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12/07/09 10:55 PM EST

Budget-strapped Tribe being diligent

Shapiro and staff clarifying needs with teams, agents

INDIANAPOLIS -- All you really need to know about the Indians' involvement -- or lack thereof -- in this year's Winter Meetings is that the Tribe's front-office brass didn't even arrive to the Indiana Convention Center until mid-afternoon Monday.

While many baseball executives were already knee-deep in meetings with agents by that point, the Indians arrived here knowing they are unlikely to pull the trigger on any deals -- be it a free-agent signing or a trade -- this week.

That's not set in stone, of course, because nothing in baseball is. But the Tribe's financial picture is pretty much cemented. Even with a bare-bones payroll for next season (it's not likely to top $60 million), ownership is already prescribing a deficit in the books.

So general manager Mark Shapiro and his staff came here not necessarily to make moves but to do their due diligence by further clarifying their needs with agents and other clubs.

"To different degrees, you always do the same thing when you get in this environment," Shapiro said. "You take advantage of a setting where you've got all the teams and agents accessible to you. You try to avoid the pressures and the momentum that the competitiveness of being together can create, but you look for ways that you can incrementally improve your team."

Money will be at the root of each decision. The Indians already have six players -- Travis Hafner, Jake Westbrook, Kerry Wood, Jhonny Peralta, Grady Sizemore, Fausto Carmona -- who will eat up about $48.5 million of the 2010 payroll. Spending on the other 19 spots will, in most cases, be near the Major League minimum.

Still, Shapiro said he is not tied to a specific payroll number for next year. While he has a general feel for his constraints, he's not ruling out the possibility of finding a fit in free agency.

"I've got a firm idea that it's not going to be a firm number," Shapiro said of payroll. "The revenue picture is still one that's evolving. I think [president] Paul [Dolan] has been clear, as always, that if there's a deal we think provides value, we should bring it to him and let him make a decision."

If the Indians do surprise themselves and everybody else by swinging a deal at these meetings, it would be more likely to come in the trade department than free agency. Still, the Tribe doesn't have any obvious trade commodities now that catcher Kelly Shoppach has been dealt to the Rays.

As far as free agency is concerned, the Indians will be looking for bargains in their hunt for a veteran starter, a utility infielder and a right-handed bat for first base and/or left field. But this will be a hunt that will likely reach mid-January, at the earliest, before it bears any fruit.

The speculation exists that this will be a depressed free-agent market, and that could eventually work to the Indians' advantage. But it's going to take time.

"There are clearly guys who are still going to get paid well at premium positions with a lot of demands," Shapiro said. "What you wait to see, in a situation like ours, is where the underbelly of the market is and where there's potential value. It takes a long time for that to be physical."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.