CLEVELAND: Will it be Carlos Pena? What about Casey Kotchman? How about neither. Matt LaPorta is still in the picture, and there’s always Carlos Santana, at least part time.
So who will open the season at first base for the Indians? Nobody knows, and that includes General Manager Chris Antonetti, the man in charge of stocking the roster.
Antonetti talked about the dilemma Friday, after it was mentioned that rumors have connected the Tribe with free agent Pena. Antonetti doesn’t name names when discussing player personnel moves, so that leaves only hints.
“I stay away from specifics,” he said. “But we continue to look for ways to improve the team.”
What a shock.
But Antonetti did specifically cite his cast of position players as a target for an upgrade, especially at first base. It follows that Pena has been part of Antonetti’s discussions.
The catch? There are two: It costs money to buy a free agent, and the Indians are not the only franchise with an interest in signing Pena.
Responding to a general question about the team’s budget, Antonetti said: “We have some flexibility, but obviously it is not unending. Whether that flexibility and a player’s desires can align, we don’t know yet.”
Asked if the budget for player salaries is set in stone, he said, “We don’t have a hard-and-fast number.”
Signing Pena is not a slam-dunk solution to the first-base problem. In 153 games with the Chicago Cubs last year, Pena, 33, hit 28 home runs, accumulated 80 RBI, 72 runs and 101 walks but batted only .225 with 161 strikeouts in 493 at-bats.
Pena is the poster child for power hitters who have turned strikeouts into a consistent facet of their repertoires. In the past three seasons, Pena has averaged one strikeout every three at-bats.
Moreover, his batting average the past three years has been disappointing: .225, .196 and .227, the latter two figures compiled while playing for the Tampa Bay Rays, who might want Pena back.
Maybe Antonetti will point out these numbers to Pena’s agent, Scott Boras, who also represents Kotchman (and Santana). Boras is famous for getting his clients the last dollar, which might indicate that Antonetti will have to overpay to obtain Pena or Kotchman.
Pena made $9.95 million in 2011. That might or might not be doable for the Tribe if his asking price remains the same. But it is unlikely that Boras will settle for a one-year deal, which would probably make sense for Antonetti.
Kotchman, 28, earned only $750,000 last year and is due for a significant raise after batting .306 for the Rays (who reportedly continue to talk to him).
Money, of course, isn’t everything. Despite Pena’s obvious drawbacks, he is much the superior run producer. Kotchman drove in only 48 runs and hit 10 home runs in 2011. He did compile a .378 on-base percentage, but he had never batted .300 or better until last season; the closest he came was .296 in 2007 for the Los Angeles Angels. In 2010, his batting average was a meager .217.
There is another downside to signing either Kotchman or Pena: Both bat from the left side, and the Tribe needs another left-handed batter like CC Sabathia needs a case of Tootsie Rolls.
But what does all this talk mean for the future of LaPorta, the incumbent right-handed first baseman? Maybe nothing. So far the Pena, Kotchman rumors have come to nothing, though it’s clear that Antonetti is not satisfied with LaPorta, who batted .247 with 11 homers and 53 RBI in 107 games last year.
Even if he doesn’t lose his position during the winter, LaPorta won’t have a secure job when spring training begins.
“Evaluating him in spring training won’t be results based,” Antonetti said. “[Hitting coach] Bruce Fields spent four days with Matt in Florida, and he was excited about what he saw. He made some adjustments with his swing. In spring training, Matt will have to be more consistent in his fundamentals and with his approach at the plate.”
Santana, the Tribe’s No. 1 catcher, played first base at times last year. That practice probably will continue, particularly if LaPorta wins the everyday job. But Antonetti still views Santana primarily as a catcher.
“That’s our expectation at this point,” he said.
But keeping his options open, Antonetti added that if backup Lou Marson shows improvement at the plate during exhibition season, Santana might end up at first more often than is currently anticipated.
No room for Manny
Manny Ramirez indicated he wants to play baseball again, but it won’t be in Cleveland.
“His contributions would be as a hitter,” Antonetti said. “We already have a DH.”
Another set of eyes
The Indians have hired Adam Everett as a special assistant in baseball operations. His duties will include instructing infielders in spring training. During the regular season, he will concentrate on minor-league player evaluation and minor-league infield instruction.
Everett, 34, finished an 11-year career in the big leagues last year by playing 34 games as a utility infielder with the Tribe.
Six nonroster players in the Tribe’s farm system have been invited to major-league spring training camp: right-handers Austin Adams, Chen-Chang Lee, Tyler Sturdevant and Hector Ambriz plus catcher Chun Chen and outfielder Chad Huffman.
The Indians will visit Summit Mall as part of their “Tribe on Tour” winter promotion.
Manager Manny Acta, plus players Shelley Duncan, Jason Kipnis, Jack Hannahan, Jason Donald, Josh Tomlin and radio broadcaster Jim Rosenhaus will sign autographs and mingle with fans January 28 from noon to 2 p.m. at the center of the mall.
Fans also can win prizes and bid on autographed collectibles, with the proceeds going to youth-oriented charities in Northeast Ohio. The event is free.
The Indians’ winter development program will run from Monday through Jan. 27 at Progressive Field at the club’s spring training headquarters in Goodyear, Ariz.
This year’s class includes right-handers Rob Bryson, Adams and Sturdevant; left-hander T.J. McFarland; catchers Chen and Roberto Perez; outfielders Aaron Cunningham, Tim Fedroff, Jordan Henry and Thomas Neal plus infielder Juan Diaz.
The Tribe signed three minor-league free agents who will report to minor-league spring training camp: infielders Argenis Reyes and and Chin-Lung Hu and right-hander Willy Lebron.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/tribematters. Follow the Indians on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ABJ_Indians. Follow Beacon Journal sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.