Baseball Purgatory: Where Should the Indians Spend or Move to Avoid It?


Last off-season, the Cleveland Indians made waves by adding Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn for a combined $104 million over the next four seasons, with both receiving vesting options worth a combined $26 million for the 2017 season if they reach 550 plate appearances in 2016. This winter, the team hasn’t been very active, at least not to this point, and fans should probably wonder where the payroll is going if the team doesn’t make any additional, major moves over the next couple of months.

According to Baseball Reference, the Cleveland payroll in 2013 was roughly $82.2 million, including the $6.25 that went to Shin-Soo Choo (as part of the trade with Cincinnati) and Travis Hafner (for his buyout). However, based on arbitration estimates from Mark Swartz of MLBTradeRumors, the 2014 payroll figures to be $81.1 million, which includes upcoming arbitration raises for Justin Masterson, Drew Stubbs, Marc Rzepczynski, Michael Brantley, Josh Tomlin, and Vinnie Pestano, as well as a boost in annual salary value for Bourn from $7 million to $13.5 million, for Swisher from $11 million to $15 million, for Carlos Santana from $550,000 to $3.5 million, and for Asdrubal Cabrera from $6.5 million to $10 million. With the loss of Scott Kazmir to Oakland, the potential loss of Ubaldo Jimenez to free agency, and a potential need for a closer (unless the Indians go with Cody Allen or another internal candidate on the cheap), how are the Indians going to improve without increasing their payroll significantly?

Aug 2, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Cleveland Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera (13) connects for a double during the seventh inning against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It may seem odd to deal from the clubs strengths at this point, but Justin Masterson’s name continues to be tied to trade rumors, with the Arizona Diamondbacks the strongest potential match, while there have long been rumors of Cabrera being moved in a deal, yet those rumors seemed to have stalled during more recent months.

It would seem to make sense to move Cabrera and Masterson due to their cost and looming free agency, and Stubbs due to the already crowded outfield, as those three could clog the payroll at an estimated $24 million in 2014. I wrote about why it doesn’t make sense to deal Masterson last week, and you could wonder if anyone wants to take a chance on Cabrera after his free-fall offensively and defensively in 2013, but dealing Stubbs isn’t going to be enough for Cleveland to replace Kazmir and Jimenez in the rotation, while leaving enough space for a discounted closer.

Realistically, after looking over the arbitration numbers and raises for the 2014 season, maybe dealing Masterson isn’t such a bad idea. It would allow the team to add quite a bit of depth, as they may be able to acquire Matt Davidson, a power-hitting third baseman who may have nowhere to play after Arizona’s busy off-season, and a reasonable young arm like Andrew Chafin, a solid left-handed starter who posted solid numbers in Double-A in 2013. The nearly $10 million that the Indians saved could be used to sign a few reclamation projects, like Scott Kazmir was last year, such as: Shaun Marcum, Gavin Floyd, Tommy Hanson, James McDonald, Erik Bedard, or Aaron Harang at a discount to fill the rotation or provide depth – which is the greatest concern with Corey Kluber as the most experienced starter in the rotation with the possible departure of Masterson, Kazmir, and Jimenez.

Dealing Cabrera took a large hit when the St. Louis Cardinals filled their hole at shortstop Jhonny Peralta, but there could still be hope within the NL Central with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have Clint Barmes and Jordy Mercer at short, and helped guide the Pirates’ shortstops to a .236/.283/.347 triple-slash. The Pirates have a plethora of young talent, and, even if it is a pure salary dump, dealing Cabrera would allow Mike Aviles to occupy short until Francisco Lindor is ready, which could be as early as June of 2014.

Stubbs is an easy trade considering the need for strong defensive centerfielders and the Indians possession of Bourn, Swisher, Brantley, Ryan Raburn, and David Murphy as potential outfielders. While approximately $4 million in arbitration won’t break the bank, how much playing time would he really receive if he broke camp on the Opening Day roster without a major injury? It doesn’t make sense to carry Stubbs as a fifth or sixth outfield option when they could deal him to a team like the Boston Red Sox, as a fallback option for Jackie Bradley, Jr., or the Seattle Mariners, for Dustin Ackley insurance (if they don’t sign another centerfielder). It is unlikely that they would get a tremendous return for Stubbs, whose production has been lagging since his strong 2010 season, but he can handle everyday at-bats better than several free agent options that will remain once Shin-Soo Choo (a player who is stretched thin defensively as a centerfielder) signs.

If the Indians were to deal Masterson, Cabrera, and Stubbs to free up nearly $24 million in payroll, would they be competitive? Would they be a better team now? Would they be a better team in 2015?

The Indians, 92 wins or not, are still in a tough position. Are they contenders that need ownership to pony up another $10 to $20 million in payroll for the 2014 season, or are they a team that will wobble between contending and collapsing in 2014, as they did in 2011 and 2012?

The next several weeks will help determine where the Indians are going, and there are a lot of moves that can be made to make them winners or losers.

If you were allowed to voice your opinion to Chris Antonetti and Company, what would you tell him and them?