For the first time since at least 2007, Indians fans can look forward to next season with legitimate optimism.
And earning a wild-card berth this year is the least of the reasons to be confident the Tribe can (should?) play for higher stakes in 2014.
The team’s biggest asset going into the winter is a rotation comprised of young pitchers with live arms, most of whom have been around just long enough to learn how to become mature starters.
Justin Masterson is the leader of the group, followed by Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber. The starter with the highest ceiling is Danny Salazar, who as a rookie this season made 11 starts, his last in the ill-fated wild-card game against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Salazar lights up a radar gun and possesses a befuddling change-up. He needs polish. But while he learns his craft, he still can be a winner. But it would be a mistake for the sporting public to expect Salazar to carry the rotation. That’s seldom the way it works.
Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez have become the X-factors in the rotation. Both can become free agents, and ideally both should remain in Cleveland.
After making a run at the title of the Most Ineffective Starter in the American League last season, Jimenez turned his career around (with a big assist from pitching coach Mickey Callaway) in 2013. By the time the schedule had run its course, Jimenez was the equal of any starter in the league.
But now what? He might be the No. 1 starter in this class of free agents. If so, clubs will throw money at him. The question will not be whether he is overpaid, but by how much.
Speculation already has placed his value at about $42 million on a three-year deal. If that turns out to be accurate, it’s unlikely that General Manager Chris Antonetti will take part in the bidding.
And not only because it’s $42 million, but also because for a change, Antonetti has options. In addition to Masterson, Kluber, McAllister and Salazar, Josh Tomlin will have an opportunity to return to the rotation after undergoing elbow reconstruction surgery.
Trevor Bauer also will have a chance to compete as a starter. It speaks volumes that Antonetti doesn’t have to count on Bauer, who besides Salazar, is the most talented pitcher under the Indians’ control.
Bauer also has a precise, almost mystical approach to his craft. So much so that he seems to have mystified himself with esoteric drills and theories that so far have not served him well.
It remains to be seen whether Bauer’s self-described overhaul of his mechanics will bear fruit. If not, Antonetti will just move on to the next guy.
Kazmir, on the other hand, spent two years in limbo, trying to figure out what had gone wrong after a meteoric rise. When the Tribe gave him a chance in spring training, he hung on to it for dear life and proved at times to be almost as lethal as he was before the roof fell in on him in 2010.
Not surprisingly, his problem was a lack of consistency, which became less of an obstacle as the season progressed.
What will he do over the winter? Kazmir will not command the kind of dollars that Jimenez can attract. If the Tribe were to sign him for, say, three years, it probably would cost in the $22 million range. If so, Antonetti should pull the trigger on keeping his only left-handed starter.
Even though the GM has the numbers to put a full rotation in place without Kazmir or Jimenez, a team can never have too much pitching. It’s a tired axiom, because it’s true.
If there is no hole to fill in the rotation, what do the Indians need? Obviously, a hitter who can drive in 100 runs and can fill the cleanup spot.
Manager Terry Francona had no cleanup batter for virtually the entire season, piecing together a lineup that never quite blossomed.
Granted, Francona had a lot of guys who hit 10-20 home runs and drove in 60-80 runs but no big bat in the middle of the lineup to make others around him more productive and make pitchers nervous.
Finding such a hitter, either by a trade or free agency, should be Antonetti’s first priority. Maybe his only priority.
Usually, the market for premium run-producers is thin, which means it will cost a ton, either in players given up, cash or both.
Where would the money come from to pay for such a hitter? With Mark Reynolds and Brett Myers already gone and Chris Perez on his way out, the Tribe will save $21.3 million. The Indians’ most attractive trading piece is Asdrubal Cabrera. If he does not return, the available cash rises to almost $28 million.
But built-in raises for Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Carlos Santana will add $14 million to the payroll, leaving less than $14 million to spend. However, it’s likely that Jimenez will go elsewhere. It’s also possible that Drew Stubbs and Joe Smith (another prospective free agent) will flee, adding almost $12 million more to Antonetti’s cache of dollars.
Why Smith? There are reports he will ask for a three-year deal, and it’s unlikely that Antonetti will agree to pay a non-closer at least $12 million.
One other major issue remains. If Perez is traded or non-tendered, who will be the Indians’ closer?
At the moment, there is no favorite to win the role, but I would be surprised if Francona and Antonetti don’t find at least one reliever on the current roster who can make the job his own.
It might be Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw or Vinnie Pestano. Maybe Antonetti will bring in someone else and for far less than the $9 million or more that Perez can command because he is eligible for arbitration.
Next season, Yan Gomes almost surely will be the everyday catcher, and Santana will move to designated hitter and sometimes to first to give Swisher a break. That will open up the backup job for Lou Marson, who has good hands and a good head.
The Indians don’t need a lot more to challenge the Detroit Tigers for the Central Division championship, but they do have to get it right in the offseason.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.