Normally around this time of year, the MLB free agent market is a skeleton crew of players clinging to their last shot at signing with a team before the season. But it’s 2018, where we’re constantly on the brink of nuclear war and no one wants to sign Yu Darvish. Both are equally important issues, but only one is worth discussing on this here baseball blog.
The Cleveland Indians might not be in on the Yu Darvish market — whatever that market looks like — but it doesn’t mean they are sitting on their hands heading into the final month of the offseason. In fact, according to Paul Hoynes, they may have been attempting to dump salary to sign outfielder Lorenzo Cain before he ultimately joined the Milwaukee Brewers on a five-year, $80 million deal last week.
But their pursuit of Cain was based on them making another trade or two to create salary space on the roster. Those trades did not happen in time to prevent Cain from signing with the Brewers.
The Indians’ payroll could top $135 million this year. For them to add a player like Cain, somebody would have had to go. Jason Kipnis and/or Danny Salazar are two of the most likely candidates. The Indians have depth in the infield and starting rotation.
It’s not entirely clear if Hoynes had a source on them attempting to sign Cain, or if he’s just speculating, but if it’s the latter it’s good speculation. The Indians are going to have a massive payroll in 2018 by Cleveland standards, and if they were in a bidding war for an outfielder who eventually got $80 million over five years, they needed to make room.
Taking Hoynes’ article at face value has some interesting implications. First and foremost, it means the Indians aren’t done in the offseason. They implied as much following the Yonder Alonso signing forever ago, but all of a sudden they pop up as being interested in one of the top outfield free agents. It could also mean that the market for Jason Kipnis, who is a prime salary dump candidate, is about as bad as we expected if the Indians couldn’t find anywhere to send him in time to complete a deal with Cain.
If the Indians are indeed still looking for a free agent or two, they’re in luck — just about everyone is available. Similar to the surprise deal they made last offseason to nab Edwin Encarnacion on a bargain, there are a bevy of players still looking for teams and we’re mere weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training.
There are a couple of ways I’m going to categorize these potential targets, based on who the Indians have signed in the past, and who is left. The clear fits, or those who have a clear purpose with the Indians to fill a need, and might even be affordable. The longshots, or the expensive players who probably won’t be affordable to Chris Antonetti and company, but still might fill a need. The post-trade or injury fill-ins, or those could be signed to fill a void after a potential trade is made for a bigger piece. And The low-risk projects, or the Melvin Upton Jr.’s and Austin Jackson’s of the world who could blow up into major contributors without costing much of anything.
The clear fits
Peter Moylan, RP
He’s about the least interesting possibility for the Indians, but Peter Moylan reportedly caught the eye of the Indians already this offseason. He had a 3.49 ERA and 4.00 FIP with the Kansas City Royals in 2017 and could fill part of the hole left by Bryan Shaw.
Carlos Gomez, OF
I put Carlos Gomez here instead of as a low-risk project because he probably won’t be Upton Jr. levels of inexpensive, thanks to his bounce back season with the Texas Rangers in 2017. His .225/.340/.462 slash led to a 110 wRC+, his best offensive season since he left the Brewers in 2014. He’s not a massive improvement over anything the Indians already have in the outfield, but he does technically fit and he’s technically a free agent.
Jose Bautista, OF
The days of Jose Bautista hitting 40 home runs is long time, but he’d make a nice complimentary piece to the Indians lefty-heavy lineup. This is all assuming the Indians believe his 2017 was a fluke and that he won’t be a negative WAR player again at age 38. That in itself is a long-shot, but Bautista probably won’t be too expensive.
Lance Lynn, SP
I’ve been on the Lance Lynn train since it left the station and I’m not about to get off now, even if he had the worst season of his career in 2017. That just means he’ll come at a bargain, right? RIGHT? The 30-year-old career St. Louis Cardinal gave up far too many home runs last season, but he turned in 186 innings of 3.43 ERA baseball. If Lynn is one of the players who has their market bottom out thanks to the slow offseason, I’d like to see the Indians swoop in and get him on a discount, whether or not they make any trades beforehand.
J.D. Martinez, OF
I mean, it’s a longshot, but at this point anything looks possible. If the Indians can find a way to dump that salary they wanted to dump for Lorenzo Cain, who’s to say they can’t grab Martinez on a steep discount when times get desperate for the 30-year-old free agent? He’s not much of a defensive outfielder anymore (or ever), but his 45 home runs last season and career .514 slugging percent sure are pretty. He’s also a right-handed bat that excels and slugging against lefties, which means he fits perfectly as a platoon with Lonnie Chisenhall.
Greg Holland, RP
Greg Holland is a perfect fit for the Indians bullpen, but he’s going to be expensive as the best reliever left. He also declined a qualifying offer from the Colorado Rockies, meaning he’ll cost the Indians a draft pick as well.
The post-trade or injury fill-ins
Andrew Cashner, SP
If the Indians trade a starting pitcher for an outfielder or catcher, Andrew Cashner might make sense as a replacement. He’s on the wrong side of 30, but he’s always been great at keeping the ball on the ground with a career 49 percent groundball rate. Considering the Indians have Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor covering the left side of the infield, anything on the ground is as good as dead in Cleveland.
Jarrod Dyson, OF
Jarrod Dyson’s speed and defense have been good enough to keep him an impactful player over his eight-year career, despite an always below-average bat. If something crazy happens and the Indians suddenly need another left-handed platoon bat, Dyson could be their man.
Jon Jay, OF
Another left-handed bat if things get wacky in the Indians outfield during spring training. Jay shouldn’t be too expensive, even though he’s been worth 2.8 fWAR over the last two seasons.
Eduardo Nunez, 3B
If the Indians trade Jason Kipnis and move Jose Ramirez to second, Nunez would be a solid fill-in on a short contract. Nunez has had a wRC+ above 100 each of the last three seasons, peaking with a career-best 112 wRC+ (.313/.341/.460) in 2017. A big part of his career year came thanks to a lowered strikeout rate (11 percent). He’s also the second best player in the the league at losing his helmet. You heard me, The Ringer, he’s the second best.
The low-risk projects
Peter Bourjos, OF
Peter Bourjos is almost the opposite of Carlos Gomez in that he’s a pretty good fit for the Indians, but only on a minor league deal. He’s never been a great bat, and his defense is slipping.
Gregor Blanco, OF
Another potential project in the outfield for the Indians, Gregor Blanco is coming off a season in which he was worth half a win and slashed just .246/.337/.357. His defense has slipped considerably in recent years, but if he can be had on a minimum contract it might not hurt to give him a shot.