In what will in probability be the story of the offseason, the Indians are preparing to negotiate a contract extension with CC Sabathia.
What makes this so difficult for the Indians is that Sabathia is not only accomplished, but will be eligible for free agency at a very young age. While Johan Santana, who will also be eligible for free agency after the 2008 season, is probably the better pitcher at this point in their respective careers, Sabathia is also two years younger. CC has also shown almost unprecedented durability, which may convince teams otherwise against giving long-term contracts to pitchers to offer a six or seven-year deal. If Barry Zito was able to land a seven-year contract, then with another healthy season seven years almost has to be a given for Sabathia.
I don't believe the annual salary will be that much of an obstacle for the Indians, even though that will mean the eventual exit of a couple core players in future years. If one must save money in order to win, it's much easier to do it by surrounding Sabathia with young and cheap talent than by using the savings procured by Sabathia's departure to sign a couple substandard replacements. From a tactical standpoint, the Indians will be best-served to use the payroll they have to keep the players they develop. And Sabathia should the prime example of that strategy.
The problem arises in the risk that comes with giving a pitcher, any pitcher, a contract of the length Sabathia will demand. Yes, most free agent contracts assume that their last years will be spent paying a shell of the player that signed it. It seems to part of doing business in the free agent era. But the major risk in giving out a long-term deal is not erosion of ability, but a career-threatening injury. Sabathia's young age shouldn't make natural career regression an issue. But durability, even for a pitcher who seems to be an exception to the rule of pitcher injury risk, is an open question. Sabathia, in his seven seasons, has pitched 1406.1 innings, and at least 180 innings in each of those seasons. Isn't it tempting fate to expect 14 straight seasons of at least 180 innings?
Beyond Sabathia, and perhaps a couple minor free agent signings, the rest of the offseason energy will probably be spent on the trade market. Although the Indians have acceptable options already in place at all positions, there are three spots that are ripe for upgrade: third base, late relief, and left field. To that end, the Indians were, according to Paul Hoynes, interested in Miguel Cabrera and Brad Lidge:
The Marlins, unlike the Astros, did reply to the Indians. Shapiro didn't say what they wanted in return for the talented Cabrera, but it was clear he couldn't make the deal.
Landing Cabrera will be costly. I'm assuming Adam Miller would have been a given, as would Andy Marte. The Indians are probably assuming Cabrera to be a two-year rental, while the Marlins probably aren't dealing with their trading partner's future in mind. Cabrera is also likely headed quickly right on the defensive spectrum, as his defensive ability at third base has rapidly deteriorated to the point of becoming a liability at the position.
Lidge would have offered up that situation I alluded to earlier: a chance to move Rafael Betancourt to closer and sell high on Joe Borowski. The Indians have some redundant talent to make deals like this - even if it's for just one season's worth of a reliever.