2009 Season: 65-97, tied for last place in the AL Central with the Royals (uh oh).
Jamey Carroll (UTIL) – Signed with the Dodgers. Carroll played in 93 games last year, seeing time at 2B, 3B and a number of OF spots. While his defensive versatility was nice, having taken over the super-utility role after the departure of Mark DeRosa, Carroll sported a .276/.355/.340 line last year, which despite a decent OBP is obviously not a huge offensive loss.
Kelly Shoppach (C) – Shoppach was traded to Tampa Bay for pitcher Mitch Talbot. Shoppach had a great 2008, with 21 homers and a .865 OPS, but struggled at the plate last year. This was a cost saving move, albeit not a huge one, but this gives the starting catcher job to Lou Marson for the time being until stud prospect Carlos Santana is ready to take over.
OK, this is going to be a pretty paltry section. Cleveland was definitely not a player in the market this winter, and the closest they got to a truly meaningful addition was coming in second in the Orlando Hudson sweepstakes (sorry Russ, no disrespect).
Russell Branyan (1B) - Branyan had a career year last year, topping 30 homers and slugging .520 for the Mariners. However, a late season slump and a season-ending back injury soured a lot of potential suitors, leading him to eventually sign a one-year, $2MM deal with Cleveland, a team he played for from 1998-2002. This definitely isn't terrible for the Indians as Branyan has shown he can provide some pop when healthy, and it doesn't entail a lot of risk at only $2MM. He'll likely see time at 1B and DH, but can also play 3B in a pinch.
Talent En Route (thanks as always to Kevin Goldstein at BP):
In light of the Indians' offseason moves in the last few years, they are obviously hoping that some of their minor league talent will be able to produce soon. Keith Law ranked the Indians' farm system the fourth-best in baseball, and while I think that may be a slight over-ranking, there is definitely a lot of upside and depth, if perhaps not a great deal of "star" potential outside of the guy listed below.
Carlos Santana (C) – This guy could be a good one. A really good one. Ranked as the Indians' only five-star prospect by Baseball Prospectus, Santana has one of the best bats in the minors. Kevin Goldstein of BP said that "Santana's bat is so special that if he was a first-base prospect, he'd still be elite." Much like the Yankees' Jesus Montero, there is still a great deal of room for improvement to be made in Santana's defense and game-calling skills, but Santana has a great mix of power to all fields and outstanding plate discipline. He posted a .monster 290/.423/.530 line with 23 homers at AA last year, and will start the year at AAA. A late summer call-up is definitely not out of the question.
Alex White (RHP) – White was the Indians' first-round pick in the 2009 draft out of the University of North Carolina. He features a 92-95 mph fastball and a splitter with good movement that is probably his best pitch. There are concerns about the smoothness of his mechanics, but the lack of depth of pitching at the major-league level means that there shouldn't be many barriers to a quick rise through the system.
Michael Brantley (OF) - One of the few outfielders ranked among Cleveland's top prospects, Brantley profiles as your typical-leadoff-hitter-sorta-guy. He's got good plate discipline, great speed and will steal a ton of bases. His range is solid at all outfield positions, but his arm is pretty weak, not to mention the fact that his power is pretty non-existent. Is Brantley going to be the second coming of Kenny Lofton? Probably not, but could be a pretty good everyday player if he can keep up his on-base ways.
Ahhhh, the glory days.
2011 Free Agency and Salary Outlook, by (sic)
At the end of the 2010 season, the Indians will have approximately $27M come off the books, not factoring in arbitration raises to guys like Jeremy Sowers, Shin Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera. Unfortunately for the Indians, they have $13M committed to Travis Hafner in 2011 and 2012 and $6.2M to Fausto Carmona in 2011. Despite that, they will have a very low payroll going into the offseason. Will they spend more? Let's go around the diamond.
