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Plenty of movement at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario

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Carlos Santana (photo: Jim Mone/AP)

Carlos Santana (photo: Jim Mone/AP)

Major League Baseball’s 2013 Winter Meetings are set to officially kick off tomorrow, on December 9th, at Walt Disney’s World Swan and Dolphin Resort in Orlando, Florida. While things have been quiet since the David Murphy signing a couple of weeks ago at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario, the rest of baseball has blown the doors off of free agency with a slew of signings that have taken place over the past few weeks.

Off the board is Robinson Cano, who is heading to the Great Northwest to play for the Seattle Mariners to the tune of ten years and $240 million dollars. The Cano signing came on the heels of Jacoby Ellsbury signing with Cano’s old team, the New York Yankees, for seven-years and $153 million. This is after the Yankees had signed former Braves’ catcher Brian McCann to a five-year, $85 million dollar deal and Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year, $16 million dollar deal. Oh wait, we aren’t done yet. The Evil Empire also signed Carlos Beltran to a three-year, $45 million dollar deal.

According to www.mlbtradrumors.com, those players represent four of the top 12 players that were free agents. You could argue that they were a lot higher than that.

The Tigers have been busy as well, dealing Prince Fielder to the Rangers for Ian Kinsler, and trading Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals for a potential star in left hander Robbie Ray, Steve Lombardozzi (a back-up infielder) and Ian Krol (a lefty reliever). They then signed closer Joe Nathan to a two-year, $20 million deal.

And how about the Twins. They unleashed a four year, $49 million dollar deal to Ricky Nolasco, then followed that up with a three-year, $24 million dollar deal to Phil Hughes.

I could continue discussing all of the signings that have taken place inside and outside the American League Central since the hot stove season began, but I just don’t feel like analyzing all of the exorbitant amounts of money that has been spent by a variety of teams that normally break the bank (who said the Yankees weren’t going to spend freely anymore?), and all of the odd teams that have dipped their feet into the free spending pool known as 2013-2014 free agency (yeah, you Houston an Minnesota).

Some of the moves have been prudent, and some of the moves have been idiotic, but all of the moves have been relatively chaotic.

It’s a different dance than last year, but one that you can never really predict, can you?

What have the Indians done so far?

They’ve signed David Murphy to a two-year, $12 million deal. They’ve re-signed Jason Giambi to a minor league deal. They’ve watched Scott Kazmir sign with the Oakland A’s for two-years and $22 million. They’ve watched Joe Smith sign with the Los Angeles Angels for three-years and $15.75 million.

They’ve watched a market that they predicted would go off the map one-year ago, when they took advantage of a softer market that was trying to figure out how to handle the new draft-pick compensation rules for players that were tendered qualifying offers by their respective teams.

I admire the Indians foresight last season, when they seemingly made ten more moves than they had over the past three or four seasons combined.

Okay, take out the seemingly.

They did, and it worked.

The Indians furious charge in September got them into the playoffs for the first time since 2007, and left a fan base hungry for more.

The question remains though: What will that “more” look like?

The Indians needs heading into this offseason after it became apparent that they weren’t going to sign any of their major free agents were clear. They needed to sign an outfielder who could likely play right field. They needed to replace Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, who were arguably their best pitchers in September. They needed to bulk up a bullpen that was already shaky before they lost Joe Smith and non-tendered Chris Perez.

The Murphy deal was a sound move, and while it wasn’t splashy, he should rebound in 2014 and give the Indians better offense than folks expect, and be an outstanding defender.

Like the Mike Aviles move in 2012, the Murphy deal gives the Indians versatility and options. My immediate thought when they signed Aviles was that they could really begin to shop Asdrubal Cabrera if they wanted to, which is exactly what they did. They didn’t want to deal him per se, but it allowed them the flexibility to explore that option.

In doing so, they were able to swing a deal with the Reds and the Diamondbacks to acquire Bryan Shaw, Matt Albers and Trevor Bauer. They were able to make the deal without losing Cabrera, and while that looks like idiocy today, it was heralded by everybody as brilliant back then.

It really was brilliant. You can’t blame Antonetti for Asdrubal Cabrera playing like garbage. He had two years of control, and would allow the Indians to pull of another deal for their shortstop, if it ever came up.

