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Assessing the Indians' free agent market

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Who fits the Indians and who fits the payroll?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get a couple things out of the way. Yes, the Indians are listening to offers for some of their best players not named Francisco Lindor or Jose Ramirez. Yes, the realities of the Cleveland market and hosting only two postseason games since 2016—as well as the Dolan’s desire to not run the club at a loss, even temporarily—means the Tribe has limited financial maneuverability.

However, until someone other than Jon Heyman reports that Corey Kluber is on his way out of town, this is all business as usual. With free agency in full swing, business as usual means the Indians’ brass should be feeling out the market and making offers (based on the team’s financial reality) to players who fill a positional need.

Those needs, as discussed in our various 2018 recaps, are primarily in the outfield and the bullpen. Some of those may be addressed by trade, but free agency is the order of the day, and several players are available that could help the Indians. With that in mind, I scoured free agent rankings from Baseball Prospectus, CBS Sports, ESPN’s Keith Law, FanGraphs, MLB Trade Rumors, SB Nation, and The Athletic’s Jim Bowden to create an average ranking of players Cleveland might be interested in as well as contract estimates (averaged from FanGraphs’ median, MLBTR, and The Athletic). The players listed here were either mentioned as fits for the Tribe by the authors of the lists or by using my judgment.

Each tier represents how likely it is these players become Indians. The tiers then have player names (age on opening day) followed by average ranking (in italics; if players were not ranked on a particular list they were given a default value of 51, as no author included more than 50 free agents), contract prediction (years and average annual value), and 2019 Steamer prediction (AVG/OBP/SLG, wRC+, fWAR for batters; ERA/FIP, K/9, fWAR for pitchers).

Unlikely

  • Josh Donaldson (33): 6.4, 2.3 years/$19.2m, .256/.366./484, 131, 4.6
  • A.J. Pollock (31): 7.6, 3.7 years/$15.3m, .258/.325/.444, 107, 3.1
  • Nathan Eovaldi (29): 11.1, 3.3 years/$14.3m, 3.76/3.75, 8.34, 3.0
  • Adam Ottavino (33): 20.6, 2.7 years/$10m, 3.63/3.57, 11.38, 0.5
  • Daniel Murphy (33): 24.7, 2 years/$11.3m, .286/.338/.463, 114, 2.4
  • Adrian Beltre (39): 46.6, 1 year/$12m, .259/.320/.419, 100, 2.2

For the most part, this list includes the best players the Tribe could possibly get, as they obviously are not reaching for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado or any top starters. As indicated, it seems a pretty long shot any of these guys actually wind up in Cleveland without the team cutting salary in a big way elsewhere.

Donaldson is perhaps the most likely, but the only way he comes back to Cleveland is if he takes a one-year bumper deal, and even that will likely price the Indians out of the running. With an injury history similar to Donaldson, Pollock is also likely too pricy for the risk-averse Tribe front office. Daniel Murphy was mentioned by Bowden as a great fit for Cleveland as a first baseman with some defensive flexibility, but Cleveland has two first basemen making more next year than the projected two-year cost of Murphy (Edwin Encarnacion and Yonder Alonso will make $29.67m in 2019 combined), so I don’t see it as a fit.

Eovaldi was confusingly mentioned by Bowden as a fit, but I don’t see them giving him the money he has earned just to be a bullpen arm in Cleveland. Likewise, Adam Ottavino is the best pen arm available and will likely earn his wage elsewhere.

The last name on here, Beltre, is a long-term dream of mine, as he’s Mike Napoli 2.0: a clubhouse presence that is actually good at baseball. But he’s long indicated a desire to retire in Texas, so I imagine if he comes back he’ll still be a Ranger.

Less likely

  • Andrew McCutchen (32): 13.9, 3 years/$14.7m, .265/.363/.461, 124, 2.6
  • Zach Britton (31): 27.6, 3 years/$12.3m, 3.01/3.24, 8.76, 0.2
  • Joe Kelly (30): 32.4, 2.7 years/$8m, 3.48/3.54, 9.91, 0.2
  • Jeurys Familia (29): 31.7, 2.7 years/$10.3m, 3.49/3.49, 9.69, 0.6
  • Steve Pearce (35): 45.6, 1year/$7m, .258/.337/.459, 116, 1.2
  • Tony Sipp (35): 48.6, NA, 3.97/.4.10, 9.39, 0.0
  • Bud Norris (34): 49.1, 2 years/$12m, 3.90/3.91, 9.55, 0.1

This tier has two distinct groups: very good players the Indians would love at a discounted price and guys who are too old. Interestingly, the highest-ranked player in the group is both.

McCutchen might have been a nice addition to Cleveland a year or two ago, but at age 32 (which is just over the line to “too old”), declining, and likely commanding a multi-year deal, I’d be surprised if the Indians even extended an offer. Britton, Kelly, and Familia would each likely settle any bullpen questions on their own, but only Familia is under 30 (and only just) and each is likely to price themselves out of range.

As for Pearce, Sipp, and Norris, somehow Norris is the youngest even though he acts like a petulant 60-year-old. After reading about his role in Mike Matheny’s clubhouse, I think the Indians would be quite wise to steer clear of his old-school attitude. Pearce, meanwhile, will get a deal befitting a 35-year-old World Series MVP, and that won’t come from Cleveland, whereas the Indians would likely rather see what Tyler Olson has than spend on another lefty reliever like Sipp.

