I think it’s fair to say that it’s been a relatively frustrating off-season for Indians fans. The Tribe pounced quickly on Derek Lowe via trade at the end of October, but have little to show for the rest of the winter. Of course, they have numerous players signed to minor league contracts with Spring Training invites (which I’m in the process of analyzing), but otherwise have had an extremely quiet off-season. The only thing to really make noise for the Indians was the arrest of Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez Heredia, which can hardly be seen as a positive.
Up to this point though, the other teams in the AL Central had not done much either. The Royals did not make any major moves, but they do have a solid young core of players. The Twins signed Josh Willingham, but are trying to bounce back from a 99 loss season. With the White Sox – I have no idea what they’re doing. Rebuilding? Not rebuilding? I’m starting to wonder if even Kenny Williams knows what is going on. Detroit looked tough, since they were bringing back most of their AL Central Champion roster. Then they received news that was almost as devastating as the Indians’ loss of Carmona/Heredia – Victor Martinez, one of the major forces in their lineup, will miss the entire 2012 season with a torn ACL. While I never like to see someone (especially a player I really like) go down to injury, removing Martinez from that lineup makes it much less formidable.
That was obviously until yesterday, when the Tigers signed free agent Prince Fielder to a 9 year, $214 million deal. I initially thought “this will make him the most expensive DH in history,” but it sounds like he will continue to play first, while Miguel Cabrera DHs. (CORRECTION: I guess Cabrera is going to go back to 3rd?) I have to admit, a one-two punch of Cabrera-Fielder makes me very nervous as an Indians fan (at least over the next few years). While I’m slightly jealous that they were able to land Fielder, at the same time, I think that contract is absolutely absurd. I have to give Scott Boras credit; just when it looks like the market for a player isn’t that strong, he manages to get the Detroit Tigers to fork over the money. He did it with Johnny Damon and Magglio Ordonez in the past, and I’m sure he’ll do it again in the future.
We were discussing this on our Facebook page yesterday, and while it definitely makes Indians fans nervous, many people obviously agreed that 9 years is kind of crazy. It’s the kind of deal that looks brilliant for the first 4 years or so, and then the team spends the next 5 years trying to get out from under it. Neither Cabrera or Fielder are necessarily the poster boys for physical fitness; there’s even one story pondering whether or not the pair will hit a combined 600 home runs, or a combined 600 pounds first.
Even though some of the Indians players expressed surprise at the Fielder signing, they still feel confident of the Tribe’s chances in 2012. I’m much more pessimistic than I was a few days ago (and I wasn’t exactly overly optimistic at that point), but it’s worth pointing out that teams actually have to play the season before they can be declared World Series, or even divisional, champions. Just ask the 2011 Boston Red Sox, whom many pundits believed would coast to the AL East title and potentially the AL pennant. Or ask the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies, who were basically crowned World Series champions in March, before they were unable to get past St. Louis in the NLDS in October. Or even the 2008 Detroit Tigers – some theorized that they may score 1,000 runs and would coast to the AL Central title. That team didn’t even reach the .500 mark until almost halfway through the season and eventually finished in last place. Despite their overall successful season, at one point the 2011 Tigers lineup had the biggest disparity between the top four hitters and the bottom four hitters – the most polarized lineup in modern sports history. The top four hitters averaged a .925 OPS, while the bottom four averaged .603 – a difference of .322. Prince Fielder likely fills the shoes of Victor Martinez (with much more power), but the rest of the lineup has seen few changes.
The Indians still haven’t found an additional player to boost the offense, and have watched players like Michael Cuddyer, Josh Willingham, and Carlos Pena sign elsewhere. While the Cuddyer and Willingham contracts were relatively pricey and multi-year, in the end Pena signed for just one year and $7.25 million with Tampa Bay. It sounds as if the Indians never made a formal offer, which means they probably didn’t get approval to take on the additional payroll. Even though there are some that suggest the Indians cut ties with Carmona/Heredia in order to free up salary, that may not be as simple as it sounds. It’s very difficult to void contracts, and there may not be any way for them to legally do so in his case (I must admit that I’m not well versed in contract law, though). Manny Acta claimed that the Indians are doing everything they can to get him back to the United States, but admitted he may not be back for Spring Training. I think it’s optimistic that Carmona/Heredia makes it back, simply because he must complete the judicial process in the Dominican Republic, and after all of that, must get his documentation in order to enter the United States. Leo Nunez/Carlos Oviedo was outed for falsifying his identity in September, and he still hasn’t returned to the United States. The Florida Marlins placed him on the restricted list, which means that he does not count toward the roster and does not receive pay. The Indians will likely choose the same path if they are unable to get Carmona/Heredia back in the United States before the start of the season.
Derrek Lee is still available and is a reasonable option at 1B for the Indians. Unfortunately, it sounds like Lee is ready to sit out if he doesn’t get what he is asking. I’d bet that no matter what he’s asking, it’s still probably more than the Indians are willing to spend.