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12/02/08 10:00 AM EST
Closer Tribe's main target in Vegas
Shapiro looking for veteran arm during upcoming Winter Meetings
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
CLEVELAND -- A quiet offseason figures to get a little more interesting when the Indians' decision makers head to the Bellagio on the Las Vegas strip from Dec. 8-11 for baseball's annual Winter Meetings. General manager Mark Shapiro and company will meet face-to-face with the higher-ups from other clubs and the representatives for free agents to presumably put an end to the speculation and get down to the reality of what opportunities are out there for the Tribe.
The chief goals, as they have been all offseason, will be to find a closer and an infielder who can play second or third base. While the Hot Stove market has been open for weeks, the Indians have not been on the threshold of any substantive deals.
That could change in Vegas.
"The Winter Meetings will be a time things get going," Shapiro said.
The going has been slow on the waiver wire throughout baseball this offseason, and that's had an impact on the Indians' ability to make significant headway on their winter motives. Mid- and small-market teams are already held up by their limited payrolls. And when the action is slow on the premier talent available in free agency, it has a trickle-down effect elsewhere.
The Indians, for example, are not expected to be significant players for the two premier closers available on the open market -- Francisco Rodriguez and Brian Fuentes -- because of the lucrative contracts those two will likely command. But what happens with K-Rod and Fuentes will probably dictate the market for those lower on the free-agent totem pole -- a group that includes Trevor Hoffman, Kerry Wood, Jason Isringhausen and Brandon Lyon.
What we have here, then, is an impasse that could begin to clear up in the coming days.
Finding a veteran closer appears to have become the Tribe's top priority. While the Indians do appreciate what Jensen Lewis did in the role in the season's final two months, when he converted 13 straight save opportunities and brought some much-needed stability to a wayward bullpen, they would prefer to have a more veteran, proven presence in the ninth inning.
This year's relief market should be able to provide the Indians with such help. Because in addition to the free-agent options listed above, several closers -- including the Astros' Jose Valverde, the Mariners' J.J. Putz, the Rockies' newly acquired Huston Street, the Pirates' Matt Capps and the Orioles' George Sherrill -- have been the subject of trade rumors in recent weeks.
Three years ago at the Winter Meetings in Dallas, the Indians came close to signing Hoffman to a three-year, $21 million deal, only to have him decide to stay with the Padres. Still, a solid relationship was built with Hoffman at that time, complete with Shapiro and manager Eric Wedge visiting Hoffman at his California home. With the 41-year-old Hoffman having severed his ties with San Diego, the Indians could potentially use that relationship to their advantage.
Another strong relationship exists with Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, a former Shapiro assistant who knows the Tribe's farm system quite well. That could conceivably assist a deal for Capps, though the Indians and Bucs didn't really get anywhere in talks involving outfielder Jason Bay last offseason.
The search for a closer has plenty of possibilities, but the search for an infielder is a little less promising.
While the Indians have expanded their options by considering the possibility of moving Jhonny Peralta from shortstop to third base and Asdrubal Cabrera from second base to short, they'll have to either get creative or be willing to take some financial risks to fill the remaining spot in the infield.
Concerns over the health of Orlando Hudson, the premier second baseman available in free agency, have made it highly unlikely the Indians will aggressively pursue him. Hudson has a history of injury woes, and his '08 season ended prematurely because of a broken bone in his left wrist. Nonetheless, he is seeking, and might command, a contract in the four- or five-year range, and his annual salary could reach the eight-figure mark.
Scratch Hudson from the list, then. And it's probably safe to do the same with the Rockies' Garrett Atkins, who has been rumored in trade talks. Atkins' limited range and mediocre road numbers do not appear to be of interest to the Indians.
The Indians do, however, have an interest in bringing back Casey Blake, who they traded to the Dodgers shortly before the July deadline. Blake, though, is drawing interest from several teams, including the division-rival Twins, and he might get a two- or three-year deal. It remains to be seen if the Indians, who have third-base prospect Wes Hodges to consider for 2010 and beyond, are willing to go that long a route with the versatile Blake.
Joe Crede, late of the White Sox, is another available free agent, but he comes with inherent injury risks after having two back surgeries in the last two years. As far as trades are concerned, the Astros might dangle third baseman Ty Wigginton, and the Indians have been rumored to have interest.
Rumors, though, are about as far as the Hot Stove season has gotten, where the Indians are concerned. Perhaps in Vegas, the scene will shift from rumor to reality.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.