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Questions Loom For Tribe As Free Agency Begins (page 586146)

By Joe Lull - Weekends on 92.3 The Fan
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(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

JoePic Joe Lull
Joe Lull has been part of the Cleveland sports media scene since 2004,...
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Building a team capable of winning 92 games certainly is not easy.

In many respects, maintaining a team capable of repeating that success is even more difficult.

With Major League Baseball’s free agency period having officially begun at midnight, Indians General Manager Chris Antonetti finds himself faced with a number of pivotal decisions that will determine the team’s ability to replicate their success from 2013.

1) Re-sign Ubaldo Jimenez?
After a disastrous 2012 season which saw the Indians righty lose 17 games, Ubaldo Jimenez was undoubtedly the most pleasant surprise of 2013. Jimenez’s confidence grew with the quality of his stuff as the season progressed, as he ultimately finished 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA for the season. Jimenez had the second lowest ERA in the American League following the All-Star break and in August and September looked eerily similar to the dominant starter he was in Colorado in 2010.

After declining his side of an $8 million mutual-option, Jimenez was extended baseball’s $14.1 million qualifying offer by the Indians on Monday. While it is unlikely he will accept the one-year deal, by extending the offer the Indians are guaranteed a compensatory draft pick at the end of the first round if they are to lose Ubaldo in free agency.

The bigger question for Antonetti and the Indians front office is whether they are comfortable offering Jimenez a long-term deal. In a thin market for starting pitching, it is expected Jimenez will command a 3-4 year contract for around $15 million per season. Can the Indians justify giving the largest free agent contract in the history of the organization to a pitcher who was thought to be a lost cause less than 12 months ago?

2) Kazmir or Elsewhere?
If the resurgence of Ubaldo Jimenez is considered the most pleasant surprise of 2013, the reclamation of Scott Kazmir has to place a close second. After recording only 5 outs in 2011 and finding himself out of Major League Baseball in 2012, Kazmir became a model of consistency for the Indians in 2013. In spring training Kazmir regained the velocity and control that had escaped him the previous two seasons, ultimately helping him to a surprising 10-9 record and 4.04 ERA in 29 starts.

The question now for the Indians is if they expect Kazmir to repeat his 2013 performance and if so, to what degree. A free agent, Kazmir is expected to command at least a two-year contract worth $8-$12 million per season. While he was a model of consistency in 2013, Kazmir did so while pitching only 158 innings – less than 5.5 innings per start – and often running into a “wall” in the 5th or 6th. Can the Indians justify committing multiple years and upward of $8 million per year to a 5-6 inning starter, or are they better served looking elsewhere?

If Kazmir is not re-signed, the Indians could look to veteran free agent starters such as Bartolo Colon, Dan Haren or Tim Hudson as alternatives to replace him in the rotation. Mark Bowman of MLB.com reported on Monday that the Indians have an interest in Hudson and that Terry Francona has already had a long telephone conversation with the free agent right hander.

3) Internal or External at Closer?
Following the Indians release of Chris Perez on Thursday, Antonetti was non-committal on where the next closer will come from. While being complimentary of Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen, two internal candidates who may get the opportunity to close, Antonetti did not rule out the possibility of bringing in a free agent closer. Lucky for the Indians, the free agent market is saturated with them this year.

Some free agent closer possibilities for the Indians include Brian Wilson, Joel Hanrahan, Fernando Rodney, Grant Balfour, Joe Nathan and Jose Veras. Due to the over-saturated market and the increasingly devalued nature of the closer role, most should be available on incentive-laden, short-term contracts.

4) Where to find a bat?
While the Indians did finish 2013 tied for fourth in the American League in runs, their getting shut out in the AL Wild Card loss to Tampa Bay only reinforced the notion that they still need a bat. While the Indians invested over $110 million in Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Mark Reynolds last offseason, it’s not expected they will look to make anywhere near as large of a financial commitment this year. Yet a bat needs to be found, the question is where.

In looking at the composition of the team, the only positions that would appear to be flexible are right field, third base and first base/designated hitter. With Yan Gomes expected to catch the majority of games in 2014, Carlos Santana will likely spend most of his time split between first base and designated hitter, while Swisher splits time between first base and right field. Ryan Raburn was signed to an extension last season, Jason Giambi re-signed last week and Drew Stubbs is eligible for arbitration next month.

It remains to be seen whether the Indians believe they can squeeze another bat into the mix between catcher, first base, designated hitter and right field. Last season they did as they added Reynolds, who split time between first base and third base prior to his release halfway through the season. If the Indians look to make a similar signing this offseason to add some depth and some offensive punch at first base/designated hitter, potential targets include Corey Hart, Kendrys Morales, David Murphy, Justin Morneau, James Loney and Michael Morse.

In lieu of adding another first baseman/designated hitter type, the Indians could instead add another part-time infielder to platoon at third base with Lonnie Chisenhall, such as Juan Uribe. Or they could aim to do the same in right field with Drew Stubbs, by adding a left handed hitting outfielder such as Kelly Johnson.

Antonetti’s job last offseason was to convert an Indians roster that lost 90-plus games into a roster capable of winning 90-plus. It turned out he was up to the task.

With free agency now officially underway Antonetti must find a way to construct a team capable of maintaining the success achieved in 2013. As of 12:01 Tuesday morning, the clock is ticking.

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