Indians Have Big Holes To Fill in Infield/Outfield
Now that the Cleveland Indians appear to have their starting pitching sorted out for 2012, the club will now have to look at three gaping holes in their defense to fill, center field and the two infield corners. The Tribe declined their $9 million option on fan-favorite Grady Sizemore and all signs are pointing to Grady signing with another club as Cleveland is not going to ink a deal with him for anything close to that $9 million salary. The Indians also must realize that after two seasons, Matt LaPorta is not the player they were hoping for at first base when they received him in 2008 from the Brewers as part of the CC Sabathia deal. LaPorta’s anemic offensive production coupled with his suspect fielding mean that the Tribe needs to find a power-hitting first baseman who can also act on his feet with a glove.
There are a few free agent first basemen out there right now, but many of them (Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, Aubrey Huff, Lance Berkman, Derrek Lee, Albert Pujols) would either want too much money to be a potential stop-gap for the Tribe, or would simply not fit the current team’s mould. One potential player that the Indians could look at would be former Indian Russell Branyan, but the Indians may be unwilling to take a third chance on Branyan after a strike-out filled 2011 campaign which saw him appear on base more infrequently as the season dragged on. Casey Kotchman is another possibility, the Marlins are expected to cut him as they explore Pujols and Prince Fielder in their quest to fill their new stadium in Miami. Kotchman batted .306 in 146 games with Florida in 2011 with 10 homers, 24 doubles and 48 RBI and at age 28 he fits right in line with the current team’s make-up.
Perhaps even more of a concern for the Indians will be finding out if they have a player on their current roster who can man the hot corner at third base full-time. Lonnie Chisenhall showed very little progress in his first big league season, and that leaves veteran Jack Hannahan or converted shortstop Jason Donald as the two likely candidates to win the job next spring. The trouble is, Hannahan signed a one-year deal with the club last December and made the team as a spring training non-roster invitee. To bring him back, the Indians will likely have to give him a multi-year deal, but at age 31 he doesn’t necessarily fit the mould for the team that the Tribe is building right now. In fact, should they decide to bring Hannahan back, he would become one of the oldest members of the club playing as an everyday player as their roster’s average age is in the mid-twenties.
Jason Donald would be an interesting option as well, the Indians like Donald who came over with Carlos Carrasco, Lou Marson and Jason Knapp from the Phillies in 2009 for Cliff Lee and Ben Francisco. Donald’s natural position is at shortstop, but he did play both third base and second base for the Tribe this season. Donald’s success at the plate leaves a bit to be desired though, and in the long run his numbers don’t look that much different from Chisenhall’s when it comes to offensive production.
Clearly, if the Indians look to fill these holes through free agency, they will not be going out to sign the likes of Albert Pujols. In fact, the Indians have already used up $5 million of the money that they saved by letting Sizemore walk to sign veteran starting pitcher Derek Lowe whom they acquired from Atlanta just a week ago. Instead, the Indians will have to look at some players who may have experienced a bit of a skid in 2011 but are likely to rebound next season. One of their options at center field would be former Indian Coco Crisp, whom some consider the top free agent center fielder available right now. The Indians gave up on Crisp and shipped him off to Boston and he has a history of being injury prone. 2011 marked the first full season Crisp played in four years, and that on paper does not look much better than if they brought Sizemore back into the fold.
The San Francisco Giants currently have two men on their roster who might be a good fit in Cleveland. Both Andres Torres and Angel Pagan had difficult years in 2011 after posting strong numbers just a year ago. The Giants have recently acquired Melky Cabrera, which means they could be looking to unload at least one if not both men from their roster. The Tribe would probably have to give up something to get either of them though, and right now they may not be that willing to part with the likes of a Donald or a Shelley Duncan to bring in a player that they cannot guarantee will be a winner for the club. Internally, the club has Michael Brantley and Ezequiel Carrera who both played center field for the Tribe in 2011. Brantley is considered by most to be a stronger left fielder than a center fielder, and is coming off wrist surgery which shut him down in September. Carrera is coming off a mixed bag of a rookie season which saw him make some horrible gaffes in center field and inconsistent appearances at the plate. Neither man looks like a legitimate full-time solution for the Indians who hope to contend for the entire 2012 season rather than falling off over the last month and a half like they did in 2011.
The Tribe could also try to bring back free-agent Kosuke Fukudome whom they received from the Cubs before the trade deadline. Like Brantley though, Fukudome is a corner outfielder by trade, and though he made some decent starts for the Indians at center, he will likely be looking for a multi-year deal which is something the Indians are not likely to offer. In the minor leagues only Trevor Crowe remains as a legitimate contender coming into Spring Training. The Indians depleted their Triple-A team throughout the 2011 season thanks to injuries to their key players like Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo and Brantley and they have not had a chance to restock with any long-term talent yet. Should they decide to sign a high profile, or even a medium profile first or third baseman in free agency, the Indians could trade the likes of LaPorta, Donald or Hannahan away in order to retool their minor leagues with some fresh young talent.
The fact is that the Indians will eventually be players during this offseason, they have both the cash and the momentum coming off a solid 2011 campaign to go out and add some much needed help and talent to their ball club. For the first time in a decade, December is going to mean something in Cleveland besides the Browns losing, and the town is ready to see the Dolans build a winner for them now as opposed to two or three seasons down the road.
By Robert Gonzalez
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