Indians offseason preview: Power hitter remains glaring need
(We will preview one team’s offseason each day leading up to the start of free agency. Now up: the Cleveland Indians.)
Many national pundits picked the Indians to win it all in 2015, but the club was doomed by another slow start and failed to even make the playoffs. In fact, the Tribe struggled to get over the .500 mark all season, but managed to finish the year at 81-80 and in third place in the AL Central.
The Indians have one of the best young pitching staffs in the league, but their starters often worked with little to no run support. The team’s defensive miscues also played a prominent role in its disappointing season.
With such a talented core of young players and a dominant starting staff, the Indians could be perennial contenders in the division if they address some of these pressing needs this offseason:
1. Get a power hitter. The Indians haven’t had a legitimate middle-of-the-order threat since Travis Hafner, whose production was hampered by injuries. So if you want to go back even further, you could say Cleveland has lacked a slugger since the days of Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez.
The Tribe finished 2015 with a .256 team batting average and in the bottom third of the league in runs scored. They ranked 11th in the AL in slugging percentage (.401), 12th in isolated power (.144) and 13th in home runs (141).
If the front office truly believes the current team has what it takes to get to the promised land, it will do what it takes to add a power hitter. How it plans to do that is a different story.
The Indians are your typical small-market team with payroll limitations, meaning they won’t be big players in free agency. So that leaves the trade route. Earlier this month, The Boston Globe reported that there’s "no question the Indians are going to deal a starting pitcher for a hitter this offseason" and that Danny Salazar is the likeliest candidate to be dealt. Carlos Carrasco was reportedly made available at the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, so he remains a possibility for trade bait. While the Indians definitely have the goods to land a top-tier slugger, dealing one of their prized young pitchers would only take away from the team’s biggest strength.
2. Clean up the defense. The Indians began the season as one of the worst fielding teams in baseball. In fact, through the first two months of the season, their defensive efficiency was historically bad. But then they shook things up, promoting third baseman Giovanny Urshela and rookie of the year candidate Francisco Lindor to take over at shortstop. They also traded or demoted corner outfielders Brandon Moss, David Murphy, Nick Swisher and Jerry Sands, who were all serious defensive liabilities. The defense improved, but the damage to their record had already been done and the Indians spent the rest of the season trying to play catch-up for a playoff spot.
While the poor defense isn’t completely to blame for the Tribe’s slow start, it certainly played a huge role. You can be sure that next year’s squad will be hammered with defensive drills early and often during spring training.
3. Upgrade the outfield. While the Indians have All-Star Michael Brantley locked up in left, they have some decisions to make at the other two spots. Abraham Almonte ended the season as the team’s starting center fielder with Lonnie Chisenhall and Ryan Raburn platooning in right. It’s hard to see the Indians picking up Raburn’s $3 million option for 2016 and the team doesn’t seem to consider Chisenhall an everyday player.
One of the organization’s top prospects, Bradley Zimmer, looks to be the Tribe’s center fielder of the future, but he’s still a few years away from being a staple in the majors. While Chris Johnson and super-utility man Jose Ramirez can both play the outfield, there are still too many question marks to leave things as-is.
Don’t be surprised if the Indians go after a second- or third-tier free agent outfielder like Dexter Fowler, Ben Zobrist or Austin Jackson. If they can’t get anything done in free agency, they’ll have to explore their options via trade.