We are in the home stretch. In roughly two weeks, three hours, and ten minutes (not that I am counting) the Cleveland Indians will be playing real baseball against another real baseball team in a game that really matters. As we look forward to Opening Day, we will be running a comprehensive preview of the Indians here at Let's Go Tribe, culminating in the mother-of-all preview posts next Monday. Today we start with the biggest moves made -- and not made -- by the Tribe this offseason.
It is easy to sit back and say the Indians did essentially nothing this offseason, and you may not be totally wrong. They did not go out and sign a big outfielder like Justin Upton or Jason Heyward, they did not dump a few million dollars into a single star reliever. Instead, they opted to go for several smaller signings that filled the gaps they had in the roster. It gets lost in the void of the long offseason, but the Indians were not a terrible team last year, and they are still mostly built to win this year
The offseason started slow for the Indians, their first major signings were Rajai Davis and Mike Napoli on December 16. Davis's deal was made official a day later, but Napoli was not a part of the team until January 5. Once the dust settled, Napoli was signed to a one-year, $7 million deal and Davis was inked to a one-year, $5.25 million deal. Unless the Indians make a big surprise signing in the next two weeks, these are the two biggest contracts the team handed out this offseason. Wil they be worth it?
Napoli, 34, is expected to get the majority of playing time at first base this season. Napoli moved to first base full-time in 2013 after a nagging hip injury made pulled him away from catcher. Over his entire career as a catcher, dating back to split time in 2010, Napoli has been worth 20 defensive runs saved and a 16.4 UZR. Compare that to Carlos Santana's career -9 DRS and -3.3 UZR and Napoli's value on defense is very apparent. Even if Napoli is an average hitter, the fact that he allows Santana to get off the field is a huge bonus.
Projection systems ZiPS and Steamer have Napoli being right around an average hitter. The former pegs him for a .229/.337/.426 slash line (111 wRC+), and the latter has him slashing .225/.325/.399 (101 wRC+). Most promising of all is PECOTA, the projection system developed by Baseball Prospectus, which has Napoli slashing .245/.349/.452 and hitting 26 home runs.
Depending on how healthy Napoli stays throughout 2016, the realistic expectation is somewhere between the three projections. And if he can he stay with that offense and play great defense at first base, he could easily be the most valuable signing this offseason. It may not show up in box scores or even in every single game, but Napoli's impact could be huge.
I can see the merit of the Rajai Davis signing, but I would not be surprised to see him not account for much value in 2015. He will be a fine platoon option with whoever else is playing part-time in center and he could use his speed to steal some bases, but I suspect if the Indians could go back in time with what they knew now they might not have signed Davis to that contract.
Another potential big signing is also the Indians' most recent -- Marlon Byrd.
Throughout the offseason, the Tribe front office seemingly passed on every other outfield option. The Uptons and Heywards of the world are obviously out of Cleveland's price range, but Dexter Fowler signed a $13 million deal with the Chicago Cubs, Austin Jackson signed a $5 million deal with the Chicago White Sox, and early on in the offseason Nori Aoki signed a $5.5 million deal with the Seattle Mariners. Many fans saw this as the Indians being "cheap" for signing the 35-year-old Rajai Davis and calling it a day. However, just last week they have finally found their outfield #RightHandedPowerBat in 38-year-old Marlon Byrd.
Byrd, despite his age, can still hit a lot of home runs. Last season he hit 23, which would have led the Tribe in 2015. Assuming some mix of Rajai Davis and/or Tyler Naquin are also in center field, it would make a lot of sense to platoon Byrd strictly against lefties. Byrd has always been slightly better against left-handed pitchers in his career, but probably nothing that would call for a platoon.
However, last season, he finished the year with a 121 wRC+ against lefties and a 92 wRC+ against right-handers. The Indians took a while to sign Byrd, likely because the free agent was looking for a major-league offer before accepting, but pound-for-pound he could be one of the best of the Indians offseason, considering they only signed him to a minor-league contract.
Aside from a deplorable outfield situation, the Indians also went into the offseason needing a fix at third base. It was not nearly as desperate as a center fielder, but the team obviously needed something better than the bat that Giovanny Urshela carried in 2016.They addressed the issue in the form of Juan Uribe.
Whether or not Juan Uribe is a savior, at the very least he will allow the Indians to have some stability at third base. Urshela has hit well so far in spring training, but we all know those numbers can deceiving (or I hope we do, at least). Maybe with a year of work in Triple-A, Urshela can come back better in 2017. Or maybe, by that time, Yandy Diaz will be ready to make the jump the big leagues. Either way, having Uribe this year means that 2016 is solidified at third base and the future is even better for it.