NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The stakes have been raised in the American League Central. And the defending champs of the division remain idle. The Indians had another predictably quiet day at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center on Tuesday, but the 2007 Winter Meetings buzzed with the announcement of a blockbuster deal between the Tigers and Marlins.
With the rival Tigers set to acquire left-hander Dontrelle Willis and third baseman Miguel Cabrera from Florida for a package of prospects, the Indians will obviously have their work cut out for them in their efforts to retain the division crown. "We fully expected the Tigers to field a contending club," general manager Mark Shapiro said. "Obviously, [the trade] makes their team better. But we're focused on ourselves and what we can do to field the best team we can." The way things are going for the Tribe this winter, that team figures to be very similar to the one that dropped Game 7 of the ALCS to the Red Sox. The Indians had asked about Cabrera during last month's GM meetings in Orlando but were dismayed by the Marlins' asking price, which reportedly included infield prodigy Asdrubal Cabrera and top pitching prospect Adam Miller, among others. That the Tigers were able to acquire both Cabrera and Willis without giving up any established members of their big league club was nothing short of a shock. The deal, however, is not expected to alter the Indians' approach to the winter market. "We know our division is going to be good and deep," Shapiro said. "We know it's going to be a battle. The greatest accomplishment is what you do over 162 games. I would expect Detroit, Chicago, Kansas City and Minnesota will all be better next year." Shapiro said the meetings have been "awkward and uncomfortable" for him and his staff, because it's rare for a club to report to baseball's annual transaction spectacle without direct and pressing needs. "But in reality," Shapiro said, "it's certainly a better place to be than having to come here and fill spots." One spot where the Indians could use an upgrade is left field, but it's looking increasingly doubtful a deal boosting that area will take place this week. Talks with the Pirates about Jason Bay have cooled, and rumors that the Indians inquired about the Blue Jays' Alex Rios were bogus. For now, Shapiro remains content with returning the bulk of a club that won 96 games in '07, thanks in large part to its in-house depth. "When it gets down to teams adjusting and handling injury, I think we've got, within our division, the greatest depth of alternatives," Shapiro said. "Last year, that's what separated us from the Twins and the Tigers. When we had disappointing performances or injuries, we had guys that stepped in and contributed." Lee in the rumor mill: Left-hander Cliff Lee's name has been sprinkled around the Opryland as potential trade bait, with several teams -- namely, the Mariners, Pirates and Blue Jays -- reportedly interested. But the Indians are shooting down the rumors, saying they haven't even been approached during the Winter Meetings with a concrete offer for Lee. The left-handed Lee was an 18-game winner in 2005 and has two years and about $9.5 million remaining on his contract. He strained an abdominal muscle in Spring Training of '07, missed the first month of the year, then labored to a 5-8 record and 6.38 ERA in 16 starts before a demotion to Triple-A Buffalo.
The Indians have two other younger, cheaper left-handers -- Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey -- who would compete with Lee for the club's fifth rotation spot. "[Lee's] stuff is still good," Shapiro said. "Last year was an awkward year from the injury, and it snowballed the wrong way. His competitiveness is still present. I still feel he could be a 200-inning pitcher again and a valuable contributor to our staff." As for the trade rumors, Shapiro indicated he's hesitant to move starting pitching. "Obviously, people know we have seven starters," Shapiro said. "I don't view that as a ton of depth, because we don't know who No. 8 would be. We have to feel we'd get considerable value back if we're going to deal one of our starters." Big deal for Betancourt? The Indians met with Alan Nero, the agent for Rafael Betancourt, on Tuesday for a preliminary talk about the right-handed setup man's contract for next season. Betancourt is in his second year of arbitration-eligibility. Last year, he sought a multiyear deal with the club but instead signed a one-year contract for $860,000. He stands to reap a significant raise after an '07 season in which he was one of the league's most dominant relievers. The 32-year-old Betancourt went 5-1 with three saves and a 1.47 ERA in 79 1/3 innings. Nero acknowledged that Betancourt would certainly like a multiyear deal but said his client is not "obsessed" with the idea. "We don't have any preconceived notions," said Nero, who took over representation of Betancourt this year. "We're going to go with the flow. [The Indians] have a good track record of doing the right thing by their players, so we'll see. If it's multiyear, that's fine. If it's arbitration, that's fine. We're in a unique situation where the system basically keeps everybody honest." Betancourt will still have a third and final year of arbitration before he's eligible for free agency, so the Indians don't necessarily have to rush to lock him up long term. "I'm sure they'll get to us when it's appropriate," Nero said. "I have no doubt Cleveland will handle this the way they handle everything. They're a first-class organization." Without naming names, Shapiro said the Indians might explore long-term contracts for a few pre-arbitration players during Spring Training. Fausto Carmona might be in that lot after his 19-win '07 season.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.