Magic ride over, busy winter beckons for Tribe
The warm and fuzzy feelings of the Indians' postseason berth weeks ago gave way to the sound of that Danny Salazar fastball colliding with Delmon Young's bat, and now northeast Ohio has been graced by its first snowfall of the winter season.
Which can only mean all that magic made in the 2013 season is firmly in the rearview.
And there was no small amount of magic. Let's be clear about that. To claim the American League's top Wild Card spot without the somewhat simple benefit of a 15-game winner or a guy batting .300 or a 100-RBI -- no, make that an 85-RBI guy -- is mighty magical, indeed.
It was an awesome ride that swept quite a few new followers onto the Tribe caravan by season's end, and that's a necessary momentum upon which the Indians hope to build.
But once this little thing known as the World Series is complete and the offseason is officially at hand, the Indians have their work cut out for them in their bid to extend the magic act.
This is especially true in a rotation that exceeded all reasonable expectation and was, surprisingly, the strength of the squad in 2013. Because in the wake of all the baseball strides that rotation made at the behest of pitching coach Mickey Callaway, the business side is about to impact things in a major way.
If the Giants' rather strange extension of Tim Lincecum -- two years, $35 million for a guy whose advanced ERA was 28 percent below league average over the last two seasons and who probably could have been secured with a one-year qualifying offer -- is any indication whatsoever, the cost of doing business in this free-agent market is going to be punitive, even by free-agency standards, and that does not bode well for the Indians' chances to retain Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, two surprisingly stalwart starters for them.
After nearly two full calendar years of frustration in a Tribe uniform, Jimenez recaptured some semblance of his 2010 form, just in time to likely price himself out of the Indians' range.
And hey, maybe, ultimately, that proves to be a good thing, because, with all due respect to Ubaldo, the complications associated with his unique delivery are real, and the velocity uptick he displayed in the second half will have to be sustained over a larger sample (and it would be helpful if that sample is not associated with a pending payday) before we know if it's trustworthy.
Shortly after the World Series, the Indians will pick up their portion of Jimenez's $8 million contract option, and Jimenez will decline it. Once that song and dance is complete, the more difficult decision rests in the Tribe's willingness to tender Ubaldo a one-year, $14 million qualifying offer, which he can either accept and remain an Indian or turn down and reap the Tribe a Draft pick should he wind up signing elsewhere.
If the Indians are worried about the prospect of Jimenez eating up $14 million of their season payroll (which last year was just north of $80 million on Opening Day), that's understandable, particularly given the pending raises for Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Asdrubal Cabrera.
But Ubaldo seems motivated enough by his free-agent forecast -- made all the better by a market highlighted by Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Rakatan Golden Eagles import Masahiro Tanaka -- that it's difficult to imagine him signing anything less than a multi-year contract. The Draft pick is valuable enough to take the chance.
Signing Kazmir might not be any more realistic, because, again, how much financial faith do you put into his crazy comeback? It's a tough one. Kazmir, to his credit, gave the Indians markedly more quality innings than anybody would have reasonably deemed imaginable coming off his Sugar Land Skeeters stint. But it remains to be seen if his high-strikeout (8.9 per nine), low-walk (2.7 per nine) tendencies can hold up in a more extended look. He did average less than six innings per start, after all.
That'll be a tough call not just for the Tribe but any club kicking the tires on Kazmir. But he's left-handed, he has a pulse, he has recent success and, uh, did I mention the free-agent market is highlighted by Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Masahiro Tanaka? Kazmir will get paid.
You see, then, how fleeting a good thing can be in this game, which is why the Indians need to make every effort to lock up staff ace Justin Masterson, a free-agent eligible after 2014, in the here and now.
The Indians are rightly enamored with the raw stuff and confidence of Salazar, and they know refinement of his secondary options can take him to another level. They were obviously encouraged by the growth shown by Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister. They'll be happy to have a healthy Josh Tomlin in the Spring Training mix, and they still think Carlos Carrasco can be a big league starter, even if many of us can't help but have some doubt.
But as we see with these two World Series teams, both of whom had eight different guys make at least five starts for them this season, depth is what delivers, and the Indians, for all their starting strides made this year, don't have a great deal of it if you remove Jimenez and Kazmir from the mix. Trevor Bauer was to be their most attractive depth option of all, and, on an end-of-season active roster that included 20 pitchers, Bauer's name was not included. That tells you about all you need to know about his 2013.
So you start with some sense of stability, if you can, and that means getting aggressive on Masterson in advance of his final arbitration year. That's a wiser investment than reaching for more from Ubaldo and Kazmir, anyway.
And if both of those guys depart, it will be fascinating to watch the Indians mine the ranks of the undervalued to try to work their magic yet again.