Fast forward to 2013.

The current Indians outfield is jam packed full of really good players. Michael Brantley holds down the outfield spot, and is a much better player than his obvious numbers suggest. Michael Hattery and I discussed this very point in our latest Cleveland Sports Insiders podcast. In center, you have Michael Bourn, who is slated to make $13.5 million in 2014, and is coming of a year in which he’ll either rebound, or spiral into the abyss known as bust-ville. In right you have David Murphy, Ryan Raburn and Drew Stubbs, who should also serve as a backup to all three outfield positions.

It’s a lot of flexibility.

It’s a lot of value.

It’s the same situation that the Indians had entering the Winter Meetings in 2012.

Before we explore that a bit, let’s back up and discuss the Indians money strategy, because I think there’s some misconception with regards to this year’s mentality, as opposed to past years.

In the past, as I’ve documented several times, the Cleveland Indians have capped their money and done nothing during the offseason. In 2006 and 2008, the Indians saw a wide-open window slammed shut. It was most distressing in 2006, when a key signing or two could have elevated a team that ultimately regained its mojo in 2007, and nearly went to the World Series. Imagine what happens if that team was supplemented in 2006.

The 2006 season would have been better, and the 2007 season could have gone in a completely different direction than it ultimately did.

The Indians are in a very similar position as they were back in 2006. This Indians’ team is certainly built to win, even now. I think it’s a safe bet to say that in its current construction, and with Terry Francona as manager, this team can win 82-85 ballgames, and with an influx of youth, has some longevity as well.

Now taking all of that into account and fast forwarding to today, the Indians have a chance to do some damage heading into 2014.

Understand this. The Cleveland Indians will spend money if it makes sense.

That’s the difference.

Their definition of “making sense” may differ from many of us, but they’ll spend money if they see fit. They’ll make deals if they make sense. They will improve this team.

In my estimation, the one deal that I would have made that this front office chose not to was the Scott Kazmir deal. I know there are several people that won’t really read this piece and will pick apart that one sentence, and that’s fine. The simple piece of the puzzle for me is that I firmly believe Scott Kazmir can be a steal at that amount of money. I get that he missed two years. I get that it is a risk. I get that $22 million is a lot of money.

I also believe that there’s more to the puzzle than the gaps people keep bringing up.

But that’s not the point of my piece today.

My point is that Antonetti didn’t see it as the type of deal that the Indians should make.

While I don’t agree with it, I do understand the questions with regards to Kazmir, and I also understand that he has other options that are likely more apparent to him than to me at this point.

Antonetti enters the 2013 Winter Meetings with a similar deck of cards as last year with regards to a willingness to make moves, and the ability to make a trade. The major difference is that now, he has a team that only needs tinkering, and not an overhaul.

If a trade becomes available to take on salary, and it improves the Indians and gives them a controllable piece or two that can have impact on the major league roster, Antonetti will make that move.

Trust me.

Trust Terry Francona.

He wouldn’t have joined this team without that promise from his good friend and colleague.

In 2006 and 2008, Eric Wedge didn’t have that type of collateral with Mark Shapiro. Wedge was a good-enough manager (arguable), but certainly was never in the realm of respect, friendship and ultimately never had the voice that Francona has had since he became a manager with the Red Sox in 2004.

The Indians don’t want to spend more than $85 million, but they will.

The Indians don’t necessarily want to deal Drew Stubbs or Michael Bourn, but they will.

The Indians know they are selling low on Asdrubal Cabrera, but they will sell low if they can bring in a cost effective and more importantly, a tangible piece to apply to the 2014 puzzle.

If that’s a reliever, so be it.

If that’s a starter, so be it.

If that’s something else that the Indians aren’t talking about, so be it.

This isn’t the same team that let the general public down after making runs in the past. This isn’t the same front office.

Don’t trust me, trust the action.

Antonetti came out at the beginning of the free agent period swinging.

The first message sent was the signing of Jason Giambi, and the release of Chris Perez.

Keep a quality voice in the locker, and get rid of one that had worn out his welcome.

No, I don’t think either one of those moves are a major factor on the field, but they certainly continued that move forward mentality that they showcased last season.

