There is still baseball being played, but none of it involves the Cleveland Indians. At least, it does not involve current Indians players. Depending on how aggressive the new-look front office wants to be in their offseason signings, we could be looking at future Indians members playing on the Kansas City Royals, New York Mets, Toronto Blue Jays, or Chicago Cubs.
This is not a very exciting free agent class as it is, and when you reduce the pool to only four teams it looks even worse, but if Mike Chernoff, Chris Antonetti, and Co. are doing their due diligence they may be watching with extra attention. And if they are, here is who they are probably watching.
Ben Zobrist, Royals (Unrestricted Free Agent)
A 35-year-old second baseman and outfielder might not be appealing on the outside, but the Tribe should consider at least taking a look at Zobrist this offseason. While he has not played a lot in the hot corner, he could potentially be the team’s third baseman if the front office believes their window is 2016 or 2017.
Zobrist took a major step back defensively this season (as one would expect with an aging veteran), and because of that he finished the season with only a 2.1 fWAR. This is his first sub-5.0 fWAR season since 2010, but arguably his best year from a purely offensive standpoint since 2012. There is no denying that Zobrist is on the decline--he’ll never be a six or eight fWAR player again--but his bat has not slowed down.
In 126 games for the Royals, Zobrist hit with a .276/.359/.450 slash and 13 home runs. His 10.5% strikeout rate is the lowest of his entire career, and his 11.6% walk rate is right along his career average. Again, if Zobrist is declining it is on defense only.
It is also worth noting that Zobrist is not eligible for a qualifying offer because the Royals acquired him in a midseason trade with the Oakland Athletics. Because of this, the Indians would face no risk of losing a draft pick by signing him. I say take a two- or three-year flier on him and ride him off into the sunset.
Daniel Murphy, Mets (Unrestricted Free Agent)
Watching Murphy tear apart the playoffs is fun while watching purely as a baseball fan, but as an Indians fan who wants the Tribe to take a shot at signing him, I really wish he would stop artificially inflating his value.
Whether or not Murphy will be able to leverage his outstanding playoff run in his next contract or not, he should be due somewhere around a three-year/$30 million contract or a four-year/$40 million contract. At 30 years old, Murphy would be a bit of a safer bet than the older Zobrist, but he does not have quite the same track record.
Murphy hit a career-high 14 home runs this year, and his 7.1% strikeout rate is nearly half his career average. At first it looks flukey, but he also finished the season with a career-low .278 BABIP, so this is not just a matter of getting a bunch of lucky hits. Murphy has been good throughout his career, and he is getting better.
The Mets do have the option of extending a $15.8 million qualifying offer to Murphy, but the notoriously tight financials of the Mets front office may prohibit them from doing so. But if the Indians front office feels like they are a decent third baseman away from competing for a playoff spot, then by all means it would be worth it to give up a first round pick to grab Murphy off the free agent market.
Dexter Fowler, Cubs (Unrestricted Free Agent)
So maybe the Indians decide to move Chisenhall back to third base, or maybe Abraham Almonte reverts to his human form and does not hit with a .191 ISO. In that case, it would benefit the Indians (and you as a fan) to watch Dexter Fowler in the NLCS.
The 29-year-old Fowler played a career-high 156 games and hit a career-high 17 home runs in 2015. Additionally, he also stole 20 bases on the season, second only to his rookie year when he swiped 27 for the Colorado Rockies.
Fowler could be the most expensive of the free agent options on this abbreviated list, but he would presumably give the Indians the biggest boost, depending on how far Abraham Almonte stumbles. Signing Fowler would essentially be a bet against Almonte, probably a safe one at that.
Who knows what Terry Francona would actually come up with for his lineups, but Fowler’s .363 career on-base percentage makes him an enticing leadoff hitter. This also gives Tito the flexibility to put second baseman Jason Kipnis lower in the order where his extra-base-hitting ability can be more effective with runners on base.
Fowler is eligible for a qualifying offer--but similarly to Daniel Murphy--if this is the last hurdle to the playoffs you do it in a heartbeat.
Austin Jackson, Cubs (Unrestricted Free Agent)
Signing an inconsistent outfielder in his late-20’s might bring back nightmares after the Tribe’s Michael Bourn signing, but that should not stop them from considering Austin Jackson. He had a slow start to 2015, but picked it up for the lowly Seattle Mariners, finishing his 107 games in Seattle with a .272/.312/.387 slash, eight home runs, and 15 stolen bases. Jackson was acquired midseason by the Cubs (meaning he cannot receive a qualifying offer), but he did not look quite as good for Chicago in his 29 games.
He will come cheaper than Dexter Fowler, he is a year younger, and there is no chance he will cost the Tribe a first round pick. However, he runs a higher chance of being a lukewarm signing instead of the final stepping stone to the playoffs that the Indians really need right now.
Ben Revere, Blue Jays
Alright, so this one is admittedly a very, very long shot. But hey, the Blue Jays will need pitching when David Price walks, and the Indians could use a young(ish?), cost-controlled center fielder. I’m just saying, a trade could happen.
Maybe do not worry about watching Revere too closely during the ALCS, but glance at him every once in awhile just to be safe.