This offseason the Indians have signed more than a dozen players to minor league deals, and have signed Mike Napoli, Rajai Davis, Juan Uribe, and Tommy Hunter to MLB deals. Those contracts are all for just one season, and for a total of roughly $18 million in guaranteed money. The Indians also didn't trade away anyone of note. All told, a team could hardly have a lower-risk offseason.
While most top free agents don't settle for just one year, that sort of signing does sometimes pay off in a big way.
Best one-year MLB free agent deals in Indians history:
4) Juan Gonzalez, $10 million (2001)
Gonzalez won the American League MVP Award with Texas in 1996 and again in 1998, having hit 45+ home runs and driven in 140+ runs in each of those seasons. The Rangers didn't expect to be able to re-sign him when he hit free agency, so they traded him to Detroit before the 200 season. Gonzalez promptly had a relatively awful season, torpedoing his value just as he arrived on the market. Unable to get the sort of longterm deal he wanted, he settled for a one-year deal with the Indians for $10 million. He rebounded nicely, hitting .327/.370/.590, with a wRC+ of 145. He hit 35 home runs and 34 doubles, picked up 140 RBI, and finished 5th in the MVP voting. He homered twice in the ALDS against Seattle as well. Following the season, Gonzalez returned to the Rangers, but 2001 was his last great season.
3) Kevin Millwood, $7 million (2005)
Similar to Gonzalez, Millwood was coming off something of a down year when the Tribe signed him for $7 million in 2005. In addition to his numbers being down, Millwood had suffered ligament and tendon pain the previous September, leading many teams to fear he was headed for surgery and a long stint on the disabled list. The Indians rolled the dice and the gamble paid off, as Millwood pitched 192 innings while posting a league-leading 2.86 ERA (good for an ERA+ of 147). Millwood's success priced him out of Cleveland's budget. He signed a 5-year, $60 million deal with the Rangers, but never recaptured his 2005 form.
2) Ronnie Belliard, $1.1 million (2004)
Unlike the last couple players I mentioned, Belliard wasn't a former All-Star when the Indians signed him. He'd been league average or a little worse for most of his career to that point. He got off to a great start in 2004, and was named an All-Star for what would prove to be the only time in his career. His bat cooled off a bit, but he finished with a .282/.348/.426 batting line, including 48 doubles, a total only Grady Sizemore and Albert Belle have topped for the Tribe since 1936. He played strong defense at second base as well. The Indians were able to sign Belliard for another couple seasons, and he was just as good in 2005 as he had been in 2004.
1) Tom Candiotti, $80,000 (1986)
Unlike Gonzalez and Millwood, who'd each been All-Stars prior to joining the Tribe, Candiotti had almost no Major League experience before signing with Cleveland. $80,000 was more than the league minimum, so Candiotti was viewed as having some value, but certainly not a great deal of it. Candiotti promptly exceed all expectations by leading the Indians in just about every notable pitching category, throwing 252.1 innings with a 3.57 ERA and 167 strikeouts. He led the American League with 17 complete games. Unlike Gonzalez and Millwood, Candiotti was still under team control after his first season, and would stick with the Tribe beyond that initial one-year deal. He was the ace of the staff throughout the rest of the decade and into the early 90s, when he was eventually traded to Toronto.
Best Indians minor league deals of free agent era:
3) Scott Kazmir (2013)
Kazmir was in the Gonzalez/Millwood mold, a former All-Star who'd been struggling. In Kazmir's case, he'd pitched in only one MLB game during the previous two years, and was pitching in an independent league in 2012. He started 29 games for the Indians, going 158 innings with a 4.04 ERA, roughly league average production from a minor league deal is a great return on investment. Unfortunately for the Indians, they didn't retain him beyond that year, and didn't enjoy the benefits of his even bigger success in 2014 and 2015.
2) Doug Jones (1985)
Jones didn't even play for the Indians after signing his minor league deal with the organization in 1985. He spent that year in Double- and Triple-A, but the Indians retained his rights beyond then, and he went on to become one of the best relief pitchers in franchise history, throwing 421 innings for the team between 1986 and 1991, with a 3.04 ERA, 128 saves, and three All-Star appearances.
1) Casey Blake (2003)
Blake joined the Tribe on a minor league deal for the 2003 season. He played in 152 games, with a decent .257/.312/.411 batting line, with 17 home runs and good defense (mostly at third base). Same as with Jones, the Indians retained Blake's rights, and he continued to be a very solid contributor, batting .266/.337/.451 in 810 games for the team between 2003 and 2008, with 116 home runs. The end of his time with the team provided an even bigger boost than his performance has, as the Indians were somehow able to convince the Dodgers to trade a catching prospect named Carlos Santana for the final few weeks of Blake's contract.
Will any of this offseason's acquisitions live up to the bar these six players established? My money is on "no," but then I didn't expect any of the above players to do what they did for the Tribe either.