“Tell me how do we get this thing started?”
NOTE: This post has been updated with news of the Indians coming to an agreement with David Murphy.
A small sliver of insight into the Tribe’s offseason spending strategy rests in the simple fact that when Tim Hudson fielded final offers earlier this week, the Indians had made what they felt to be an aggressive one — and that offer constituted pretty much the extent of their cash on hand.
Spurned by Hudson, they apparently turned their attention elsewhere, because reports swirled Tuesday night that they had come to terms with former Rangers outfielder David Murphy. The Dallas Morning News’ Evan Grant had it at two years and more than $10 million for Murphy (Note: Cleveland.com’s Paul Hoynes now has it at two years, $12 million), who would likely see ample time in the outfield corners.
Murphy’s defense and his personality are unassailable, but his offensive numbers took a nose-dive after a 2012 surge that proved unrepeatable. This is once again a matter of the Indians making a modest (yes, in this market, $6 million a season is modest) investment in an asset that could help them maximize the impact of their pitching staff. Murphy’s presence could/should allow the Indians to shop Drew Stubbs, who is due a raise in arbitration and has value (that’s why I would resist, for now, the temptation to compare Murphy to Stubbs until we see what the Indians have up their sleeve on the trade front).
But the primary question still looms: Who will be added to that pitching staff, and how much will it cost?
The first and most fundamental thing that must be understood here is that the spending spree borne out of special circumstances one year ago isn’t going to be duplicated here in 2013-14. The Indians might still go heavy on one short-term starting pitching solution (and the market offers a few interesting options in that regard), but don’t expect much beyond that.
After 2012, the Indians had some salary relief on the books with the departures of Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore, among others, and, most importantly, they had a protected top-10 pick that freed them up to pursue guys tied to Draft pick compensation. Giving Chris Perez the boot saved the Tribe some salary, but with a Justin Masterson extension an expected item on the to-do list and the Draft compensation system no longer working in their favor, the Tribe has to be quite a bit more careful this time around.
That said, they’re not completely out of the picture.
While I’m not privy to the actual number Chris Antonetti and Co. placed before Hudson, it’s believed to have been competitive with the two-year, $23 million pact he made with the Giants. If Hudson eschewed more or similar money with the Indians in order to sign elsewhere, he’d be far from the first, even though Terry Francona’s arrival has undoubtedly improved the attractiveness of the Cleveland clubhouse (and, indeed, Hudson and Francona talked at length a couple weeks back).
But the decision made by Hudson, who was always considered a good fit for San Francisco, is not the focus here. The point is that the Indians, with Ubaldo Jimenez long gone and Scott Kazmir possibly right behind him, rightly prioritized the purchase of a proven, innings-eating arm in their bid to extend the magic act of 2013. Perhaps the Murphy news is an indication that Hudson was the one guy they would go to great lengths to attain and now they’re applying their available assets elsewhere.
We knew long ago the Indians would be perusing the bargain-bin for free-agent finds, but, if anything can be gleaned from the early days of the Hot Stove season, it’s that there really is no such thing as an outright bargain in this cash-crazed market. Ervin Santana is looking for $100 million. Tim Lincecum had the 11th-highest ERA among qualifiers and got two years, $35 million (you’ve got to really, really love FIP to love that one). Hudson is 38 and coming off a gruesome ankle injury, and he still commanded more than $20 mill.
All of which serves to give Ubaldo, who is arguably the top stateside starting option on the open market (and all on the basis of about six months of work – the first half of 2010 and the last half of 2013), the leash to get a four- or possibly five-year commitment. And Kazmir, who has both age (29) and occupation (lefty starter) on his side, should get at least the second year the Indians are reluctant to give him, if not a third.
Letting Ubaldo walk in these conditions is a no-brainer. He’s high-upside but high-maintenance, and the Indians, literally and figuratively, can’t afford to commit half a decade to his unpredictability.
Kazmir is as wild a wild card as they come, because there’s no discernible forecast to be gained from his bizarre trajectory from Sugar Land to C-town. Kazmir could probably do quite well for himself on a one-year deal with more money (eight figures, perhaps) up front, in which case the Indians would still have a shot at securing his services (there’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal… well, unless it’s a one-year deal given to Brett Myers). But if he wants a greater semblance of security (two years, possibly with a vesting option) that changes the formula.
With neither guy expected back, the Indians turned their attention to the second (or is it the third?) tier — a tier that, as the quick-hit Hudson deal illustrates, could actually thin out more swiftly than the so-called upper echelon. Jimenez, Santana, Matt Garza and Japanese posting posterboy Masahiro Tanaka make up the upper-echelon, so the term is used quite loosely. And in these market conditions, Bronson Arroyo, Ricky Nolasco and Jason Vargas are also likely to get three-year commitments, at minimum.
The market is flush with cash but also with the recent example of a Red Sox team that gained great value from short-term, high-dollar investments, and that model will be aped across the landscape, for better or worse. That’s why Hudson didn’t twist in the wind for long, and neither did Josh Johnson, who reportedly came to terms on a one-year, $8 million pact with the Padres.
With those guys off the board, the Tribe would still seem to have the flexibility and would, indeed, be wise to make a strong push for the 30-year-old Scott Feldman “…From Across the Hall!”, who posted a solid 1.183 WHIP despite a 5.60 ERA in nine starts at Camden Yards. Age is on his side. Same goes for Phil Hughes, who could be a classic change-of-scenery type after he was unable to live up to unrealistic expectations in the Bronx.
Guys like Scott Baker, who spent basically all of 2013 enduring a Tommy John recovery road littered with potholes, Jason Hammel, who has endured forearm and knee issues since 2012, and former World Series hero Ryan Vogelsong, who missed two months of 2013 with a broken hand suffered while he was hitting (gotta love pitchers batting), fall in the justifiable-risk realm. If they don’t strike you as outright attractive, well, neither did Kazmir a year ago. You never know.
What we do know is that the Indians have at least been active in the starter’s market, and that should remain true in the wake of the Murphy signing, which, like the Indians’ offseason in general, seems to be focused more on run-prevention than run-creation.