We continue our look at Central Division rivals with an off-season outlook with the third-place Cleveland Indians.
The Indians come into this off-season without a lot of holes on their roster, but with only 85 wins last year, they have lacked that extra piece to get them over the hump. Cleveland has a promising young trio as a nucleus of their rotation with Cy Young Winner Corey Kluber as well as Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer with some decent young depth with T.J. House, Zach McAllister, and Josh Tomlin battling for rotation spots. They also have solid depth in the infield with Carlos Santana at first base, Jason Kipnis at second base, Lonnie Chisenhall at third base, and Jose Ramirez at shortstop with top prospect Francisco Lindor almost MLB-ready, and utility infielders Mike Aviles and Zach Walters providing depth. They could build a solid team around slugger Carlos Santana and All-Star Michael Brantley.
The Indians forays into free agency have left them with two bad contracts on their roster in outfielders Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher. There have been rumors the Tribe would be willing to deal Swisher for another team's bad contract. The Indians were able to add some pop this week when they acquired slugger Brandon Moss from the Athletics for infielder Joe Wendle.
We asked Jason Lukehart of our sister site Let's Go Tribe to discuss Cleveland's off-season.
Royals Review: The Indians look like a pretty solid overall team with few holes. What areas would they like to address this winter?
Jason Lukehart: This week's trade for Brandon Moss addressed one of the team's biggest needs by bringing in an upgrade for right field, and one who has more power than anyone else on the team. That they were able to obtain him by giving up Joe Wendle, generally viewed as a decent prospect, but not a potential star, makes the deal feel like a big win for the Tribe.
If there's one other position the team could use an upgrade at, it's probably third base. I don't think they'll be signing or trading for anyone there though, instead hoping Lonnie Chisenhall can find a middle group between his sizzling first half at the plate and his frigid second-half numbers. The team's biggest weakness in 2014 was defense, an area in which they were the anti-Royals [ed: NEVER FORGET]. They were a lot better defensively in the second half though, and I'm hoping that improved (albeit still a bit below average) version is what we see next season.
Royals Review: The Indians look to have a terrific rotation with some depth. Will they flip any of that depth to address any needs?
Jason Lukehart: I've been wishing they'd built a deal around one of their starters to land Josh Donaldson, who would've been a great. That ship having sailed, I've actually heard they're hoping to add a little more depth. Maybe that means they are looking to move one of the guys currently penciled into the rotation, but I'm not expecting them to. The Indians just had consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 2000/2001 (Random aside: Did you know the last two years mark the first time ever that the Indians and Royals have both had winning records in consecutive seasons at the same time?), and I think the front office believes they can be real contenders in 2015, which probably rules out trading present talent for potential future gains. I don't expect the rotation options to look much different in March than they do right now.
Royals Review: Cleveland is reportedly trying to move Nick Swisher and his large contract. Could they get it done and what are they looking to get in return?
Jason Lukehart: Perhaps a proverbial bag of chips? If the Indians could get someone to take Swisher's contract off their hands, I don't think they'd care what they got back. I'd be stunned if they found any takers though, so it becomes a question of how much of the $30 million he's owed for the next two seasons the Tribe would be willing to pay in order to get someone else to pay the rest.
Royals Review: Payroll is always a concern for small market franchises. What is Cleveland looking at for a budget and how much financial flexibility will they have?
Jason Lukehart: The Indians had an Opening Day payroll of $84 million this year, and I expect it to be about the same in 2015, maybe just a little higher. If that's the case, after the Moss trade they've got something like $5-10 million to spend right now. In some ways the bigger issue is 2016. Most of the team's best position players have raises coming, and Cy Young winner Corey Kluber will be eligible for arbitration for the first time, which is not going to be cheap. With Moss on the roster, the Indians are probably projected to be overbudget for 2016 right now. Obviously there's 15 months to get that straightened out, but something is going to have to give.
Royals Review: How will the infield situation shake out? Will it be Carlos Santana or Lonnie Chisenhall at third? Jose Ramirez at shortstop? Where does Zach Walters fit in? When will Francisco Lindor be ready?
Carlos Santana didn't play any third base after May, so I think it's safe to say he's out of the running there. He'll be the team's first baseman, while probably starting at DH once a week or so, with Moss or Swisher at first base. Chisenhall should be at third base, but if he starts 2015 the way he finished 2014 at the plate, third base prospect Giovanny Urshela could be called up. He's been a plus defender at the hot corner for quite some time, and the 23-year-old had a breakout season offensively, mostly in Triple-A. Lindor is ready right now, but the Indians will wait at least a few weeks to gain an extra year of control over him. If Jose Ramirez can keep doing what he did in the field and at the plate during August and September, Lindor's wait could be longer. As a fan though, that would be a good problem to have.
The AL Central feels more winnable to me than it has in a while. I suppose if Detroit goes out and spends another $250 million, that feeling might change, but right now I'm guardedly optimistic.
Thanks to Jason Lukehart at Let's Go Tribe for talking with us. You can follow all the latest news on the Cleveland Indians at www.letsgotribe.com.