"There's still a lot of offseason left," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "There's still a lot of time before Opening Day."
The message behind that statement is that anything can happen. All it takes is one phone call for a deal to gain momentum, which has a way of developing during baseball's Winter Meetings. This offseason's annual get-together will take place Dec. 5-8 at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas.
Cleveland has already shored up its rotation by acquiring Derek Lowe in a trade with the Braves and solidified its outfield by re-signing Grady Sizemore. Next on the agenda -- beyond the usual low-profile moves to address depth up and down the roster -- is finding a way to improve the Tribe's offense.
Antonetti has held discussions with free agents and he has talked trades with other teams. The Indians GM is not sure, however, which route might present the best option for upgrading the position-player aspect of his roster.
"It's very difficult to handicap the two different avenues," Antonetti said. "We've been engaged in both. We've certainly had substantive conversations with free agents, as well as laid the groundwork for some potential trades. Now, which direction we end up going, or whether or not those will atually get done, I don't have a great sense."
What is clear at the moment is that the Indians plan on relying heavily on the young core that is in the fold, with the hope that the team can build on the success experienced throughout the 2011 season. Cleveland had one of the youngest rosters in baseball, but finished second in the American League Central.
The rotation is set with Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Fausto Carmona, Josh Tomlin and Lowe. The starting outfield is locked in with Michael Brantley in left, Sizemore in center and Shin-Soo Choo in right. Travis Hafner will be back as the designated hitter, Asdrubal Cabrera as the shortstop and Carlos Santana behind the plate.
Youngsters Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall will compete for the everyday jobs at second and third base, respectively. The bullpen -- led by All-Star closer Chris Perez -- could return nearly the entire cast that ended the year with Cleveland. Right now, there is only one spot available in the relief corps.
As the Winter Meetings approach, the most logical position to upgrade is first base. Matt LaPorta's struggles have led to a situation where the Indians want to create some competition at that spot come Spring Training. Catcher Carlos Santana will play the position some, but the Tribe might try to add another player to the mix.
Antonetti did all he could to shy away from specifics.
"First base is certainly an avenue that we could pursue," said the GM.
Right now, the Indians' lineup projects to have at least six left-handed hitters (Hafner, Chisenhall, Kipnis, Choo, Brantley and Sizemore) as well as a pair of switch-hitters (Cabrera and Santana). Adding a right-handed bat would benefit the Indians, but Antonetti said that is not the team's focus.
"If there is a right-handed bat out there that complements our team well," Antonetti said, "that we feel will improve our team the most, that will be the direction we try to go. If the opportunities are a switch-hitter or a left-handed hitter, we're certainly open-minded to them as well.
"We're not going to limit ourselves by just focusing on any one particular attribute. We're not looking only at right-handed bats. I don't think that would be prudent for us to do."
Some first basemen on the free-agent market include Carlos Pena, Michael Cuddyer, Derrek Lee and Casey Kotchman, among others. Of that group, the 36-year-old Lee would potentially be the most affordable of the right-handed options.
The Indians do have some financial wiggle room.
Cleveland has $34.2 million tied up in five contracts and the team might have to pay more than $20 million on top of that in order to retain its seven arbitration-eligible players. Overall, the payroll projects to be around $60 million before the potential additions of one or two more players to the Major League roster.
Antonetti declined to discuss an exact payroll figure, but it is believed that the Indians have the ability to operate on a payroll of up to around $70-75 million. That gives the club some spending money for possibily adding a first baseman, or signing a veteran reliever to boost an already solid bullpen.
The Indians will also be looking to add some players to the mix on Minor League contracts, which has been a familiar approach in recent winters. The Tribe's clearest need is outfield depth, but the team might also consider adding more depth for the rotation, bullpen, utility roles and behind the plate as well.
"There's a number of guys that will come into camp to try to compete for spots," Antonetti said. "That's been an important area of our club. Over the last two years, we've added five non-roster guys to our team coming out of Spring Training just on the position-player side alone.
"Those players that have been signed on Minor League deals have made significant contributions to our team over the last two seasons."
The Winter Meetings will provide Antonetti with a chance to have some face-to-face meetings with some agents and other general managers.
Once such talks get going, anything can happen.
"We're certainly open-minded," Antonetti said.