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CLEVELAND -- As the rebuilding Indians look to the free-agent market for infield insurance, it's possible they'll consider a little dose of "Little O."
Omar Vizquel figures to become available on the open market late next week, and he'll be one of several veteran infielders the Indians could potentially pursue for their utility role.
Jamey Carroll filled that role the past two seasons, and filled it well. But Carroll made $2.5 million last season, and the cash-strapped Indians, whose Opening Day payroll in 2010 should be anywhere from $20 million to $30 million less than the $81 million mark it was in 2009, aren't expected to invest that kind of money in a part-time player.
Vizquel, on the other hand, joined the Rangers on a Minor League contract last year and made a base salary of just $1 million when he made the club's Opening Day roster. If that's the type of deal it takes to land the 42-year-old Vizquel this winter, then the Indians, it would seem, could certainly stomach his salary.
In 11 seasons with the Tribe from 1994 through 2004, Vizquel provided the Indians with a steady bat and dazzling defense. He was named to three American League All-Star teams and won eight Gold Glove Awards for his work at shortstop during his tenure in Cleveland. The Indians, ready to hand over the shortstop position to Jhonny Peralta and unwilling to sign Vizquel to a multi-year deal, let the infielder walk in free agency after the '04 season.
Now, five years later, with Peralta at third, Asdrubal Cabrera locked in at short and Luis Valbuena expected to resume his regular playing time at second, the Indians could use a veteran presence to take some of the burden off the youngsters up the middle. In '09, Vizquel handled his first season as a utility player well, even making a seamless transition to third base for the first time in his career, when Michael Young was injured.
All this points to a potential fit for Vizquel with the Indians -- a team in need of easing some tension with a fan base that still adores him.
At this early juncture of the free-agent season, it's difficult to gauge just how interested either side would be in such a reunion or just how much of a market there will be for Vizquel's services. The Rangers, after all, have exclusive negotiating rights to Vizquel until Nov. 20.
But Rangers general manager Jon Daniels told reporters this week that Vizquel isn't likely to re-sign with Texas. It's becoming more likely that he will seek out a utility job elsewhere.
Vizquel's affinity for Cleveland and this team is well-documented. When he returned to the ballpark formerly known as Jacobs Field earlier this year, Vizquel told reporters he couldn't believe how popular he remains in these parts.
"I'm still walking down the street and am surprised how people call my name and recognize me," Vizquel said. "I've been gone for five years and people move on and have new teams and new players. I never expected it to be like that."
And that speaks to another reason the Indians might consider bringing Vizquel back. Granted, fans generally don't use utility infielders as the basis of their decision to buy a ticket to a ballgame, but Vizquel would certainly be a marketable asset for an Indians team loaded with young, unproven talent and a young, unproven manager in Manny Acta.
The Indians could also stand to benefit from Vizquel's notoriety. Their season attendance of 1.77 million last year was the second-lowest in the history of Progressive Field, the second-lowest in the AL and the fifth-lowest in all of baseball. Given the state of the local economy and the front office declaration that 2010 will be geared more toward development than contention, attendance forecasts for next season are gloomy.
Tribe fans have watched as the club lost CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez in trades over the past two seasons, and observed as Sabathia and Lee squared off in this year's World Series between the Yankees and Phillies.
In a town that still reminisces often about the Tribe's renaissance in the mid-90s that resulted in six AL Central titles in seven years and World Series berths in 1995 and '97, the return of Vizquel would, if nothing else, engender more of a feel-good vibe between front office and fan base. After all, it was just a few short weeks ago that some fans were clamoring for the Indians to consider Vizquel for their managerial
Of course, while the Vizquel suggestion makes sense on multiple fronts, it does leave a bit to be desired in some other areas.
For one, it's expected that if the Indians do decide to pursue a veteran utility player in free agency, they'll need him to spell Valbuena at second base against left-handed pitching, and that's not exactly Vizquel's area of expertise. The switch-hitter batted .485 in just 35 plate appearances against lefties in '09, but he's a career .255 hitter against left-handers.
And no matter where Vizquel signs, there will, of course, be concerns about his age. He'll turn 43 in April, and, while he is known to take supreme care of his body, nobody's career lasts forever.
Still, in what is expected to be a quiet Hot Stove season for the Tribe, a low-cost signing of a highly popular player is one way the Indians could potentially make some noise.