CLEVELAND -- The Indians enjoyed the the strides taken by their team last season, but missing out on a postseason berth left the club wanting more. The steps Cleveland takes this winter could lay the foundation for further progress next year.
When the Winter Meetings kick off on Monday in Dallas, the Indians will continue their search for roster upgrades. Cleveland's top priortity at the moment -- after addressing holes in the rotation and outfield -- is finding another bat to add to the mix.
"We're certainly going to continue to look to improve the team," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "That's our expectation for the balance of the offseason. We'd like to find any way we can improve the team, but our focus will continue to be on improving the position player club."
The Indians made the first offseason splash on Oct. 31, when the team landed veteran righty Derek Lowe in a trade with the Braves. On Nov. 23, Cleveland re-signed center fielder Grady Sizemore to a one-year contract worth $5 million after declining his $9 million club option earlier this offseason.
Barring a trade or two, the bulk of Cleveland's roster appears set heading into the 2012 season. The most glaring hole on the Major League team is at first base, and the Tribe is in the midst of searching for a solution. Beyond that, the club's focus will likely be on adding depth to guard against a rash of injuries, which was an issue last season.
Here is a quick glance at the Indians' situation heading into the Winter Meetings, which begin Monday in Dallas:
First base: A second straight subpar showing from Matt LaPorta has the Indians on the hunt for alternatives at first base. Catcher Carlos Santana will see time at the position in 2012 and Shelley Duncan could serve as an in-house option. Cleveland is exploring free agency and trades this winter to potentially shore up the situation.
Right-handed bat: Duncan's strong finish might have the Tribe considering giving him a shot as a regular lineup contributor this season. That said, Cleveland will continue to look for right-handed help (six lefties and two switch-hitters project to be in the starting nine) for its offense. First base is the most logical spot to upgrade.
Outfield depth: The starting outfield is set with Michael Brantley in left, Sizemore in center and Shin-Soo Choo in right. Duncan and utility man Jason Donald provide possible depth on the big league roster. The Indians could still use more depth behind the Major League outfield and that could come in the form of some Minor League contracts.
Pitching depth: The rotation is set for now with Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Fausto Carmona, Josh Tomlin and Lowe. Virtually the entire 2011 bullpen -- a team strength -- could be back next season. Still, the Indians know a team can never have enough arms, so depth for the rotation and 'pen could be sought leading into the spring.
Who they can or need to trade
DH Travis Hafner: There is hardly a market for a full-time designated hitter who is set to earn $13 million in 2012, especially given Hafner's recent history of injury. If the Indians found a taker, though, the team would almost certainly listen. Hafner is expected, however, to be a big part of Cleveland's lineup come Opening Day.
SP Fausto Carmona: The Indians are counting on a nice bounceback year for Carmona, who had a $7 million club option picked up this offseason. For all his issues, Carmona is still a durable sinkerballer capable of logging 200-plus innings. If Cleveland falls out of the race by mid-season, Carmona's potential as a trading chip might rise.
In no particular order: Shortstops Francisco Lindor, Tony Wolters, Ronny Rodriguez and Dorssys Paulino; Catchers Alex Monsalve, Alex Lavisky and Chun-Hsui Chen; Outfielders LeVon Washington and Luigi Rodriguez; Second baseman Cord Phelps; Right-handers Zach McAllister, Dillon Howard, Chen-Chang Lee, Austin Adams, Zach Putnam, Jake Sisco, Felix Sterling and Bryce Stowell; Left-handers Nick Hagadone and Scott Barnes.
Given the volume of players that have recently reached the Majors for the Indians, it's the lower levels of Cleveland's farm system that are stocked with most of the "top" prospects. Even after trading pitchers Drew Pomeranz and Alex White to the Rockies, the Tribe has decent Minor League pitching depth, especially in the bullpen. The surplus of solid relievers presents the best pool for potential trades.
Rule 5 Draft
The Indians' 40-man roster is at capacity, so the team would need to clear room if it wanted to select a player in Thursday's Rule 5 Draft. Things could change, but right now it seems unlikely Cleveland would add someone in the Major League portion of the Draft. As things stand, the Indians have 37 players in their system that are eligible for Rule 5 selection. Some notable players within that group include outfielders Trevor Crowe, Chad Huffman and Tim Fedroff; lefties T.J. Mcfarland, Eric Berger and Elvis Araujo; right-handers Rob Bryson and Stowell; and infielder Jared Goedert.
Big contracts they might unload
Hafner's contract is one that sticks out, but the veteran DH is also in the final guaranteed year of his deal. The Indians plan on sticking with Pronk for 2012, but it would probably take a superb season for the club to exercise his $13 million club option for '13.
Arbitration eligible: SS Asdrubal Cabrera ($2.025 million in 2011), OF Shin-Soo Choo ($3.975 million), 3B Jack Hannahan ($500,000), RHP Justin Masterson ($468,400), CL Chris Perez ($2.225 million), LHP Rafael Perez ($1.33 million) and RHP Joe Smith ($870,000)
Non-tender candidates: Rafael Perez.
The Indians have not made a specific payroll ceiling public, but it is believed the club could operate on a budget of around $70-$75 million. The Tribe has $34.2 million tied up in five contracts and the team might have to spend between $20-$25 million through arbitration, if everyone is tendered. Add in the cost of the rest of the roster, and the club might have about $10 million in offseason spending money.