C - The Indians have two big-time prospects at Catcher in Lou Marson and Carlos Santana. Marson was a part of the deal that sent Cliff Lee to Philadelphia at last year's trade deadline, and put up a moderately impressive line at Triple A in 2009 of .277/.361.360. Obviously, he has OBP skills but little power. Marson is a stopgap, and should hold down C until Santana arrives. Carlos Santana is a five-star prospect, and was ranked 8th of all MLB prospects by Kevin Goldstein in his Top 101 Prospects list on 3/3/10. As a 23 year old in Double A, he posted a .290/.423/.530 line and will begin the year at Triple A. There are defensive concerns about Santana, but his bat is so good that he should reach the bigs in late 2010 or early 2011. The Indians should have no need to pursue a FA catcher in the 2010-2011 FA market, and they should get tremendous value for their money for the next few years.
1B - Well, the Indians have a 1B in-waiting with Matt LaPorta, whom they acquired from Milwaukee in the CC Sabathia deal, but signed Russell Branyan to a 1 year, 2M deal with a 2011 option this offseason. If I was an Indians fan, I would not be pleased with this. LaPorta now has to battle fellow prospect Michael Brantley for the only remaining spot on the diamond, LF. The loser of the battle may see themselves demoted to AAA. LaPorta has an advanced bat, and even though he's subpar defensively, I would think the Indians would want to see what they have in him. That said, the Indians have a logjam at 1B, so I can't see them pursuing another FA.
2B - The Indians have Luis Valbuena penciled in as the 2B starter for 2010. Valbuena isn't much of a prospect, and I would be surprised if he improved much on his .250/.298/.416 line from 2009. I could see the Indians targeting a 2B in the free agent market.
SS and 3B - Asdrubal Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta have it locked down.
LF - As I mentioned, the Indians created a battle for LF between Michael Brantley and Matt LaPorta. LaPorta should win it, by virtue of the fact that he can rake. This means that Brantley will be demoted and LaPorta will be playing a position at which he has no experience. Given the knocks on his defense at 1B, I recommend you cover your eyes. It's going to be ugly out there. Now, if LaPorta hits and the Indians decide to move him back to 1B in 2011, you could see the Indians consider a LF free agent target next winter. It depends, though, on how well Brantley and LaPorta do.
CF - Grady Sizemore. Next.
RF - Shin Soo Choo. Let the AL in VORP for RFers in 2009, and will be a cheap source of value for the Indians in the coming years.
DH - Hafner is signed through 2012. Indians have to be regretting that one.
SP - With Jake Westbrook scheduled to become a free agent after the 2010 campaign, the Indians will have Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson, David Huff, Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers and Carlos Carrasco under team control. Given the injury and performance risk associated with these names, it might make sense for them to pursue an innings-eater type.
Now, all of this is conjecture. It really depends on how well the prospects do. If Santana and LaPorta succeed in the bigs in 2010, if Sizemore stays healthy, if their pitching prospects take a step forward, then you could see that the Indians might be a fringe competitor in 2011. Signing some free agent targets might push them up into the 80-90 win range, and into playoff competition. However, if they struggle in 2010, and the Mark Shapiro doesn't see them as a contender in 2011, then expect to see them eschew the expensive free agent targets and keep their 2011 payroll low in anticipation of 2012.
The Future of the Indians:
If you're looking for the Indians to contend within the next few years, you probably have another thing coming. It certainly seems that they are plenty content to not sign established free agents and rely on their farm system to produce young, cheap talent. Like (sic) noted, it's not out of the realm of possibility for them to pursue some free agents to push them into contention in a year or two, but that's going to rest on seeing a lot of promising signs from the current squad. Should those signs indicate less-than-stellar trends, the front office may very well seek out ways to dump some of the more expensive contracts they have left, including Hafner and Kerry Wood, or not picking up Pheralta's 2011 option for $7MM. However, if you take a long-term view, there certainly is enough depth in the Indians' farm system to field a solid, young and inexpensive team 3-4 years down the line, with enough payroll space to make signing (as opposed to trading) a big-name free agent a reality. It's really all going to hinge on whether the young talent in the system can produce at an MLB level, which most people in the know will tell you can be a crapshoot. Regardless, I'd at least look for Cleveland to improve on last year's dismal showing. As a fan of another AL Central team, however, I'm not looking in my rear view mirror just yet.