Indians sign veteran Kotchman to one-year deal
First baseman's contract worth $3 million plus incentives
CLEVELAND -- Casey Kotchman had done his research on the Indians long before officially signing with the ballclub on Friday. The first baseman even pointed out one statistic of note during a conversation with general manager Chris Antonetti.
It was clear to Kotchman that he could help Cleveland's defense.
"When I was talking to him at one point early on in the offseason," Antonetti said, "he said, 'I looked at it, I think I've made fewer career errors than your first basemen made last year.' I didn't realize that, but when I went back and looked at it, he was right."
This is not to say that the Indians signed Kotchman solely for his skills on defense, though that played a significant role in the team's decision to add him to the fold. The Tribe likes Kotchman's on-base ability and his low strikeout rate, and the club believes he offers a solid option against right-handed pitching.
All of those attributes made Kotchman attractive to the Indians, who tried unsuccessfully to sign him as a non-roster invitee a year ago. The Indians finally got their man, inking Kotchman to a one-year contract worth $3 million plus incentives.
"We feel like the complete package will really help our team," Antonetti said.
Kotchman was quick to point to Cleveland's strong start in 2011 when asked why he wanted to join the Tribe. The Indians stormed to a 30-15 start and paced the American League Central for much of the season before injuries and other factors led to an 80-win, second-place finish.
"I'm really excited to join the club," he said. "Just seeing how great a start they got off to last year. That was fun for me to watch on the outside, just being a fan of baseball and seeing how good they were playing. For me to have the opportunity to go up there this season and try to help contribute to sustaining that start ... it's exciting."
As for Kotchman's research on the Indians' first basemen of 2011, he was indeed correct in his findings. The 28-year-old Kotchman has made 11 errors in 6,076 total chances over the course of his eight seasons in the Majors. All of Cleveland's first basemen combined for 12 errors in 1,607 chances last season.
To Kotchman, that statistic showed one way in which he could benefit the Tribe.
"My pops came up with that one," Kotchman said. "We tried to pore through some teams -- as well as Casey Close, my agent -- to just try to see where there was a good fit for me. That was something that kind of popped up. That was kind of a fun little stat for me to be able to see and hope that I could have a positive impact."
Given that the Indians' pitching staff relies heavily on creating ground balls, Kotchman and his .998 career fielding percentage will be a welcome addition in that regard. Antonetti was quick to note that Kotchman's defensive prowess goes beyond simply gloving grounders hit in his direction.
"He can help every other infielder get better," Antonetti said, "with his picks on balls in the dirt and things like that."
Kotchman is looking forward to that opportunity.
"With the pitching staff, with all the ground-ball pitchers that they have," Kotchman said, "and the acrobatic [Asdrubal] Cabrera at short, it'll be fun for me to be a part of."
Antonetti made it clear that Kotchman was signed to step in as the Indians' regular first baseman, though catcher Carlos Santana (a switch-hitter) will see some time at the position against left-handed pitching. What the signing means for Matt LaPorta -- Cleveland's starter at first for the last two years -- will be worked out this spring.
LaPorta's offensive struggles throughout the past two seasons led to Cleveland's search for an upgrade at first base this winter.
LaPorta could compete for a bench role as a backup for first base, designated hitter and left field, but that role has been filled well by Shelley Duncan, who has no Minor League options remaining. LaPorta has an option left, meaning he can be sent to the Minors without consequence.
As things stand right now, Antonetti said the team's preference would be for LaPorta to play regularly rather than fill a part-time role. That likely means that -- barring an injury or another unforeseen setback -- LaPorta is ticketed for a trip to Triple-A Columbus to begin the 2012 season.
"I think it's important that Matt continues to play regularly," Antonetti said. "He will come into camp and have an opportunity to compete for a Major League spot. That said, if it ends up that the spot that's available is a part-time spot, I'm not sure that would be the best fit for Matt.
"That's not a decision we've made yet. It's something we'll evaluate in Spring Training. We all feel that Matt has the potential to still be a very good and very productive Major League player. We continue to believe in him organizationally."
Kotchman adds yet another left-handed hitter to the Tribe's lefty-laden lineup. The projected batting order currently includes seven lefties and two switch-hitters. That means Cleveland could conceivably use a lineup featuring nine left-handed batters on the day a right-hander is starting.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only one Major League team last year started a lineup that featured no pure right-handed batters. The A's did so against the Blue Jays on Aug. 20 in a 5-1 victory.
Antonetti downplayed the abundance of lefties that could be on the field this season.
For starters, last year's division-champion Tigers project to have an all right-handed rotation. Progressive Field in Cleveland also favors lefty hitters. Beyond that, Cleveland will likely have a bench primarily featuring righties and the team plans on mixing things up against left-handed pitching.
Against southpaws, the Indians could feature Santana at first and right-handed catcher Lou Marson behind the plate. Someone such as Duncan -- or another right-handed bench option -- could sub in at designated hitter or in left field. Switch-hitting shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera would also hit from the right side.
"Overall, the way we looked at our lineup," Antonetti explained, "is we wanted to try to take advantage and win as many games as we can. The fact of the matter is there are more right-handed starters than left-handed starters. If we put up enough runs against those right-handed starters, the matchups late in games against lefties won't matter as much."
Last season, Kotchman hit .313 against right-handers and .289 against left-handers.
Kotchman does not boast much in the way of power -- he had just 10 homers last year -- but he makes up for it with his potential on-base ability and low strikeout rate. Over eight Major League seasons, Kotchman has hit .268 with a .336 on-base percentage and a .398 slugging percentage.
Last season served as a kind of career renaissance for the first baseman. He signed a Minor League contract with Tampa Bay last offseason but worked his way into the mix as the club's regular first baseman. Kotchman then posted a .306 average with a .378 on-base percentage across 146 games.
That showing came after Kotchman hit just .210 in 125 games with Seattle in 2010.
Kotchman pointed to a corrective eye procedure that he underwent prior to last season after experiencing vision issues during the 2010 campaign. The first baseman credits the work of eye specialist Dr. Tom Tooma for helping get his career back on track.
Tooma, who performed lasic surgery on Kotchman in 2004, diagnosed the first baseman with a bacterial infection. Kotchman then underwent a procedure to clean the tear ducts under both of his eyes.
"It was fun to play with good vision, as you can assume." Kotchman said. "It really started being noticeable in Seattle in 2010. But it's something that probably just didn't happen overnight, from what I gathered with the different doctors. It was something that obviously was correctable and it got corrected. All is good from it.
"Even throughout last season, I was still trying to correct the bad habits that I got into in 2010. I felt like last year was kind of a work in progress so to speak."
Among his American League peers in 2011, Kotchman ranked eighth in average and 10th in on-base percentage. That made him one of only three AL first basemen -- Detroit's Miguel Cabrera and Boston's Adrian Gonzalez being the others -- to finish in the top 10 in both categories (with at least 40 games at the position).
"He complements our lineup well," Antonetti said. "He's a guy that controls the strike zone well. He puts up a quality at-bat. He's a professional hitter. He doesn't strike out very much. He puts the ball in play and does a good job of managing his at-bats."
Antonetti noted that the Indians originally tried to acquire Kotchman during his days with the Angels. They missed out then just as they did last winter, but Cleveland kept up its pursuit since this offseason's early stages.
The Indians finally got their man.
"He's a guy we targeted from the beginning," Antonetti said. "We certainly looked at it and examined a variety of alternatives, but Casey is a guy that, from the beginning of the free agency process,we reached out to to explore a potential fit."