CLEVELAND -- The Indians believe their window for contention has arrived.
One needs to look no further than the blockbuster trade in July that landed starter Ubaldo Jimenez, and sent Cleveland's top two pitching prospects packing, for evidence of the Tribe's confidence level. The Indians feel that a push to the postseason is a realistic goal.
"We've transitioned from that developing team to a contending team," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said at the end of the season. "Our sole focus is to do what we can to build around a very talented nucleus to put ourselves in a position to have a chance to play meaningful games not only in September, but in October next year.
"That's what we'll set out to do this offseason."
With the 107th World Series now in the books, Major League Baseball's free-agent period began Oct. 30 at 12:01 a.m. ET. The Indians have not been big players on the open market in recent winters, but their level of involvement will probably increase this offseason, considering the promising season just turned in by the club.
Cleveland finished this past season with an 80-82 record, marking an 11-win improvement over the previous year. The Indians ended 2011 in second place in the American League Central and were in the playoff discussion for a majority of the season. The Tribe hung in the race despite featuring one of baseball's youngest teams.
Given the youthful roster, and the wave of injuries that struck the team throughout the year, it would be understandable for the Indians to simply be content with their showing. That is not the message that Antonetti or manager Manny Acta want to send.
"We just can't sit here and be satisfied," Acta said.
The task at hand is finding a way to build on the successes experienced during this past season.
The Indians like the foundation in place with Jimenez, Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin leading the rotation and All-Star closer Chris Perez anchoring a strong bullpen. The Tribe also sees promise with players such as shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, catcher Carlos Santana and second baseman Jason Kipnis highlighting the offense.
The Indians still have their financial limitations, so it seems probable that the club would look more to trades than free agents for upgrading its roster. That said, Cleveland will certainly explore what options exist on the open market and the organization will likely be more involved in talks than was the case the past two winters.
"We made progress this year, but we need to improve in every area," Antonetti said. "Offensively, defensively and on the mound, that will be our focus both with the guys that we have internally and anything we do externally. It's been a good year and we made a lot of progress, but we need to be better."
What follows is a breakdown of the Indians' situation heading into the free-agent period:
Free agents: Travis Buck, OF; Chad Durbin, RHP; Kosuke Fukudome, OF; Mitch Talbot, RHP; Jim Thome, DH.
Eligible for arbitration: Asdrubal Cabrera, SS; Shin-Soo Choo, RF; Jack Hannahan, 3B; Justin Masterson, RHP; Chris Perez, CL; Rafael Perez, LHP; Tony Sipp, LHP (only if eligible via Super Two status); Joe Smith, RHP.
Club options: Fausto Carmona, RHP, $7 million (option exercised); Grady Sizemore, CF, ($500,000 buyout after option declined).
Non-tender possibilities: Jack Hannahan; Rafael Perez.
AREAS OF NEED
First base: The Indians have made it clear that first baseman Matt LaPorta will have to earn the starting role for 2012. That said, Cleveland will be examining internal alternatives for first base, as well as exploring options via trade and free agency. Santana figures to see some time at first base next year, too.
Third base: The Tribe wants more thump in the heart of its lineup and upgrading at first or third base is one way to do it. Cleveland could stick with the defensively-sound Hannahan, or give youngster Lonnie Chisenhall a chance out of the gates, but the team will certainly look at other possibilities this winter.
Outfield: With Sizemore's option declined, the Indians can explore upgrades for left or center field, given Brantley's versatility.
Rotation: With Carlos Carrasco (right elbow injury) out for the season, the Indians have an increased need for rotation depth. Cleveland will probably be in the market for one or two mid-rotation arms and the club will explore trades and free agency to fill that need.
2012 payroll: The Indians operated on a budget of around $49 million in 2011, and that figure will see a natural increase for '12 given the volume of players eligible for arbitration this offseason. Beyond that increase, Cleveland did get some flexibility after declining the $9 million option on Sizemore.