Neutral

  • Michael Brantley (31): 8.4, 3 years/$14.3m, .287/.350/.449, 117, 2.6
  • Marwin Gonzalez (30): 21.4, 3.3 years/$10.7m, .259/.326/.426, 103, 1.7
  • David Robertson (33): 21.8, 2.3 years/$10.7m, 3.32/3.26, 11.22, 0.8
  • Andrew Miller (33): 25.6, 2 years/$10m, 3.07/3.07, 11.5, 0.6
  • Nick Markakis (35): 31.4, 2 years/$10m, .271/.348/.399, 103, 1.1
  • Cody Allen (30): 42.9, 2 years/$8.5m, 3.91/3.92, 10.32, 0.2
  • Joakim Soria (34): 43.1, 2 years/$8.5m, 3.58/3.63, 9.58, 0.4
  • Jesse Chavez (35): 44, 1.5 years/$5m, 3.85/3.86, 8.84, 0.1
  • Lonnie Chisenhall (30): 49.7, NA, .256/3.19/.414, 98, 0.6

I’ve lumped all the former Indians as neutral because I think the front office legitimately would like them back (they said as much to Brantley) and might go a bit farther in negotiating than they would with other team’s free agents. That said, the money out there, for Brantley and Miller in particular, will likely push those guys to new locations.

As for the other players, they are perfect fits for the team but also perfect fits for other teams, including those who might have a little more flexibility financially. Gonzalez would be my top target, but what team would not want him? Jose Altuve referred to him as “the savior.” He’s going to get a contract similar to Ben Zobrist (4 years/$56m in 2016), and that’s pretty rich for Cleveland. Robertson is also a great fit as someone who can fill the amorphous role of back-end reliever without needing to be a closer, but even though he’s representing himself (or perhaps because he is) I think he will get paid in line with other closers, as teams value relief differently than in past years.

Markakis has 2,237 career hits, which is sixth among active players (depending on how active Beltre and Ichiro are next year), he’s consistently healthy, and his defense ain’t bad either (0 outs above average in 2018, which would be an improvement for Cleveland). Going into his age-35 season he’s unlikely to get a big deal, so the Tribe could make a pitch, but he just seems likelier to stay in Atlanta.

As for Soria and Chavez, both would be solid additions, but they seem likely to stay with their current teams as well. Milwaukee and Chicago, respectively, made the most of their arms after acquiring them and both sides might feel comfortable with a reunion, whereas the Indians might feel more comfortable using in-house (i.e., cheaper) options.

Somewhat Likely

  • Adam Jones (33): 36.3, 1.3 years/$9.3m, .266/.306/.428, 97, 1.2
  • Kelvin Herrera (29): 37.4, 1.7 years/$9.3m, 3.88/3.81, 8.91, 0.1
  • Carlos Gonzalez (33): 47, 1 year/$7m, .249/.313/.433, 100, 1.1

I suppose you could also call this tier my “Realistic Wish List.” Each of these guys is expected to sign a one-year deal by most observers and each has an annual value less than $10m. They’re in the free agent purgatory that held down value last year, and that means they’re ripe for the Tribe’s taking.

Jones is the highest ranked, but maybe my least favorite of the trio. His power started declining last year and his defense continued to slide, which makes him an awkward fit: without defense he’s not an obvious center fielder, but he lacks the pop to have a lot of value in a corner. The question is whether he’s in a decline that puts him out of baseball in a couple years or if he’s a rebound candidate. Is that a ~$9m gamble the Indians can afford?

Herrera is a little different because of his age, but he has long-term issues with a declining ground ball-to-fly ball ratio and, subsequently, increasing home run rates (14.8% HR/FB). His velocity was down a couple ticks last year but fastball was still top 50 among relievers (0.94 wFB/C) and his curve was fourth best (3.92 wCB/C) among those with at least 40 innings. Assuming the foot injury he sustained in September is nothing too serious, he’s a potentially stellar buy-low candidate to bulk up the Tribe pen.

Gonzalez is kind of like Jones plus one year. After a poor performance while earning $20m in 2017, he took a big hit last year in the form of a 1-year, $5m deal. He rebounded, somewhat, but still clocked in slightly below average offensively with a 96 wRC+ in 2018. Unlike Jones, Gonzalez has maintained his defensive value (2 outs above average) and was the most valuable defender in the Rockies’ outfield last year. For less of an investment, but similar projected returns, Gonzalez might be a better gamble for the Indians than Jones, though he is much less desirable than some other available (but pricy) outfielders.

Beyond the free agents ranked by the punditry are guys like Matt Adams, Ryan Flaherty, Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, Gerardo Parra, Matt Szczur, or Neil Walker, veterans trying to extend their careers who could be signed to a minor league contract with a spring training invite and an opt-out. These are deals the Indians love, the kind that they ink regularly. Some relievers that fit the bill include Louis Coleman, Javy Guerra, Chris Hatcher, Greg Holland, Jim Johnson, Fernando Salas, or Drew Storen.

This is the Tribe’s reality, why the outfield has been a quagmire and why guys like Kluber are reportedly being discussed in trade talks. Cleveland has to add to the roster to improve, and if it has to come through free agency the team will seek the most value, which comes in the form older players other teams are looking past that may still have some life left in them. The Indians absolutely will bet on some free agents, maybe not guys in the lower rankings like Herrera or Gonzalez, but certainly players who will take a minor league deal. Hopefully there’s value at the bottom of the barrel.