Basically, expect a quiet showing from the Tribe in the free-agent market, once again. Free agents are now free to sign with any club.
"The bulk of the improvements to the team are going to have to happen internally," general manager Chris Antonetti said recently. "And then, whether or not we'll have the ability to be opportunistic in the free-agent market and at what level, that's going to be determined by a bunch of variables that are still unclear at this time."
They're unclear because the Indians, with the lowest attendance in baseball this year, didn't generate much revenue and are only expected to show interest in potential bargain players. The market takes weeks, if not months, to sort itself out, in that regard.
The Indians have dramatically slashed payroll the last three years -- to the point where they have just $26.6 million in present salary commitments for 2011 -- and they aren't expected to beef it up dramatically this winter. Arbitration cases with Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera, among others, will lead to some raises, but this club will still be in the lower-third of the payroll rankings.
Last year, the Indians signed only one free agent -- backup catcher Mike Redmond -- to a Major League contract, and that signing didn't come until mid-January. Consider that a precedent for the kind of winter the Indians will have in this year's market.
RHP Anthony Reyes, C Chris Gimenez, C Luke Carlin.
Eligible for arbitration:
LHP Rafael Perez (second year), OF Shin-Soo Choo, SS Asdrubal Cabrera, RHP Joe Smith, 3B Andy Marte, RHP Chris Perez (likely a "Super 2") and RHP Jensen Lewis (likely a "Super 2"). Aaron Laffey will likely just miss "Super 2" status.
Areas of need
After July's Jhonny Peralta trade and the ensuing defensive trainwreck when Jayson Nix, Andy Marte and Luis Valbuena took over for the final two months of the season, this certainly qualifies as an area of need for the Tribe. Still, it's debatable how much they'd invest to fill this spot. Nix, who will be playing winter ball in Puerto Rico to sharpen his skills at the hot corner, is their primary internal option. The Indians basically need somebody to keep the position warm for Lonnie Chisenhall, who is one of their top prospects and will be at Triple-A Columbus. So, even if they do sign somebody, it is most likely to be a one-year deal. They might be more likely to just roll the dice with Nix or try to work out a trade than they are to make a signing.
Starting pitcher: Another area of need, as the Indians could certainly stand to benefit from having an experienced, dependable veteran in the mix. Jake Westbrook filled that role in '10, before he was traded to the Cards, and they'd probably love to have him back. Again, though, it's hard to see the Indians investing much money here, given their circumstances, and a trade might be more likely than a signing. The free-agent market for starters is often prohibitive. The Indians might decide they have enough depth in Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson, Carlos Carrasco, Mitch Talbot, Jeanmar Gomez, Josh Tomlin and David Huff to fill out the rotation.
It's been a downward slope for the Tribe's player payroll in recent years, and the trend is expected to continue. Last year, the Opening Day payroll was $61.2 million, a 25 percent drop from the $81.6 million Opening Day payroll of 2009. The 2010 trades of Westbrook and Kerry Wood cleared even more money from the books. So even with the arbitration raises -- Choo's will be the biggest, as he'll go from $460,000 to about $4 million -- the figure will be somewhere between $40 million and $50 million, at most.