If Brad Hand being waived around for nothing more than his $10 million salary was the canary in the coal mine for free agency, the canary is clearly dead.
The Indians, like many teams, are going to be slashing payroll at a rapid pace as they look to offset the losses of a fan-less season and the unknown years ahead. Even with a dwindling payroll, they are going to move forward one way or another — spending money or looking at internal options.
Francisco Lindor’s impending trade certainly muddies things. Will they fail to find a suitor and start the season with him on the roster? Will they trade him for a package that includes a serviceable outfielder? Will a meteor the size of Manhattan impact the earth and mercifully end it all? Everything is on the table when it comes to Lindor’s 2021 options.
Without looking ahead quite yet, and assuming they tender contracts to all their arbitration eligible players, here is what the Indians are looking at as free agency progresses compared to last season:
- C: Roberto Pérez
- SS: Francisco Lindor
- 3B: José Ramírez
- LF: Josh Naylor
- CF: Delino DeShields
- RF: Tyler Naquin/Jordan Luplow
- DH: Franmil Reyes
- BN: Austin Hedges, Oscar Mercado
- SP: Shane Bieber
- SP: Carlos Carrasco
- SP: Zach Plesac
- SP: Aaron Civale
- SP: Triston McKenzie/Cal Quantrill/Adam Plutko
- RP: James Karinchak, Nick Wittgren, Adam Cimber, Phil Maton,
FanGraphs’ Roster Resource fills in Jake Bauers at first base, Yu Chang at second base, and Owen Miller — part of the Mike Clevinger trade last trade deadline — on the bench. They also plug Emmanuel Clase and Kyle Nelson into the bullpen.
Before any trades take place, the Indians have clear needs — just any warm bodies needed — at first and second base. Josh Naylor could potentially move to fill in first base if the outfield does not work out, but they will still need to fill in something somewhere. Assuming Jake Bauers didn’t become a star while working out in Eastlake, of course.
While the outfield roster spots are technically filled, they could use a boost to say the least. Terry Pluto seems to think that Delino DeShields’ option is being picked up, but that’s hardly great news.
The internal options are pretty straight-forward. Chang or Owen Miller seem like the right call at second base for the time being, although I would hope that Bobby Bradley has proved something that would make him a first-base option early on instead of Bauers.
But you may have also noticed that the conservative Roster Resource does not include the Tribe’s top prospect Nolan Jones anywhere. This could end up being accurate — if the Indians believe in Jones’ future five years down the road, they will manipulate his service time and not call him up until the Super 2 line passes. Rationalizing such manipulation is going to be easier than ever, considering Jones was slated to play in Triple-A last year (if not reach the majors) but was relegated to a glorified extended spring training for the year. The Indians will do the usual rigmarole of “he needs to work on his defense” for the exact amount of time required to keep him out of free agency for a year and we will all just kind of have to accept it.
Whenever the Indians do call him up, his natural fit on the team seems to be in the outfield. While he has played most of his career at third base, the Indians have already signaled that they would prefer to keep their MVP candidate and three-time Silver Slugger winner there for the time being. José Ramírez has spent the majority of his time at the hot corner since 2016, when he officially shed the “utility player” moniker and became one of baseball’s best third basemen. It doesn’t look like he’s moving any time soon, but Jones’ bat has the potential to play anywhere.
Before the 2020 season, ZiPS projections liked Jones’ chances in the majors. Without an at-bat above Double-A, the projection system pegged him for a .232/.330/.415 slash and 1.9 fWAR over a full season as a third baseman. Even with his below-average projected 95 OPS+ he would have been the best offensive outfield on the Indians by a wide margin.
Jones being ready and in the lineup on day one would not only provide them with a player with upside in the outfield, but it would more easily allow Naylor to slide to first base if that is indeed the play. Naylor has spent 1,261.1 of his 1270.1 major-league innings in the outfield but he hasn’t cemented himself out there quite yet. Statcasts’s outs above average has him as a dead-on average fielder in 2020, and in 2019 he cost the Padres seven runs with his poor range. Still, whether in the outfield or at first base he would be one of the Indians’ better hitters.
Externally, the Indians are not going to big spenders. I’m not even convinced they will be spenders, period — they do have the internal options, as uninspiring as Yu Chang and Jake Bauers may be, to field a complete roster. That could change if they trade away Francisco Lindor and don’t get another major-league piece back, but let’s not go there quite yet.
If the Indians do go out and spend, you’re going to have to look at the fringiest of fringe candidates to find their targets. Let’s just run down a few.
- 2B/3B Tommy La Stella would be about as far as I could realistically see the Indians stretching to acquire a player this offseason. MLB Trade Rumors suggests the A’s will bring him back at two years, $14 million, but they also list Indians as a possible fit. As a 31-year-old with the Angels and Athletics this season he put up a .281/.370/.449 slash with five homers and a 129 wRC+. La Stella is not going to hit 20 home runs, or probably even approach the 16 he hit for St. Louis two seasons ago, but his 7.3% strikeout rate since the beginning of 2019 is the best in the majors.
