In reality, the offseason may actually have been a better way to spend our time than sitting through the second half of last year's regular season. A franchise-worst month of August had everyone thinking about what the Indians would do after the season finally ended. Major changes would need to be made, both in the management of the club and in the roster.
Those changes started before the season actually ended, as the Indians fired Manny Acta with six games to play. That was the easiest decision to make, but deciding on his replacement would be a huge more difficult one, though not in the way you'd expect. I think all of us figured that Sandy Alomar, who replaced Acta on in interim basis over the last six games, would be named full-time manager after the season. Alomar had had a long career with the Indians, was respected by everyone in the game, and had been a major-league coach for quite a while. But then Terry Francona, who was taking a year off being fired by Boston, became interested in the job, and once that happened, the job was as good as his. It's difficult to say how much Francona's hire influenced the rest of the off-season, but I do think it was a move that made a lot of fans reconsider their view of the Indians.
But there was still a lot of work to do. An historically awful pitching staff would need to be fixed, and to do it the Indians probably would need to trade at least one of their better players. Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Chris Perez were the likely candidates to traded; Choo was one season away from free agency while Cabrera and Perez were two seasons away. And Perez ended the season with headline-grabbing comments seemingly every week. But the Francona hire seemed to end that, as he traveled to Florida to meet with Perez personally:
On his international travels to meet the majority of the players on the roster, Francona coordinated a sit-down with Perez and bullpen coach Kevin Cash in Tampa. The trio gorged on steak and seafood, a feast that demonstrated to Perez that he wasn't going anywhere.
"Why would he be doing this if I wasn't going to be part of his next team?" Perez said.
For a time it looked like Asdrubal Cabrera would be dealt to Arizona in a three-team or four-team deal; at least that's what we talked about in the winter meetings. But nothing came it, and it seemed the deal was dead. Well, at least that particular deal was, for a week or so later the Indians helped put together a massive three team, nine player deal that saw Choo and Jason Donald go to Cincinnati, Tony Sipp to Arizona, and Drew Stubbs and Trevor Bauer to Cleveland. Bauer, who ranks in the top 10 (if not the top 5) of practically every off-season prospect list out there, gave the Indians a potential top-of-the-rotation starter, and essentially all for the price of a player that would have left after the 2013 season anyway. It was a shocking deal, in a good way, and because they got so good a return from the deal, no more trades were talked about.
The one downside from the deal was that Cleveland's already thin outfield became even thinner. Drew Stubbs, while a nice defensive player, was a replacement-level hitter, and the Indians didn't have anyone in-house that could even come close to Shin-Soo Choo's production. So the Indians became surprising players in the free agent market, outbidding the Red Sox for Shane Victorino but losing out on him anyway. But the Indians weren't done; they then focused their attentions on the second-best outfield on the market.
Going into the offseason, Nick Swisher seemed not to be obtainable. The Indians the winter before went hard after Carlos Beltran, only to lose out to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Indians hadn't really signed a free agent of consequence since Roberto Alomar, and the recent rebuffs only fed into the view that Cleveland was a place to go only if nobody good wanted you. And after Victorino went to Boston, that view seemed to be perpetuated. But the Indians pulled out all the stops with Swisher, enlisting Urban Meyer, Thad Motta, and Jim Tressel to tug at Swisher's Ohio State heartstrings. Even though Swisher left town without signing a deal, the visit turned out to be the deciding factor (although the money certainly didn't hurt); the contract would be the largest free agent deal in team history by a larger margin.
Taken together, the Choo trade and Swisher signing was one of the best series of moves anyone made in baseball last winter. The Indians started with a talented corner outfield that was bolting after the season and ended with a talented corner outfield signed through at least 2016 and one of the best pitching prospects in the game.
The Indians filled some other holes via free agency; they inked both first baseman Mark Reynolds and starting pitcher Brett Myers to one-year deals. Neither player is a long-term solution for the Indians, but both were very much needed at positions which were black holes at the end of last season.
The Indians made several other minor moves during the off-season, dealing Esmil Rogers for infielder Mike Aviles and catcher/corner infielder Yan Gomes. Gomes may or may not make the club this season, but Aviles will play a key role on the club as a quast-regular. The Indians also made a Rule 5 selection, drafting Chris McGuiness from the Rangers organization. They also claimed injured relieved Blake Wood off waivers from the Royals. They lost Russ Canzler (twice), Thomas Neal, and Lars Anderson to waiver claims, and Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, Roberto Hernandez, and Casey Kotchman to free agency. Rafael Perez, who was one of the few remaining members of the 2007 team, was let go in November.
So was an eventful offseason, but not in the way I thought. Although Choo was dealt, he was replaced by Swisher, and the Indians hung on to practically everyone else that was a contributor in 2012. It certainly was not a rebuilding period like we saw in 2008/2009; the additions more than overshadowed the subtractions. In no way am I considering this winter a prelude to contention this year, but as the FanFest attendance showed, a lot of fans are finally happy with the direction of this franchise.
Here's the graphical results of what the Indians did this winter. Click to enlarge:
Over the next week we'll break down the questions the Indians still need to answer in getting from the 60 players currently in camp to the 25 that will run out onto the field on Opening Day.