By T.J. ZUPPE, 92.3 The Fan

If the Cleveland Indians are to build on their brief trip to the post-season in 2013, general manager Chris Antonetti and manager Terry Francona have some extremely tough decisions to make regarding the future of their team. Can they continue to change the culture or will last year become the exception, not the rule?

Here are five big dilemmas the front office faces this winter as they attempt to construct a team that can win a championship:

Asdrubal Cabrera’s worth: If the Indians do decide to trade the two-time all-star shortstop, general manager Chris Antonetti will be faced with one harsh reality – Cabrera’s worth on the trade market is not what it once was. The switch-hitter is coming off of a season in which he batted a career-low .242 and posted the second worst OPS of his career at .700. In addition, Cabrera is owed $10-million in the final year of his contract. As a result, a player Antonetti could have possibly fetched top young talent for a few seasons ago is now potentially an average option for a club looking for offensive shortstop help. While Cleveland was certainly shopping him last off-season, the Tribe will be selling low if they intend to explore trade options for him this winter.

Zuppe spin: There is always a chance he could round back into 2011 form but at $10-million dollars, it is not a smart gamble. Mike Aviles does not present much of a drop off as a regular shortstop. Tribe should get what they can for Cabrera and use the money owed to him in other areas.

The back-end of the pen: After everything that transpired in 2013 for closer Chris Perez, it seems extremely likely the team will move in a different direction when it comes to their closer for next season. Unfortunately, the man many envisioned once taking that spot had an equally disappointing season, right-hander Vinnie Pestano. In addition, the third arm in the trio that was so strong for many years, Joe Smith, is set to become a free-agent and his future with the Tribe hangs in the balance. It’s awfully difficult for a club on a tight budget to justify spending big money on a set-up man, but with the uncertainty at the back-end, it may become necessary to throw a few more dollars than they would be comfortable at the side-winding 29-year old. If Smith ends up elsewhere, it could possibly mean looking at some in-house options such as Cody Allen or Bryan Shaw for the Indians’ closer role in 2014 or hoping Pestano can rebound into form.

Zuppe spin: I would not break the bank to keep Smith, even despite the pen turnover. Bullpens are impossible to predict, thus why it’s foolish to commit big-time money to any one guy (not named Mariano Rivera). The Indians should add to the depth, attempt to retain Matt Albers (who was better than you think in 2013) and reassess the closer role in spring training as Perez looks for employment elsewhere. Closers are more easily replaceable than many believe.

Finding another run producer: The Tribe’s biggest problems offensively bubbled to the surface when Mark Reynolds was unable to escape the downward spiral that lead to his release. As a result, the team was left searching for a run-producing bat for much of the second half and were never able to find one consistently. Entering 2014, Cleveland desperately needs to find another middle-of-the-order stick to take some of the pressure off of Jason Kipnis, Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana. Names like Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz will attract major attention in free-agency, but it’s unlikely the club will have major dollars to spend on the open market after looking into their own free-agents. Easier said than done, but Antonetti must use some his young assets to acquire another legitimate threat in the heart of the order and not just bank on rebounds by Swisher and growth by Kipnis and Santana.

Zuppe spin: Difficult as it may be, the Indians cannot afford to avoid the issue this off-season. The answer has to come via trade. The perfect storm that presented the Tribe the opportunity to nab Swisher and Michael Bourn last off-season will not come about again this winter.

The Ubaldo decision: Right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez pitched his way from disappointment to ace in the second half of 2013 and now has a tough decision to make of his own. He has the right to void the final option in his contract – an option the Indians currently hold at $8-million – and has given no indication as to what his decision will be. If he does decide to void it – a choice that he gained when traded to the Tribe back in 2011 – the team could decide to extend a one-year $14.1-million qualifying offer. Jimenez could take the one-year offer or decline and elect free-agency. In that case, Cleveland would gain first-round draft pick compensation. His choice will greatly impact how Antonetti builds his pitching staff in 2014. Will the bond created between Jimenez and pitching coach Mickey Callaway play a role in how this plays out? Only time will tell.

Zuppe spin: I am one of the few that believes the loyalty the team showed Jimenez through his struggles will play big with him as he weighs his decision. My gut tells me the odds are better than 50-50 that he returns for at least the 2014 season. Either way, the choice is entirely out of the Tribe’s hands for now.

Multi-year contract extension for Masterson? The Indians have three players that fit the mold of potential contract extension candidates in Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis and Justin Masterson, it appears the club’s ace is likely next up in line to be locked up. The righty turns 29 in March will be entering his final year of team control in 2014 and is coming off of his most complete season as a pro, posting an ERA of 3.45 and winning 14 games. He has finally grown into the role of a team leader in the pitching staff and seems to have finally put it all together on the bump. If Jimenez does decide to test the free-agent waters, the need to lock up Masterson could elevate to critical status with so many question marks regarding what follows him in the future of the Tribe’s rotation.

Zuppe spin: If Jimenez does decide to chase a contract this winter, the need to lock up Masterson goes through the roof. To avoid distraction, a contract needs to be hammered out by the start of spring. Otherwise, a slow start by the Tribe could add fuel to his trade talk fire in 2014.

Twitter: @TJZuppe

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