That topic has stolen headlines and dominated the recent coverage of the club, taking attention away from what could be the more pressing issue within the infield. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera could hold the key to helping the Tribe take the next step after its run to the American League Wild Card Game in 2013.
"I think Cabby will be coming in with something to prove," Indians manager Terry Francona said.
The Indians are expecting another strong season from second baseman Jason Kipnis, who made his first All-Star team last year and appears on the cusp of stardom. Cleveland is also confident that veteran first baseman Nick Swisher -- deemed healthy after a nagging left shoulder injury hindered him last year -- can bounce back from what was a subpar season by his standards.
On the left side of the infield, the only certainty right now is that Cabrera will be back at shortstop, barring an unexpected, last-minute trade. As for the latter scenario, Tribe general manager Chris Antonetti has stated throughout the winter that he fully expects to have Cabrera back at short when the Indians open the 2014 season.
Prior to last season, Cabrera was widely considered Cleveland's best all-around offensive player. The Indians feel their shortstop is motivated to return to that type of level.
"He got nicked up a number of times," Francona said of Cabrera's showing in 2013. "It happens to somebody every year. He was playing catch-up and his swing got long, and he tried to go two or three for one, and you can't do that. You see it happen. Every team has it happen to somebody. I do think he'll show up with something to prove."
Cabrera -- scheduled to earn $10 million in his final season under contract with the Tribe -- will surely be aiming to correct a discouraging three-year trend this season.
Dating back to 2011, the 28-year-old has posted a .241/.299/.390 slash line in 809 plate appearances in the second half, compared to a .280/.344/.402 line in 1,036 plate appearances in the first half. That's three straight years that included a second-half fade. The Indians also collapsed as a team in 2011-12, but they were strong enough to make up the difference last year.
Overall, the switch-hitting shortstop posted career lows in batting average (.242) and on-base percentage (.299) last season, while contributing 14 homers, 35 doubles and 64 RBIs in 136 games for Cleveland. Now, Cabrera could be entering his final year with the Indians, considering his pending free agency and the rise of highly-touted shortstop prospect Francisco Lindor through the farm system.
"The numbers may have not been up to what he expects of himself," Antonetti said at the end of the season. "But to the last day he was a really good teammate, and really cared about winning. I think he was probably as heartbroken with the season ending as any guy on our team."
The Indians believe they know what they have in Kipnis, who hit .284 with 17 homers, 36 doubles, 30 stolen bases and 84 RBIs in 149 games for the team last year. Kipnis provides a unique blend of power and speed and will likely open this season as the Tribe's No. 3 hitter once again.
Swisher, 33, hit just .246 with 63 RBIs last season, but he turned in respectable figures in terms of home runs (22), doubles (27) and walks (77). Francona and Antonetti have both stated that they feel Swisher, who was playing under the first season of a four-year deal with Cleveland, heaped too much pressure on his shoulders. A left shoulder injury certainly did not help matters.
As for third base, the Indians do not have a clear answer at the moment. Cleveland will be taking a close look at Santana, because Yan Gomes has assumed the starting role behind the plate. The Indians know Santana can stay in the lineup at first base or designated hitter, but the club wants to see if third is also an option.
"He'll come into Spring Training and transition and work with our Major League staff," Antonetti said. "At some point in March, we'll have to look up and say, 'OK, how's it going? Should we continue this or not?' But we're a long way away from that."
The Indians have not abandoned hope that Lonnie Chisenhall -- still young in age (25) and experience (682 career plate appearances in the Majors) -- might still be the answer at third base.
"That's why we have Spring Training," Antonetti said. "We're all very confident in the player that we still believe Lonnie can be. We're hopeful that he's put in the work this offseason to come into Spring Training ready to go and that he'll show that our best team is with him as our third baseman."