Of the many options (well, three or four) the Cleveland Indians have to repair the hole in center field, the easiest one to judge is also the least likely to happen. Of course, this means, spending money in free agency. The Tribe’s financial constraints are well known, and the lack of butts in seats every summer doesn’t help with payroll flexibility. Going to the World Series helps some, but that really only adds ticket sale money from the games they played at Progressive Field. It’s a lot, but not exactly seismic. Still, one could hope the notoriously tight-fisted Dolans would see how close the team is to getting over the hump, understand the problem and solution after a great presentation from their brain trust, and shell out some of their cash. One can dream at least.
The free agency class for center fielders is decent, headlined by several moderate to large names. Several have already received the qualifying offer (QO) so signing them also means losing a first round draft pick, which could dissuade the Indians. There’s also a couple players, notably Yoenis Cespedes, who along with the QO are left fielders masquerading as center fielders. They play there, just not well. The focus should be the glove and hopefully a bat that can handle itself, not the other way around. Spending in free agency also allows for it to be a stop-gap move until a farmhand gets good enough to handle the role. So signing a guy over 30 to a longish deal should be able to hit some, since he’ll play left. Spotrac has the Indians at about $69 million in salary right now, but they’ll have to give some raises out soon to avoid arbitration, so that number could get up to near $70 million. Assuming they raise payroll from 2016, when it was $83 million, that gives about $15 or $20 million in total available funds unless they get crazy.
Let’s say they did get crazy though, because why not? They’re a great team and maybe the ownership will see this as in investment. Spending money to make money right? All this means Dexter Fowler. He’s going to be a prize on the market, generally considered one of the five or ten most coveted free agents. The issue is, he’s going to cost about $80-$100 million. Spotrac has his market value at $17 million, so for five years like he probably wants that’s $85 million. He bet on himself by resigning iwth the Cubs and probably won that bet. Whatever he costs, it would be the largest contract ever from the Tribe. He’s also going to cost a draft pick. But he can hit, and he can play left field if need be AND he is great defensively. Tying that much up in one position is hard and probably unlikely, but at the same time they’re paying two relievers about $15 million which is likely to go up when Cody Allen gets a raise. Fowler is detailed a bit more by my compatriot Matt Lyons here. If you're curious, check that out.
There’s a chance to go more absurd of course. It’s November so there’s a time for dreaming still. Why not bid on Shohei Otani? The best hitter and pitcher in Japan, at 22 years old, who plays outfield on days he doesn’t pitch? He’d pay for himself just for the curiosity factor of people going to see this Japanese Babe Ruth play. He’d also cost about $300 million. To be honest, this was just an excuse to write about him briefly. Get used to it. He's amazing and always bears mentioning.
More realistically, the Indians should be expected to sign a player at about $8 to $10 million. Perhaps take the money they aren’t giving Mike Napoli, make Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana split first base and get a decent player. There’s a couple names that are intriguing. One that they probably should have gone after a year ago is Austin Jackson. He hurt his knee back in August and missed all of September, but if he’s healthy to play he’s a very good defender with a bat that is at least as good as Davis’s has been. It would also continue the pipeline between the Indians and Tigers, albeit with some stops in between. His health is paramount, but if he can play the position he could be had for about the same as Napoli, even on a one year "prove it" deal before moving on to greener pastures.
Other names include John Jay, who was a league average hitter last year with the Padres in 2016 logging a 100 wRC+ and rating a bit negatively defensively. He was playing in an outfield that consisted of Matt Kemp, Wil Myers at times and some other defensive garbage, so maybe he’d be alright. It’s a tough field to play in and when you’re getting no help from your teammates that could make you worse. He was better defensively in years past and it could be age sapping his fielding abilities, but at the worst he'd be an upgrade over Davis offensively and Naquin defensively. The Indians should certainly look his way. He can hit alight and go get the ball. Spotrac has him valued at just over $7 million, and I could see the Indians picking him up.
With the way their manager likes to do things, perhaps the front office would like a platoon type of player. A Sam Fuld, who can’t hit at all but can catch the ball sometimes. Or kick the tires on Carlos Gomez and see if he can get good again. Some kind of boring, unsexy move that barely moves the needle. That kind of describes a Jon Jay signing, too. The finances of baseball is tough on a team like the Tribe, so an adjustment of expectations might be needed.
The reality here is, it’s going to have to be a guy trying to prove his worth or some weird or outsize contract. After studying the Indains’ free agency moves for the last several years, it’s never what you want. The one time they did something, it was a disaster in the form of Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher. They still have $9 million of Chris Johnson’s salary to pay off because of that. The best chance is likely Jackson or Jay on the outside, or else they just decide to spend the money elsewhere. Or something creative, like getting a great left field glove like Colby Rasmus and going with Naquin in center. He can hit and left is a tough field to play in Progressive with that wall. He could be a major plus. Center doesn’t have to be your best defender, it just is a lot of times. With Winter Meetings approaching deals will be struck. As long as they don’t hamstring themselves though, Cleveland could have that last little bit for a handful of coin.