I last wrote about the offseason on December 28, describing the impasse the Indians were in because they were waiting on larger events to happen first, particularly the signings of Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. Both players were (and still are) expected to get massive contracts both in terms of length and monetary value, and when those signings happened, that would induce the teams who were in contention for those two to fix their gazes on their next-best options.
As it turned out, nothing has changed since December 28. There have been some free agent signings, and the Indians have even acquired another catcher (which I will look at presently), but the logjam is still there. Although MLB does not have a hard salary cap, each team does have a internal spending budget that they’d like to stick to, so if they still want to have any chance of landing Machado or Harper, they can’t commit to anything that would push them over their limit (whether that be a signing or a trade) if they also signed one of those two. And so plenty of other free agents, who would like to sign with a team as soon as they can, are stuck in limbo.
It also should be mentioned that more is riding on what Machado and Harper eventually gets. Many baseball opinion/analysis sites are in full “players vs. owners” mode as the trend of second tier free agents getting less lucrative deals has become more obvious. For example: in 2013, free agent Nick Swisher signed a four-year, $56M at the age of 32, after a accumulating a career bWAR of 20.9. Earlier this winter, at the age of 32, Michael Brantley, who has accumulated 22.7 bWAR, signed a two-year, $32M contract. I think the current paradigm of players sacrificing salary early in their careers (and this includes minor-league salaries) for a chance of hitting it big in free agency is not sustainable, given that fewer and fewer players are actually getting that big mega-deal. So if more and more of the percentage of team free agent spending is directed towards the elite free agents, then more pressure is going to come from both interests on the parties involved, and that could be one of the reasons why the Harper/Machado signings have been delayed for so long.
This trend in recent years of big moves happening later and later into the offseason makes following the hot stove season rather annoying. Unlike other sports (like the NBA), in which the vast majority of signings are condensed into the span of a couple weeks, major free agent signings can happen well after pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training. I would not be opposed a smaller “free agent window” being agreed to in the next CBA that stipulates the latest date a free agent can sign and be eligible to play in the upcoming season. At the very least the goal should be to get the highest-price free agents signed first, and after that everything would happen in due course.
For example, if the ending of the “elite signing period” coincided with the General Manager’s Meetings, that would be a great spectacle for anyone interested in the offseason events, a winter version of the July 31 trade deadline. Then after that, teams would immediately move on to the other free agents and trade targets, leading a flurry of active at the end of the year and a couple weeks into January, so that by this time of the year, the vast majority of rosters will have been set and the season prognostications can begin.
As for what the Indians have been doing in recent weeks involving the major-league (40-man) roster:
January 9: Traded RHP Walker Lockett and 2B Sam Haggerty (AA) to the New York Mets for C Kevin Plawecki
This move gives the Indians either a second full-time catcher or a competent backup, depending on how the position shakes out this spring. I would expect Roberto Perez to have a leg up heading into Spring Training given his advantage of knowing the pitching staff, as well as his defensive prowess. Plawecki has struggled to throw out runners throughout his major-league career, hovering between 19-26%, but has been a better hitter than Perez over the last couple of seasons. The Indians give up a player they acquired from the Padres a couple months ago (Lockett) and a marginal minor-league prospect (Haggerty), so all in all, this deal partially fills the hole left by Yan Gomes. If Terry Francona uses both players like I think he can, I could the catching position being just as good as it would have been had Gomes not been traded, for about $5.9M less (the difference between Gomes’ and Plawecki’s 2019 salaries).
January 11: Claimed RHP A.J. Cole off waivers from the New York Yankees
The most important piece of information to know about this waiver claim is that Cole is out of options, and so has to make the 25-man roster to stay in the organization. Even if the Indians end up trading Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer, the only way Cole makes the team is via the bullpen, which has plenty of spots up for grabs at this moment.
That’s it. The catching position is taken care of, but no real upgrades for the bullpen, and nothing for the outfield. I’m still hopeful that these needs will be addressed one way or another, but I can’t tell you when that be. Until then, we wait. And wait. And wait.