- OF Jurickson Profar is about as post-hype as a post-hype prospect can get. Once a top-20 prospect in all of baseball, Profar eventually played his way out of the Rangers organization that drafted him and has spent the last two seasons playing for the Athletics and Padres. His bat has at least grown into something resembling average in the last couple years; since the start of 2018 he has hit 47 home runs and slashed .243/.323/.434 for a wRC+ of 101.
- OF Joc Pederson is coming off his worst regular season at the worst time. While he and the Dodgers took home the coveted piece of metal last week, he finished the regular season with a .190/.285/.397 slash in his 43 games. He did, however, turn it around in his 37 postseason plate appearances, with 13 hits and two home runs, including this monster shot in Game 5 of the World Series. Signing Joc shouldn’t be considered a pipe dream with such an obvious outfield need as the Indians, but it probably is.
- 2B Jonathan Schoop probably would have hit 20 home runs for the fifth consecutive season if it weren’t for the pandemic. As it is, he hit eight and enjoyed his highest slugging percentage since 2014. Overall, he had his best offensive season since 2017, his last with the Orioles, and he will be looking to build upon the one-year, $6 million deal he signed with Detroit last offseason. Nothing about him suggests a big offensive outburst is coming, but he’s a good defender and can clearly hit homers. Schoop feels just fringe enough to have his value crater with the tight offseason, which might give the Indians reason to scoop (sorry) him up.
- OF Billy Hamilton feels like a sad inevitability. The upside in Delino DeShields just isn’t there, and Hamilton can probably be had for a minor-league deal instead of DeShields’ arbitration salary somewhere between $2.1 million and $2.4 million. That’s about the entire value of Hamilton, but it still makes some sense. He’s a great defender (unlike what we saw from DeShields this season), and he’s still fast as hell.
- If 36-year-old OF Ryan Braun has anything left in the tank, you bet the Indians will try to capitalize on it. Several years removed from avoiding a PED suspension on a technicality, Braun has steadily declined as you might expect any non-juiced up player to. Last year was his worst offensively as he struggled to draw walks. He did, however, maintain a .488 slugging percentage and his strikeout rate stayed at a steady 19.1% — a little more than a percentage point higher than his career average. He still the ball hard and barreled it often, but a .232 BABIP and way-too-high 15.3-degree average launch angle doomed him.
- OF Jarrod Dyson checks all the boxes for the Indians this offseason. Old? Check. Never been a good hitter? Check. Coming off a bad year? Check. If he doesn’t retire, he could be acquired for next to nothing after amassing a 17 wRC+ with the Pirates and White Sox last year.
- OF Rusney Castillo’s bizarre tenure with the Red Sox started with a seven-year, $72.5 million deal out of Cuba and ended with him as a 33-year-old with just 99 games at the major-league level under his belt. Castillo was a victim of a new CBA rule and the Red Sox’s desire to stay under the luxury cap, and as a result has not touched a major-league field since 2016. His numbers in Triple-A looked good in 2017 and 2018 but it’s hard to really know what’s real when a 30-year-old Grown Man is beating up on children in the minors. His low walk rate and high BABIP suggest he is not the player the Red Sox thought when they signed him, but he’s an obvious cheap pick-up that the Indians could jump on. Maybe a change of scenery and a real shot at the majors will help him hit better than he did in his first three, very short, stints with the Red Sox?
- Have you heard of this 2B Jason Kipnis guy? The now 33-year-old spent last season with his hometown Chicago Cubs but is now once again on the free agent market. While in Chicago he enjoyed his best offensive season since 2016 and had the highest walk rate of his career. Every one of his Statcast measurements are abysmal, however — he just didn’t hit the ball hard and got lucky more than not. Still, like so many on this list, he’s available for a minor-league contract and could fill in as a veteran leader that the team will lose when Lindor is gone.
- INF Jonathan Villar is someone I wanted the Indians to sign last offseason, but the Marlins of all teams jumped on it first. It didn’t go well for them. In 207 plate appearances he slashed .232/.301/.292 with just two home runs — career worsts, or close to it, across the board. He was also playing a team wrecked by COVID-19 issues and the distractions that came with it, so maybe this is the year I can ask the Indians to sign him and hope it actually pans out.
There are of course others (and please remember I’m just spitballing here, don’t go asking Mandy Bell about these Super Official Indians Rumors) but these are just some of the directions the Indians could go to fill in the holes that the current roster has.
Whichever direction they go, expect their payroll to land somewhere between $30-$50 million, hinging on what they do with Lindor and their upcoming arbitration decisions.