the area of $10 million a year? That’s doubtful.

What does this mean?

They may not have the money to go after a certain tier of free agents, or they may have more money than they know how to do with.

Imagine a scenario in which Ubaldo Jimenez, Scott Kazmir and Joe Smith all walk, and Chris Perez is shoved out the door. If that happens, the Indians will be in a similar situation that they were in during the offseason last year. Sure, their payroll will be over what it was last season based on pay increases and the Bourn and Swisher deals, but they’ll have plenty of cash to spend on their needs in the free agent market. Plenty may be an over-exaggeration, but both starting pitchers have the potential to swallow up $20-25 million in payroll should the Indians sign them, and you could add another four-to-five million with regards to Smith. If you add on the ten million, give-or-take, that you’d spend for Perez, and you would have some money to play with.

No, I’m not saying they’d have $35-$40 million straight-up, but they’d certainly have more flexibility.

I’m just not sure that the free agent market is worthy of the excitement that having cash flexibility would bring. It would, however, let the Indians take a good look at the top free agents.

The downside is that the Indians would then be in the market for a starting pitcher or two, unless you think that a rotation of Masterson, Kluber, Salazar, Masterson and Tomlin/Bauer/Carrasco is good enough.

The Indians could also sign just one of Jimenez and Kazmir, figuring that with the above mentioned starting rotation, both Kazmir and Jimenez would be a surplus.

Jimenez will be voiding his $8 million dollar option within the next day or two, and then the Indians will most definitely counter with a one-year, $14.1-million qualifying offer immediately after. As a matter of fact, I’m sure that this has already been discussed with Jimenez and his agent, and could be an extremely quick and fluid situation.

The question will then be where Jimenez goes from there, and it really could be anywhere.

Tim Lincecum, who shares many of the same plusses and minuses as Ubaldo Jimenez recently signed a two-year, $35-million contract with the San Francicso Giants. Both Lincecum and Jimenez had a two-year stretch or so in which they struggled, after they were dominating aces prior.

Lincecum was the superior pitcher prior to the slump, winning two Cy Young awards, but Jimenez wasn’t far behind him.

Jimenez was the far superior pitcher for much of 2013.

What will Jimenez be looking for?

Let’s get this straight right from the start: the Indians won’t be signing Ubaldo to a two-year, $35 million dollar deal, and someone else will. The key will be if the Indians have already figured this all out with Jimenez and his agent, and have a deal already in mind.

If not, Jimenez will be gone, and I think this will play itself out fairly quickly.

If Jimenez isn’t signed, then the Indians will likely move to Kazmir. What they do with him will be even murkier. My guess is that they would want Kazmir for another one-year deal, but Kaz will want two. Michael Hattery assessed his value very well a couple of weeks back, but I don’t think the Indians will want to spend big money on the lefty. If they could get him anywhere from a two-year, $16-million dollar contract, to a two-year, $20 million dollar contract, I think they’ll do it.

I think the potential to sign Joe Smith is there as well, but truly believe that the priority will be on the starters, and the Indians do have cheaper options than Smith.

I like Smith, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve never believed in giving big money to relievers. They are far from consistent, and I do believe you can find similar value with much less cash.

If the Indians can manage to sign one of the two starters, which I believe is their goal, then the Indians will lose a lot of their free agent freedom. In this case, you’ll see the Indians looking for the Scott Kazmir’s of the world this offseason, with perhaps a Brett Myers/Mark Reynolds’ type contract in the mix as well (hopefully with a tinge more success than with those two).

Then there’s the unlikely scenario in which the Indians are able to sign both Kazmir and Jimenez. For that to happen, I would have to sign both starters to the low-end side of their contracts. Kazmir would have to come in at $8-million a year, and Jimenez in the $10-$12-million a year. Even at that cost, the Indians would be sinking much, if not all of their free agent money into two starters.

That’s an unlikely scenario, but without knowing the true nature of the Indians 2014 internal cap, there could either be more money than last season (likely), or even less.

My guess is that the Indians have a soft cap, and are working under the conditions that should opportunity arise, they will sign a player that can help them get to the next level.

It’s a forward thinking approach that started last year. The Indians attacked the market and were able to make the changes they wanted when the opportunity presented itself. The organization had initial offers, and fallback options when those options didn’t pan out. They also had a timeline that seemed to be very structured.

By the first of the year, or just thereafter, the Indians essentially had made all the moves that were necessary for the 2013 season. Sure, Michael Bourn came on board in February, but I’m firmly under the belief that his signing was one of opportunity. When he was still available, and at a price that was a lot more reasonable than was initially thought, the Indians went over their supposed payroll threshold.

What happens in the first couple of weeks this offseason will set the tone for the rest of the hot stove season.

Will the Indians have the ultimate flexibility after NOT signing their two most visible free agents?

Will the Indians split that flexibility by signing one?

Do the Indians believe that they need to keep the current team intact by signing both, then exploring trades and internal options?

What is clear is that the Indians aren’t the same team as they were last September and prior.

What is clear is that there is a solid plan in place and that the Indians have likely been formatting their options since October 3rd.

They’ll be ready.

The question is whether or not they can continue to alter their past of inactivity and lack of results. How much difference will Terry Francona continue to make?

This is the year we’ll find out.

The Indians are winners.

The front office had more hits than misses.

The team has a solid nucleus.

But we’ve been here before.

The Indians were there in the 1990s, but were never able to find the elite pitcher that could push them over the edge.

The Indians were there in 2005, when they were clearly an elite team at the end of the year, but failed to make the playoffs because of sluggish stretches.

The Indians were there in 2007, when they were one game from the World Series, and likely a World Series they would have won.

They are there again in 2013.

Is this the year the Indians continue down the path to the World Series, or will all the doors on expectations be slammed shut.

We should know that answer very…very…soon…

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