Starter Options for the Indians


How Will the Indians Build Their Rotation in 2014 and Beyond?

Let’s assume that the qualifying offer that the Indians made to Ubaldo Jimenez was not a bluff, that the Indians really intend to spend $14-million on somebody this offseason.  After all, Jimenez wasn’t exactly a franchise icon like Jim Thome, so it is unlikely that the Indians would have gone outside their comfort zone to keep him.  The only other explanation would be that the Indians were so certain Jimenez would decline the offer that they felt safe in extending it just to get the extra draft pick.  This is plausible, but a team in the Indians’ demographic can’t bluff with $14-million; if there was a ten percent chance that Jimenez would accept the offer, the Indians would not have risked it unless they felt like they could afford it.

So, for argument’s sake, let’s say they intend to spend the money that Jimenez was unwilling to take.  In a way, that is the money they spent on Jimenez and Brett Myers last year, so investing that much money in the rotation is essentially just treading water.  But is the rotation the place to spend that money?  Spending eight digits isn’t particularly scary, but in order to get a guy who is sure to move the needle on contending in 2014, you need to spend that money for multiple years beyond 2014.  So you not only have to project whether a guy can help you next year, you have to guess whether that guy will be worth his salary in 2018.

Sep 19, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez (30) delivers in the first inning against the Houston Astros at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Ervin Santana is a perfect case in point.  He had a good year with the Royals, and his agent expects to leverage that into a five-year deal worth more than $100 million.  That seems like a reach, but as one of the top five free agent starters he is likely to command at least $80-million.

Now consider that Santana was awful in 2012.  Not only that, he was awful in 2006 and 2009, with negative WAR in each of those years.  So if you spend $80-million or more on this guy, his track record suggests that in at least two of the five years he will repay you by wrecking your season.  That assumes he stays healthy for the entire contract and doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that he will be 35 by the end of the deal.

The Indians could also take some of that money and sign Justin Masterson to a long-term deal, avoiding the need to replace him after the 2014 season.  I love Masterson and hate the idea of watching him pitch for the Yankees in 2015, but the same caveats apply to him as Santana.  He hasn’t been completely awful at any point in his career, but 2011 and 2013 were the only seasons where he was an elite pitcher.  It would be a leap of faith to give him a five-year deal.  I would consider it if he would take $13-$15 million a year, but he won’t.

This is why the Indians are swimming in the shallow end of the pool for free agents.  It is also why I feel that they may be inclined to keep the door open with Scott Kazmir.

Kazmir is apparently asking for only a two-year deal, and he seems like a good candidate for a deal with a heavy incentive component, where the team is protected if his health or control problems resurface.  Maybe guarantee a third year if he gets three hundred innings in the first two years. He’s only 29, and the fact that he struck out more than one per inning last year indicates that his resurgence is real.  I don’t know if I would go crazy with the money, but if he would take two years for $17-million I would think about it.

Oct 5, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price (14) reacts to giving up two runs during the first inning in game two of the American League divisional series playoff baseball game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Another possibility for upgrading the rotation is a trade.  The Indians have been linked to David Price in some rumors.  Any such trade would involve giving up either Danny Salazar or Francisco Lindor.  Price and Justin Masterson would give the Indians a rotation that could compete with the Tigers next year, but in 2015 he may win $20-million in arbitration, which would force the Indians to pursue a trade for the same reasons the Rays are currently doing so.  If such a trade is made it has to be done with an eye toward winning in 2014.

If Salazar is involved in the trade the hole that currently exists in the rotation is still there, just surrounded by more established names.  The idea of Salazar being the third starter behind Price and Masterson next year gives me goose bumps, and it is not completely ridiculous to say that Salazar could be as good as Price in a year or two, so a deal that likely results in neither of them being in Cleveland in 2015 or 2016 is not a good idea.

Lindor, however, is only one of a deep crop of middle infielders in the Indians’ system.  While it would be painful to give him up, the difference between him and Dorssys Paulino is not as great as the difference between, say, Salazar and Josh Tomlin.  Besides, a trade of Lindor likely has little effect on whether the Indians win in 2014 because he is ticketed to spend the entire year in Columbus as of now.   So for next year such a trade is a big win for the Indians.

I have always been of the philosophy that if you think you have shot at a special season you go for it and worry about the future later.  This flies in the face of how teams like Tampa Bay and Oakland operate, and blows up in your face if the year you go for it doesn’t work out.  But Tampa Bay and Oakland haven’t been waiting since 1948, so how you feel about this trade comes down to whether you think this team has a real shot next year.