Indians still shopping for big bat
As the swirling snow piled up Friday inside Progressive Field, which was being prepared for an outdoor college hockey game, Indians general manager Chris Antonetti finished lunch and pondered dessert.
He opted for just coffee.
The only treat Antonetti craves is a hitter.
Cleveland's search for a middle-of-the-order bat this winter - Manny Ramirez is not an option - has been stalled by a market waiting for Prince Fielder to decide where he wants to play. Once Fielder, the top available remaining free agent makes his choice, the Indians will be in position to sign one of the next tier of first basemen, a group that includes Carlos Pena, Casey Kotchman and Derrek Lee, to fill their biggest need.
Antonetti said there have been points during the offseason where the Indians have been ''one phone call away from potentially executing a deal for a free agent or a trade.''
Are they still that close?
''Uh,'' Antonetti said with a considerable pause. ''Maybe from getting the parameters of something in place, but I don't feel like with the next phone call we would have something to announce this afternoon.''
That could change once Fielder signs.
The Indians don't have the millions to compete for Fielder, who for weeks has been reportedly near a deal with Washington. However, they can fight for Pena, Kotchman or Lee, all of whom would be upgrades following a season in which Matt LaPorta failed to develop into the player Cleveland hoped he'd be when they traded CC Sabathia to Milwaukee for him and Michael Brantley in 2008.
Antonetti, who refused to discuss specific players he is targeting, was asked if Pena would fit within Cleveland's budget restrictions set by owners Larry and Paul Dolan.
''Do you know what Carlos Pena's budget is because I would like to know?'' Antonetti said, laughing. ''We have some flexibility. It's not unending, but we have some flexibility to continue to improve the team. Whether or not that flexibility and an individual player's desires will align on value and fit, which are both important parts of the equation, we don't know yet.
''We're going to continue to work on it.''
Pena spent last season with the Chicago Cubs. The 33-year-old batted .225 with 28 homers and 80 RBIs. He is represented by agent Scott Boras, who also negotiates for Fielder.
Kotchman could be a more realistic target for the Indians. He's only 28 and is coming off a solid season in Tampa Bay, batting a career-high 306 with 10 homers and 48 RBIs.
Antonetti remains optimistic he'll be able to add a productive bat to help the Indians, who led the AL Central for nearly 100 games in 2011 before fading in September and finishing 15 games behind first-place Detroit. Cleveland's offense was ranked ninth in the league in runs, highlighting the need to bolster the lineup.
Antonetti doesn't feel a power bat is vital, and there could be other methods to create scoring.
''We'd like to find the right player that fits with our team,'' he said. ''It doesn't necessarily have to be a bat. There are other ways to continue to improve the team. We would like to try and do something, but I wouldn't say it's imperative. We feel good about the foundation of players we have. We feel like we've improved from the start of the offseason. We're in a good spot, but certainly we would like to improve upon that.''
Antonetti has shown a willingness to do whatever it takes to fix his team. Before the trading deadline in July, he acquired starter Ubaldo Jimenez from Colorado for top pitching prospects and went to the winter meetings with more deals in mind. He hinted at a major ''mystery trade'' that failed to materialize, but not for lack of effort.
''It didn't happen, like 968 others,'' he said.
His deals this offseason have been met with a collective yawn by Cleveland fans wanting more. Shortly after the season ended, he acquired starter Derek Lowe from Atlanta and then re-signed oft-injured outfielder Grady Sizemore. Antonetti understands there's a need to sell tickets, but he's not going to make moves just to spin the turnstiles.
''One acquisition isn't going to determine the success of our season,'' Antonetti said. ''How successful we are is going to depend upon the group of guys we already have here. Hopefully what our fans saw last year was a group of guys who have a lot of potential to be good, and when they were healthy for the majority of last year, we were in first place for 96 games. That same group is coming back and they should be a year closer to their prime.''
LaPorta has one last chance.
He batted .247 with 11 homers and 53 RBIs in 107 games, but the Indians need more from the 27-year-old who must show major improvement - and a willingness to make more changes - in spring training. Antonetti said hitting coach Bruce Fields spent four days in Florida working with LaPorta.
''Bruce came back really excited,'' Antonetti said. ''He feels that Matt has a much better feel for his swing and he's made some adjustments and he's building a strong foundation coming into camp.''
Ramirez, on the other hand, won't be in Arizona - at least not with the Indians.
While Cleveland brought back Jim Thome last season, the club isn't planning any reunion with Ramirez, who spent eight seasons in Cleveland before leaving as a free agent.
Ramirez recently applied for reinstatement to Major League Baseball after he was suspended 100 games for failed drug tests.
''With where we are, it's probably not the best positional fit for us,'' Antonetti.said. ''Manny, his contributions would be more in the batter's box, and we already have a DH.''