Following the end of the regular season, I caught a flight to Milwaukee and helped out with MLB.com's Brewers coverage for the first round of this year's playoffs. What I received was a first-hand look at a small-market team turned World Series contender.
Organizations like Milwaukee in the National League, or even Tampa Bay in the American League, should give hope to fans of a club like the Indians. There are issues in the market, certainly with payroll, but teams have found formulas that have led to windows of postseason opportunity.
Consider the Brewers -- who have relied so much on developing talent from within and pulling off trades to help solidify their roster. Now, they are playing for a trip to the Fall Classic, only a few weeks before possibly losing slugger Prince Fielder to a mammoth contract via free agency this winter.
Cleveland knows all too well about watching its star players leave for greener pastures, or seeing them dealt before such a situation even arises. Indians fans are also plenty familiar with seeing its team pull off trades that bring in young players who are being counted on to create that window for contention.
The Brewers pulled off deals to land pitchers Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum to boost a homegrown rotation. The Indians are hoping their acquisitions of arms like Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez can do the same. Such is the plight of small-market organizations that can't often afford the marquee free agents.
So have faith, Tribe fans. It is hard to remain patient with a team that has not won a World Series since 1948, but there is no denying that the Indians took a huge step forward in 2011. Much like the Brewers' approach a few seasons ago, the Indians now see the next few years as a prime chance to make a run toward October.
Now, let's tackle the first Indians Inbox of the offseason ...
I've heard it being discussed, but are the Indians really thinking of moving Carlos Santana to first base and getting a catcher (maybe in free agency) to replace him? If they do, I could picture them getting someone like Ryan Doumit.
--Michael C., Carlisle, Pa.
The only discussion regarding Santana revolves around finding the best way to keep his bat in the lineup on an everyday basis. It is not often that a catcher leads his team in games played, but that is precisely what the switch-hitting Santana did this past season for the Indians.
Cleveland does not intend to make Santana a full-time first baseman, though. What you will probably see is a continuation of the plan implemented in 2011. This year, Santana received 88 starts behind the plate, 63 at first and one as a designated hitter. Going forward, expect his playing time to continue to be split between positions.
So the issue facing the Tribe is finding the best way to mix and match at catcher and first base. That might mean targeting a right-handed hitter to split time with Santana at first. Matt LaPorta opened 2011 with that job, but the first baseman has not been guaranteed anything for 2012.
It might also mean targeting a third catcher -- beyond backup Lou Marson -- who is capable of handling splitting time behind the plate. Marson was a sound defensive complement to Santana, but the Indians might want a little more offense out of their No. 2 catcher. Cleveland will probably explore that possibility this winter.
Doumit is certainly an option via free agency -- if the Pirates decline his 2012-13 club options, as anticipated -- and the Indians have been linked to him in past trade rumors. Like Santana, Doumit is a switch-hitter. Last year, the veteran hit .303, with a .352 on-base percentage, in 77 games for Pittsburgh.
I'd imagine someone with Doumit's experience would seek a starting role on the open market. But Cleveland certainly presents a unique opportunity. The Indians might be able to offer more playing time than a traditional backup catching job, and the Tribe is expected to be a contending team next season.
Do you think Carlos Pena is a candidate for first base next year?
--Jeff J., Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Given the answer to the previous question, you could probably surmise that the answer to this one would be, "No." Bringing in a full-time first baseman would force Santana into a full-time catching role, which would obviously hinder Cleveland's ability to keep him in the lineup on an everyday basis.
The only other way to keep Santana's legs fresh would be to split his time between catching and working as a designated hitter. As things stand right now, Travis Hafner and his $13 million salary are expected to be back in the DH role for 2012. Unless the Indians find a way to trade Hafner -- extremely improbable given his contract, lack of versatility and health history -- Santana will need to see action at first base.
The other problem is that Pena is left-handed. The Indians have a surplus of lefty hitters and a need to have a right-handed batter sharing first-base duties with Santana. LaPorta could still be that guy, or maybe Cleveland would take a chance with Shelley Duncan, considering his strong finish to the 2011 season.