Yan Gomes was named the starting catcher, which immediately meant that Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana would be sharing the DH and the first base roles. There was no hesitation to the move, which lets you know exactly what Francona thinks of Gomes and his ability to maintain his level of play from 2013.

Last year, Mark Reynolds looked like he was going to be a semi-regular at first base. Now we have Swisher and Santana.

Defensively, the catcher position is in good hands. Offensively, first base and DH have never looked better.

Antonetti then came out and said that the Indians needed a left-handed outfielder, a back-end reliever and a starter, in that order.

Almost immediately after, they signed David Murphy, and under-the-radar guy that most sabrmetric fans love, and so should you. He’s a Terry Francona guy (seriously), and a guy that can fill any role that he needs to.

He’s this season’s Ryan Raburn, but likely with more upside and flexibility. He only cost the Indians $6 million dollars, which is one million less than Mark Reynolds cost last year, by the way.

Brilliant may be hyperbole here, but it certainly was a smart and shrewd signing. No, it wasn’t the massive splash that someone like John Hart would have perhaps made, but it was a really good baseball move.

And it gave this team flexibility.

There have been other rumblings as well with this team, that should fill other holes that I haven’t mentioned yet.

Carlos Santana offered to play third base.

When I initially saw that statement, I couldn’t help but cringe. Part of it was because it came off the heels of Jesus Aguilar playing third base. Part of it was because, well, Carlos Santana offered to play third base.

Then I thought about it.

Bare minimum, how phenomenal is the attitude that would make last year’s starting catcher say, “Hey, I think I can help out at third base, let’s give it a try.”

How many people do that these days?

Francona, ever the media specialist, tempered expectations. “He’s going to go over there and play a little third, just to see. It can’t hurt anything. If he wants to go over there and do that, all that can really happen is positive.”

I’d say.

Santana is looked at as an offensive weapon by the Indians’ management, as he should be. He’s an impact player, and now will be working with third-base coach Mike Sarbaugh in the Dominican to see if this project can’t become something more permanent.

It’s funny.

My Cleveland Sports Insiders buddies discussed dealing Santana for a third baseman prior to the offseason. Now, before you get all hot and bothered by the shear mention of dealing Santana, it’s not because I don’t like him, value him, or think he’s a good player (my goodness, that sounded like something straight from Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night fame). It’s the exact opposite.

With Gomes performing, the thinking was that the Indians may be able to deal for a third baseman with similar skills, allowing the team to better balance their numbers.

I never thought that Santana could play third at the big league level.

The fact that Sarbaugh is going to be Santana’s best friend for the foreseeable future lets me know that the cart isn’t before the horse.

I’d be intrigued with a Santana and Chisenhall platoon at third base.

Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Indians found a third basemen in the coming weeks, as well.

Offensively, this team has upside.

Yan Gomes will likely regress offensively this year, but is that really a major impact to this team going forward? He played in 88 games in 2013, and while they were impactful, it’s not like Gomes was the focal point of the offense.

He could be a star in the making. Time will tell.

At first base, I don’t think anyone believes that Nick Swisher is done yet, and while his numbers turned into something more normal than most thought, if he’s healthy, he will be better.

Carlos Santana is just good, and will continue to be good.

Jason Kipnis is nowhere near as good as he could be, and while last year was a great season for the Indians second baseman, we haven’t seen the tip of the iceberg.

Whoever plays at shortstop this year, whether it be Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Asdrubal Cabrera, Mike Aviles or a combination of all four, it can’t get any worse than last year.

I know that Cabrera’s numbers were similar to 2012’s numbers for the most part, but are you kidding me? He wasn’t that good in 2012, and was an absolute hole in the offense last year. I’ve never seen more meaningless hits in all of my life. Cabrera is terrible, and he needs to go. But, the good thing here is that he’s likely bottomed out. It can’t get any worse.

Oh, I know, he’ll bounce back in his contract year…yada…yada…yada. My Dad always used to tell me to wish in one hand and…well…you get my point.

Third is up for debate, but it was worse than short offensively. My goodness, can I pray for Super Jack Hannahan again? I do think that Chisenhall can be better, and am intrigued by Santana. Aviles is always an option as well.

In the outfield, I’m bullish on everyone.

