CLEVELAND -- The Indians headed into the offseason with two holes to fill in their starting rotation. With baseball's annual Winter Meetings looming next week, Cleveland is still sorting through the possibilities for patching up its starting staff.
When Major League Baseball's decision-makers convene at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., the Indians will continue their search for pitching via free agency and trades. The rotation is at the top of the Tribe's to-do list, though the club also has an assortment of questions facing the bullpen as well.
"It's one thing to have a wish list," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said, "and it's another thing to be able to execute it at value that make sense for you."
That is what the Indians are running into when it comes to this offseason's market for starting pitching.
Two of Cleveland's starting pitchers from last season -- Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir -- hit free agency as attractive arms in a market yielding lucrative contracts for even mid-tier starters. Jimenez could command at least four years given the kind of deals already dished out this winter. As for Kazmir, who was out of affiliated baseball two seasons ago, he reportedly has a two-year, $22 million contract in hand from the A's.
Already this winter, Kansas City handed Jason Vargas a four-year contract worth $32 million and the Giants re-signed Tim Lincecum to a two-year deal valued at $35 million. While not official yet, the Twins had reportedly reached a four-year, $49 million contract with Ricky Nolasco and a three-year, $24 million deal with Phil Hughes.
Those types of contracts have the potential to escalate the asking price for an arm such as Jimenez.
Under the circumstances, the Indians went into this winter prepared to lose both Jimenez and Kazmir.
"Going into it," Antonetti said, "we understood that the free-agent market, specifically the starting pitching free-agent market, is usually very expensive. So what we try to do is have a long list of guys and work through them and see which guys we think can help us, and also identify guys through trades. If there's an opportunity to improve, we'll continue to look to do that."
Jimenez and Kazmir logged a combined 340 2/3 innings last season for the Indians, who won 92 games and made the postseason as the American League's top Wild Card team. That is a considerable chunk of innings to replace, whether via external or internal options.
Behind rotation leader Justin Masterson, the Indians have an up-and-coming trio in Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar and Zach McAllister. Cleveland also has rotation candidates in Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin and prospect Trevor Bauer. That last group could enter Spring Training as options for the fifth spot, or the Indians might look to add more depth.
Earlier this offseason, the Indians showed interest in veteran starter Tim Hudson, who went on to sign a two-year contract worth $23 million with the Giants. A year ago, Cleveland took a chance on veteran righty Brett Myers for the third starter job. Along those lines, the Tribe will likely continue to look for an experienced starter to plug into the middle of the rotation.
"That's not necessarily a need," Antonetti said. "It would be our preference to improve on the options that we have, but it has to be the right guy at the right value. If that pitcher is not available through trade or free agency, we're comfortable going with the guys that we have."
The same applies to Cleveand's hunt for bullpen help.
The Indians released former closer Chris Perez this winter and lost setup man Joe Smith to the Angels in free agency. Matt Albers and Rich Hill -- members of the 2013 bullpen -- are also on the open market this winter. That has created four vacancies in the relief corps and uncertainty in both the setup and closing roles for the Tribe's 2014 staff.
Antonetti has repeatedly noted that the Indians are comfortable with giving youngster Cody Allen or Bryan Shaw a chance as the team's closer. That said, Cleveland will continue to look to free agency and trades to address its bullpen depth, or to possibly acquire a new closer.
"We're not necessarily set on it being a closer," said Antonetti, referring to potentially adding to his bullpen. "If we can add depth to the bullpen with guys in front and give Bryan or Cody an opportunity to close, great. But if there's the right guy out there that has back-end closing experience, at the right value, then great, we'll move in that direction. We have options there."
Given the way the pitching market has unfolded in the early part of the offseason, the Indians went in another direction and signed outfielder David Murphy to upgrade the offense. Murphy signed a two-year, $12 million contract, which includes a club option for 2016, to serve as the Tribe's regular right fielder.
With Murphy in the fold, the Indians have $52.75 million in guarateed payroll for 2014, with an estimated $22 million to $24 million coming through arbitration cases. When it is all said and done, Cleveland will likely operate on a payroll around $80 million, which is similar to last season.
What is different from last year is the Indians now have a better foundation from which to build.
"As I've said before," Antonetti said, "we feel like we're in a much better position heading into this offseason with our internal candidates than we were at this point last year."