Can you shed any light on the Indians organization's obsession with left-handed-hitting outfielders and left-handed-hitting players, period? Can they not develop a decent right-handed bat or scout one?
--Scott L., St. Louis
I do not think it is so much of an obsession, as much as a product of how things have developed in recent years. It is also worth noting that two of the lefties in the lineup (Santana and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera) are switch hitters.
It is also worth pointing out that the majority of pitchers in baseball are right-handed, so being able to stack a lineup with lefties can be an advantage. It is also a plus inside Progressive Field, which is better suited for left-handed hitters. That 19-foot wall in left field is not kind to righties.
That said, Cleveland clearly has a need for some right-handed power in the heart of the order. Everyone -- not just the Indians -- felt LaPorta could develop into a right-handed power threat at the Major League level. His struggles have exposed the Tribe's need for more pop from the right side.
Have a question about the Indians?
E-mail your query to MLB.com Indians beat reporter Jordan Bastian for possible inclusion in a future Inbox column. Letters may be edited for brevity, length and/or content.
Is there any thought for the Indians to trade Grady Sizemore? He has been inconsistent and also gets hurt a lot.
--Jared E., Chardon, Ohio
Simply put, Sizemore is untradeable right now.
The center fielder just underwent surgery on his right knee, following an injury-plagued year in which he underperformed when on the field -- and he has an $8.5 million club option for next season. The Indians have until three days after the conclusion of the World Series to either pick up that option or pay a $500,000 buyout.
It seems highly unlikely -- given Sizemore's injury woes the past three seasons -- that the Indians will exercise his option. If that is, indeed, the case, the two current scenarios for Sizemore appear to be either letting him test the free-agent market or exploring a new contract (one possibly including incentives or an option) to keep him in the fold.
With Asdrubal's success this season, I would love to see the Indians keep him for a while. He's a free agent after 2013, so Cleveland is guaranteed two years. But I would like to see them extend his contract. Do you think they would consider it?
--Alexandria Y., Brunswick, Ohio
The Indians are generally tight-lipped when it comes to these matters, so there has been no indication yet as to whether the team is exploring a multi-year deal for their All-Star shortstop. Considering he is eligible for arbitration this winter, and due for a hefty raise, it seems logical that the Tribe would discuss the idea of an extension with Cabrera's agent.
I know the Indians have Hafner for next year. But with his record of getting injured, do you think the team will at least make an offer to Jim Thome? I think he still wants to play, and I believe his presence will pay for itself. It would be sad to see Thome finish his career somewhere else.
--Steve B., Concord, Ohio
I have an inkling that Thome will still be in a uniform for the 2012 season, but I do not expect that to be with the Indians. Having Hafner and Thome split time in the DH role made sense in the final month, because of their respective health issues. Having that situation for an entire season is an entirely different story.
Do you think the Indians regret trading Orlando Cabrera to the Giants? I still haven't seen the outfielder Cleveland got for him play, and he also had plenty of playoff experience that may have helped the team down the stretch.
--Brad M., Erie, Pa.
The Indians insisted that Cabrera did not ask to be traded in July, but know that the deal was a mutual parting of ways. The plan all along was for rookie second baseman Jason Kipnis to reach the Majors at some point in 2012, and that moved the veteran Cabrera into a reserve role. It was clear that Cabrera was not content with being a bench player. He was a valuable asset in the season's first half, but there were no regrets after the trade.
What will the Tribe do with Jason Donald and/or Kipnis? It seems that both have earned future playing time in the Majors.
--Jeff M., Poland, Ohio
Given his solid play during his first taste of the big leagues, Kipnis is in the plans as the Indians' starting second baseman for 2012 and beyond. With Lonnie Chisenhall expected to be back at third base, and Asdrubal at shortstop, Donald is looking at an infield utility job for next season.
What are the odds you will not promote your alma mater more than four times an Inbox next year? If you haven't figured it out yet, we hate all things Michigan. We don't relate to your Michigan State world.
--Matthew H., Middleburg Heights, Ohio
Hey, you brought it up this time -- not me. Go green!