Here's last winter's first baseman crop. I was rather generous with the players included.
|Player||Position||Bats||Average 3-Year WAR||Projected WAR||2012 Age|
Quick WAR Chart (Fangraphs)
3.0-3.9 Good Player
2.0-2.9 Solid Starter
1.0-1.9 Role Player
<1.0 Scrub Level
There's eight players listed here, but really the Indians had three options: Pena, Kotchman, and Overbay. Hawpe and Jackson were both damaged goods, and while the Indians certainly could have signed either one to a minor-league deal as a backup plan, they couldn't go into the season with either as the starter. Branyan I suppose might have worked, but again, only as a backup plan. And Pujols and Fielder were both going to get well over what the Indians had to spend.
The Indians actually offered Carlos Pena as much or more than he received from Tampa, but Pena wanted to go back to his former club. It turned out that this was not really a big loss. Lyle Overbay would sign with Arizona, the team he ended 2011 with, for $1.0M to serve as a backup to Paul Goldschmidt. That left Casey Kotchman, and with no first baseman on the trade market, it was just a matter of time before he and the Indians got together.
Kotchman was just a year older than Prince Fielder, and was coming off a career year, hitting .306/.378/.422. But there was a huge caveat to his season; the batting average of balls put in play by him was a ridiculously-high .335. Kotchman had always been a ground-ball hitter, and that hadn't changed in 2011, so it was very likely that 2012 would see a reversion to his career norms, and as a first baseman, those norms weren't that valuable. So the Indians signed him to a 1 year contract worth $3.0M, just about minimum wage for an everyday free agent.
In this case it's really hard to see even with hindsight where the Indians missed the boat. Here's the actuals from the group above.
|Player||Ultimate Destination||2012 Salary||Years||Signing Date||2012 WAR||$/WAR|
|Albert Pujols||Los Angeles (AL)||$ 12,000,000.00||10||12/8/2011||3.7||$ 3,243,243.24|
|Prince Fielder||Detroit||$ 23,000,000.00||9||1/26/2012||4.2||$ 5,476,190.48|
|Carlos Pena||Tampa Bay||$ 7,250,000.00||1||1/24/2012||0.6||$ 12,083,333.33|
|Casey Kotchman||Cleveland||$ 3,000,000.00||1||2/3/2012||-1.1||$ (2,727,272.73)|
|Brad Hawpe||Texas||$ 480,000.00||1||1/20/2012||0||#DIV/0!|
|Lyle Overbay||Arizona||$ 1,000,000.00||1||12/9/2011||0.1||$ 10,000,000.00|
|Connor Jackson||Texas||$ 480,000.00||1||2/6/2012||0||#DIV/0!|
|Russell Branyan||New York (AL)||$ 480,000.00||1||2/8/2012||0||#DIV/0!|
A quick note on Pujols' salary: in 2012 the Angels are paying him $12.0M, but that will jump to $16.0M in 2013, then $23.0M in 2014, and slowly rise to $30.0M by 2021.
Fangraphs didn't like Kotchman's defense, which didn't help matters, but the real cause of his negative WAR was his offense, or lack thereof. Hitting .226/.282/.337 at any position is bad enough, but when you hit that at first base, the default sluggers' position, you're going to get -1.1 WAR. That's over 1 win less than replacement.
The alternative, Carlos Pena, would have cost the Indians $3.25 more to get just above replacement value. In the grand scheme of things, it's hard to work up much outrage on this one. But the reason the Indians had to choose between Kotchman and Pena was because Matt LaPorta didn't develop, and because there was no prospect coming up behind LaPorta that the Indians could have used.