12/05/11 7:59 PM EST
Tribe open to exploring first-base options
By Jordan Bastian / MLB.com
Cleveland's hunt for a bat at these Winter Meetings centers around first base, and the Tribe is searching high and low for a realistic alternative to its current situation. The goal is to possibly upgrade over Matt LaPorta, who was supposed to be the answer when the Indians landed him from the Brewers in a Trade Deadline deal four seasons ago.
On Monday, sitting inside his suite, Indians general manager Chris Antonetti made it clear that the team has not lost faith in LaPorta. What the Tribe realizes, however, is that a continued push up the American Central standings requires more consistency from such an important position on the field.
"We still think Matt has a lot of potential," Antonetti said. "He's demonstrated at different points in the past that he can be a very productive Major League hitter. The challenge for Matt is to demonstrate that consistency over the course of a full season.
"We're hopeful that he can do that, and do that as early as next year, but right now our job is to build the best team that we can. We'll look at all avenues to improve the team."
There are few realistic options for first base on the open market for the Indians. Pujols and Fielder are way out of Cleveland's price range. Carlos Pena and Derrek Lee might also cost a bit too much for the club, too. One name linked to the Tribe on Monday was free-agent Casey Kotchman, though he hits from the left side and does not bring much power.
The fact of the matter is Cleveland is almost certainly checking in on nearly all of the available options not named Pujols or Fielder.
The Indians are also examining possible additions to help with outfield depth and utility roles. Cleveland has reportedly expressed interest in Casey Blake and Mark DeRosa, both of whom would likely command low-level deals. Cleveland has also checked in on outfielder Josh Willingham and third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, but the interest level is remote in both cases.
Internally, the Tribe wants to give Jason Donald, who hits from the right side, every chance to make the club as a super utility man. He can man multiple infield spots and will be tested in left and center field during Spring Training.
"He's a really valuable guy," Antonetti said. "He's got a lot of ability. He's got a lot of defensive versatility, too. He plays the game the right way and I think he's continuing to develop as an offensive player. You combine that offensive potential with his defensive versatility, it gives us a lot of opportunities to potentially get him in the lineup and let him play."
While searching for possible fits at first base, the Indians are keeping in mind that catcher Carlos Santana is also in the plans for some starts at first base, as well as at designated hitter on occasion. The volume of his playing time at the corner will partially be based on what other players are in the fold come Opening Day.
"A lot of it's based upon what we do," Antonetti said. "It's based upon the guys around him, how Lou Marson continues to develop offensively, what other things we do at first base, how either Matt LaPorta or someone else we bring in from the outside, how they produce at first base. We'll kind of work off that.
"[It will also depend on] how Travis Hafner is doing at DH, and his health status. We can be flexible on how we look at it. We're fortunate in the fact that Carlos' bat is so productive that it plays no matter where you play him."
The trade route might present a better fit for the Tribe.
One possibility is first baseman Gaby Sanchez of the Miami Marlins. If Miami manages to reel in a star such as Pujols, that would seemingly make Sanchez a prime trade candidate. The 28-year-old first baseman hits from the right side and is under team control for four more seasons. He also offers decent power and a solid on-base percentage.
For a team like the Indians, who have limited financial resources (the payroll projects to be between $60-70 million in 2012), inquiring about a player such as Sanchez would seem to make sense. Last year, he hit .266 with 19 homers and 78 RBIs in 159 games for the Marlins.
Cleveland also feels it makes sense to closely examine its in-house alternatives.
If LaPorta, who has a Minor League option, begins the season with Triple-A Columbus, Shelley Duncan could be a possibility for first base. Duncan -- a strong offensive performer down the stretch last year -- is out of options, so he would be exposed to waivers if he was removed from the active roster.
Antonetti noted that third baseman Jack Hannahan can play first base, as well. Another option that the Tribe has discussed is left fielder Michael Brantley, who played some first base as a Minor Leaguer.
What is clear is that the Indians are not willing to guarantee LaPorta a spot on the Opening Day roster. In his three seasons in the big leagues, LaPorta has hit .238 with 30 home runs and 115 RBIs over 269 games. A year ago, he hit .247 with 11 homers and 53 RBIs in just 107 games for the Tribe.
Antonetti said LaPorta has handled his struggles as well as possible.
"Matt's been great," Antonetti said. "His attitude's been great. His work ethic has been great. We just need to get him over that hump where he can be a little more consistent. Not for two weeks, not for three weeks, not for a month, not for two months, but for six months."