Barely active in free agency or on the trade market, the Indians had an off-season to forget despite a desperate need for more offense.
With less than five weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Cleveland Indians. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
81–80 (.503), third place in American League Central (Hot Stove Preview)
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
Cleveland has had a very quiet off-season. The Indians have made just four trades, all of which saw a single player on the fringe of the 40-man roster swapped for cash; one of them effectively undid another (righty reliever Kirby Yates was acquired from the Rays for cash in November and traded to the Yankees for cash two weeks ago). The other two deals saw Cleveland sending cash to the Angels for outfielder Collin Cowgill, a career .236/.299/.334 hitter who will turn 30 in May, and to the Phillies for righty reliever Dan Otero. Otero, who posted a 6.75 ERA in 41 games for the Athletics last year, has struck out just 5.3 men per nine innings in his 184 2/3 major league innings and had been claimed off waivers by the Phillies in November; he is now with his fifth organization in the last four years and heading into his age-31 season.
Those trades all amounted to little more than waiver claims, which is the exact method by which Cleveland acquired outfielder Joey Butler from Tampa Bay. As a 29-year-old rookie last year, Butler hit .276/.326/.416 (105 OPS+) in 276 plate appearances, making the majority of his starts at designated hitter. He is now with his fourth organization despite, like Otero, never having been a free agent or traded for another player.
Things haven't been much more active in free agency, where Cleveland has signed just two players to major league deals: first baseman Mike Napoli, for one year and $7 million, and centerfielder Rajai Davis, for one year and $5.25 million. Both Napoli and Davis—who will be in their age-34 and age-35 seasons, respectively—can earn bonuses based on plate appearances, with Napoli’s contract maxing out at $10 million if he makes at least 645 trips to the plate.
As underwhelming as all of that may be, Napoli is a perfect fit for this team (signing him is a move I suggested in my AL Central Hot Stove Preview in early November). The addition of Napoli, a slick fielder at first base, allows the Indians to move Carlos Santana to designated hitter, which was always his natural position. Cleveland, then, has not only added a solid power bat to the lineup, but it has also further improved its team defense, which was abysmal in early 2015 and now has the potential to be outstanding with Napoli and Giovanny Urshela at the infield corners, Francisco Lindor at shortstop and Lonnie Chisenhall in rightfield.
Davis is a less ideal solution for centerfield, where he may wind up sharing time with switch-hitter Abraham Almonte, who performed well for Cleveland down the stretch last year after coming over from the Padres. Still, with Michael Brantley due to open the season on the disabled list after November surgery on his right shoulder, the Indians needed outfielders. Davis is at least capable of playing center (though not necessarily well) and stealing bases (though his success rate took a tumble last year). He enters his age-35 season coming off two league-average campaigns at the plate in Detroit, hitting a combined .272/.314/.418 with a 103 OPS+ in 864 plate appearances.
In addition to Davis, new Cleveland general manager Mike Chernoff attempted to address his team’s dearth of outfielders by bringing in Cowgill (who can also spot in center) and Butler (purely a corner man). Still, the three (who are all righthanded hitters) are very close to the literal least he could have done.
Unfinished Business: A big bat at third base or in the outfield
Even with that hole in the outfield, the Indians' least productive position in 2015 was third base, which produced a miserable aggregate line of .228/.273/.356. The two leaders in games played at that position for Cleveland last year, Urshela and Chisenhall should both be regulars now that the latter looks headed for rightfield. Cleveland's hope is that Chisenhall’s bat will rebound and that Urshela's will improve as a 24-year-old sophomore. Neither is a guarantee, however, and with Brantley still recovering from his aforementioned surgery, the Indians really could have used an impact bat this off-season after a year in which they were 11th in the AL in runs scored. Heading into the winter, Cleveland seemed more likely to trade a starting pitcher for a hitter than to sign a big-name free agent, but with spring training on the horizon, the Indians have done neither.
Preliminary Grade: D+
Napoli was a good budget signing, but the rest is barely worth mentioning. Even more than the similarly inactive Rays, Cleveland essentially punted this off-season.