How the Indians can contend again

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
1:30
PM ET
The Cleveland Indians did it last season -- they made the playoffs for the first time since 2007 en route to finishing with the club's seventh-highest winning percentage since the American League expanded to the current 162-game schedule in 1961.

Of course, doling out $117 million in free agent contracts didn't hurt, a total that was nearly $110 million more than the franchise handed out the two previous winters. It took a 21-6 September record, including winning the final 10 games of the regular season, to win a wild-card spot, where the Indians succumbed to the Rays in the one-game playoff.

For a franchise like the Indians -- an organization that perpetually has to keep one eye on the present and the other on the future -- a lot needs to go right. And it did.

Scott Kazmir was resurrected off the Indy League scrap heap to throw the third-most innings in his big league career. Yan Gomes went from nondescript prospect acquired from Toronto to finishing with 3.7 Wins Above Replacement (FanGraphs), the third-best mark among AL backstops. Ryan Raburn, released by the Tigers, followed up the worst season of his career with one that no one could have expected (.272/.357/.543 and a 152 wRC+). And a move that was staunchly criticized by the local media for two years -- acquiring the enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez -- was one of the key driving forces down the stretch.

Not just a lot of things went right last season. A lot of unforeseen things went right for the Indians.

The difference between last year's club and the one heading into 2014 isn't drastic -- Jimenez, assuming he signs elsewhere, is going to be replaced by a full season of Danny Salazar, the club's most exciting homegrown pitching prospect since C.C. Sabathia; John Axford replaces the mercurial Chris Perez, and Shaun Marcum has the inside track at Kazmir's fifth spot in the rotation.

And, yet, Cleveland could just as easily win 82 games as it could 90 in 2014.

Why?

Depth. Or more precisely, the lack thereof.

The Indians' modus operandi has been to extend the organization's net as wide as possible in the bargain bin, hoping to unearth a few solid performances -- perhaps even getting lucky with a career season or two -- out of the mixture of buy-low candidates. It's essentially throwing as much wet spaghetti against a wall and waiting to see what sticks.

Through that method they hit three home runs in Kazmir, Raburn and lefty reliever Marc Rzepczynski, who allowed just two earned runs during his 20-plus innings of work in Cleveland. The club did OK with Mark Reynolds (he was hitting .255/.336/.505 through the end of May), and they swung-and-missed terribly on Brett Myers. Hard-throwing reliever Blake Wood, who was claimed on waivers in November 2012, is another that fits that buy-low mold who has a chance to become a key contributor in 2014.

By adding outfielder David Murphy, Marcum and Axford, the club has continued to take this approach.

But it can't stop there.

Four spots in the rotation are taken -- Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, Salazar and Zach McAllister. There are a couple internal candidates for the fifth spot to go along with Marcum -- Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer. But it wouldn't hurt to add one more arm capable of chewing up some innings at or slightly above league-average replacement level.

Lefty Erik Bedard would come rather cheaply. He battled some control issues last season, walking 11.3 percent of the batters he faced, but he did also fan 20.8 percent, a slightly above-average mark. Travis Blackley, another southpaw, has the ability to pitch in the rotation and out of the pen and should have to settle for a minor league deal. A few others include Clayton Richard, who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in July, Jeff Niemann, Jeff Karstens and Scott Baker.

The bullpen is pretty solid with Axford, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Rzepczynski, Wood, and recently acquired Josh Outman slotted for spots. Vinnie Pestano, C.C. Lee, Nick Hagadone, Scott Barnes, Matt Capps and Austin Adams will lock down the remaining opening or two.

On offense it's much the same: Adding depth.

The club seems committed, at least for now, in moving backstop Carlos Santana to third base, which is a fantastic gamble. Along with Santana's ability to play first base, Mike Aviles and recent signee David Adams help provide late-game defensive replacements at the hot corner without totally removing Santana's bat from the game.

Signing another catcher like defensive stalwart Taylor Teagarden on a minor league deal with a midseason opt-out option would be wise for when the bumps and bruises start to add up on Gomes. Adding Adams to the picture also provides the team with another option -- further exploring a trade for enigmatic shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera.

While the shortstop market is a bit limited right now (maybe Cincinnati?), it would be prudent to remind teams that Cabrera, who's signed for a reasonable $10 million through the end of 2014, has spent more than 1300 innings at second base throughout his career. Are the Yankees really content replacing Robinson Cano with Kelly Johnson? The same could be said about the Orioles heading to spring training with the duo of Jemile Weeks and Ryan Flaherty at the keystone. Toronto's second base situation is a bit muddled and the Jays are clearly in a win-now mode.

If the Indians can't find sufficient compensation, then head into the year knowing Cabrera won't be re-signed and be content grabbing the compensation pick in the offseason. But it's something the team needs to explore.

First baseman David Cooper has already been added, but signing a few additional low-risk minor league deals like Travis Hafner, Chris Dickerson and Randy Ruiz wouldn't hurt.

For the Indians, it's not about making a major splash; it's about adding as much low-risk depth as possible. It's the same approach Branch Rickey took when he established the first farm system, creating "quality out of quantity."

The club needs to get lucky again, and they'll do this by attempting to stack the odds in their favor.

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