Michael Brantley has improved every year, and that will continue. No, he may not hit a million with runners in scoring position, but I do believe that he has more ability that many give him credit for. The Indians and Francona feel that way as well.

Michael Bourn wasn’t very good last year, and people point to the trends in saying he can’t rebound, and will continue to regress.

I don’t disbelieve that, but do think there’s enough question to actually say he could prove to be worthy of his $13.5 million dollars, especially taking into account the money that’s gone out to outfielders in recent weeks.

David Murphy is going to be a major factor for the Indians, and Hattery’s analysis of the move with regards to ballpark factor is brilliant, and correct.

Raburn is going to regress, but the Indians signed Murphy to play more than Raburn. The balance will make a really good right field. Don’t forget about Drew Stubbs, who provides incredible value.

The Indians offense is good, and has the potential to be better…especially if they subtract Asdrubal Cabrera out of it.

The focus will be on pitching over the next week, and whether or not the Indians can sign someone they trust to supplement their returning starters.

There is also questions about their current starters that nobody really wants to answer.

Last year, if I said, Corey Kluber was a long-term solution as a starting pitcher, you’d have laughed me off the planet. He was borderline dominant over a short period of time in 2013. Now, if I said Corey Kluber has questions about being a permanent starter in 2014 and beyond, people will laugh me off the planet.

I’m a big believer in a body of work.

He’s yet to prove that to me.

He’s our #3 starter as of now.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m just saying there are questions there.

Zach McAllister is our number four.

There are questions there.

Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer or flipping Josh Tomlin is our number five.

There are questions there.

I’m buoyed by the fact that Justin Masterson and Danny Salazar are out top two starters. One will prove to be an ace. The other will continue to be the most consistently good starter in the rotation.

There are questions with the rest, even if you don’t want to believe it.

The Indians have to address that, and I think they can in a cost effective manner, either by trading or signing someone.

Antonetti will, if the right player is there. Eventually there will be a right player.

The bullpen needs some veteran leadership, and I’m not as concerned about the back-end as many are. The Indians will find their Matt Albers. The Indians will likely find their Joe Smith. I think the Indians will even find a veteran to close, although it could be a guy that doesn’t enter the equation until July or so, because of injury (I’m sure you can figure out the couple of guys I mean there, with a little research).

Antonetti will fill those holes.

Because that’s what the Indians do. They march to the beat of their own drum, and don’t let the market dictate their policy. If they can improve, they will, it’ll just look a bit different than the rest.

I don’t believe the Indians will sign Justin Masterson to a long-term deal, as many are speculating. I believe this for two reasons. First off, Masterson has eyes. He sees what pitchers that may be valued beneath him are signing. He’s not going to take less than what’s out there to stay in Cleveland. Secondly, when do the Indians sign starters to long-term deals who are over 30?

Never.

If you get a chance, check out IBI’s sister site, www.clevelandsportsinsiders.com. It’s a site that the podcasters of Cleveland Sports Insiders built to give us an avenue to talk other sports other than the Indians, but also to add some interesting Indians content as well. For example, I’m currently revisiting a piece that I did four years ago on the Indians All-Decade team, called the All-Aught Indians. My goal is to meander through the 26-piece series and revisit it with the help of some folks at IBI and CSI and see if Metrics may change the ultimate end game.

I’m also going to take a look at the player of the decade once it’s all done.

Don’t forget about the C.S.I. podcasts as well. Two are in the coffers as we speak, and will be going up today and tomorrow respectively. Also look for guest gigs from Steve Kinsella, Jacob Rosen, Al Ciammaichella and others over the coming weeks. I can’t wait to talk Indians specifically, Cleveland Sports in general, and well, anything else that may come up.

Smoke Signals will be kicking into gear as well, with the advent of the Winter Meetings, so look for Tony Lastoria and I to break down what’s what at some point over the next week.

Last but not least, I want to send a shout out to my good friend and brother Steve Orbanek. Without getting into too much detail, he has been out of commision here at IBI and at C.S.I. for several weeks while he is taking care of his wonderful family back home in Pennsylvania. He will be back at some point, but please keep him in your thoughts and prayers over the holidays, and I know that I speak for everyone Steve when I say that I can’t wait to see Orbiting Cleveland gracing the front page of IBI and CSI once again.

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