December 2011

Indians still trying for Beltran?

Back in July, the Indians expressed interest in acquiring outfielder Carlos Beltran from the Mets before the Trade Deadline. Reports on Thursday morning indicated that Cleveland was now showing interest in signing Beltran as a free agent.

According to various reports, the Cardinals, Blue Jays, Red Sox and Rays, and possibly at least one other club, are also in on Beltran at the moment.

The Indians are known to be searching for offensive help, but their sudden inclusion in the Beltran race is a bit surprising. For starters, Beltran blocked the process last July when he would reportedly only accept a trade to the Giants or Phillies. The interest between Cleveland and Beltran was not mutual on the surface.

While Beltran would be an upgrade for Cleveland — a team in need of an offensive boost — theclub’s outfield is already crowded with Shin-Soo Choo, Grady Sizemore, Michael Brantley, Aaron Cunningham and Shelley Duncan in the mix. The Indians’ financial situation is also such that the team might have to shed some payroll space in order to take on the cost of adding Beltran.

It is believed that Beltran is seeking a two- or three-year deal worth around $12-13 million annually. Up to this point this winter, it has been clear that adding something in the range of $7-10 million would be difficult for the Indians to do without also freeing up some salary space.

The Indians had early talks with free-agent outfielder Josh Willingham, for example, on a two-year deal in the $14-16 million range. Had Cleveland taken on his contract, the Indians might have needed a subsequent trade to free up some cash. Willingham went on to sign a three-year, $21 million deal with the Twins.

Cleveland could backload a contract for Beltran, considering a number of contracts will come off the books after the 2012 season (Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, Derek Lowe). Even so, the Tribe might be forced to shift some things around a little in order to make it work for this year.

Beltran could play left field — Sizemore was re-signed for center — which would seemingly push Brantley into a fourth outfielder role. Brantley has also expressed a willingness to help out at first base, if needed. First base is currently Cleveland’s primary position of concern.

UPDATE: 1:10 p.m. ET — Have been in contact with a few sources this morning and I can confirm that the Indians’ interest in Beltran is legitimate. Nothing has changed behind the scenes in regard to the Indians’ payroll situation for 2012, though. That means that Cleveland still might have to shed payroll through trades in order to add a free agent who costs as much as Beltran. The level of talks are unknown at this point, but know that the Indians are interested in the veteran outfielder.

UPDATE: 8:03 p.m. ET — Yeah, so, nevermind. Beltran and the Cardinals have reportedly agreed to a two-year contract worth a little more than $25 million. There goes that. I have plenty of fans on Twitter saying they think this was all lip service by the Indians, or that the agent used the Indians to drive up the price. All I can tell you is a trusted source told me today that the Indians had legitimate interest in Beltran. Did that make it realistic? Not necessarily. I certainly didn’t think it was realistic, but I believe the Indians took it as far as they could.


Aaron on the side of caution

To members of the angry mob who reached out to me this past week, the answer is, “No, Aaron Cunningham is not the big right-handed bat the Indians have been searching for this winter.” And, yes, I picked up on your collective sarcasm.

Simply put, Cunningham fills a need (one I go into briefly in the last Indians Inbox of 2011). Like last offseason, Cleveland was in need of some right-handed help off the bench, especially in the outfield, where all three starters hit from the left side.

In that regard, Cunningham might be the answer. He’ll at least be given a shot during Spring Training to convince the Tribe’s decision makers that he can potentially fill such a role during the 2012 season.

One way to look at the situation is that Cunningham — acquired from San Diego for Double-A Akron closer Cory Burns — is this year’s Austin Kearns. Stay with me, folks. Put down the torches and clubs. What I mean is, Kearns was added to the fold to be a fourth outfielder and an option against left-handed pitching.

That Kearns struggled mightily and was ultimately released does not mean the theory behind his signing wasn’t sound. And, in Cunningham, Cleveland has a younger (25), more affordable (under contract for the league minimum through 2013) player with more upside.

There is, however, a catch.

Cunningham is out of options. What this means is that he would have to be exposed to waivers before the Indians could outright him and send assign him to a Minor League affiliate. In the business of baseball, this would essentially give Cunningham a leg up on the competition for a bench spot this spring, if he turns in a comparable showing to his Minor League contracted competitors.

Last season, the Indians ran into some issues due to the fact that Kearns in the fold on a guaranteed deal. Even as he tanked, there was a reluctance to part ways with him out of fear of exposing the team’s thin depth. That explains why someone like Shelley Duncan, who had options last year, was shuttled back and forth between the Majors and Minors so often. That’s the business side of things.

This year, like Cunningham, Duncan is out of options, too. So, as things stand at the moment, it’s a fair assumption that both players project to be on the Opening Day roster. One difference this year is that the first-base situation, and the expectation that Grady Sizemore will be healthy enough to be in the lineup and in center from the season’s  start, throws a bit of a wrinkle into things.

A year ago, Duncan and Kearns both made the team out of camp because Sizemore needed time to get healthy, and he didn’t join the club until April 17. So Kearns was in left and Duncan on the bench. This year, barring a setback during the spring, Michael Brantley will be in left, Sizemore in center and Shin-Soo Choo in right field.

On the surface, that makes it seem like Duncan and Cunningham could be competing against one another for a spot as a fourth outfielder. Fact is, unless the Indians add a first baseman (am I the only one thinking this might not happen?) before Spring Training, Duncan will be competing with Matt LaPorta for that job.

Under that scenario, Cleveland is seemingly left with Cunningham as the leading candidate for the reserve outfielder role. I am here to tell you that this is not necessarily a bad thing. To which you’ll ask, “We are talking about the same guy that put up a .178/.257/.367 slash line last year, right?”

Yeah, that’s the guy.

With Triple-A Tucson (sure, it’s fair to point out this is in the hitter-happy Pacific Coast League), Cunningham hit .329 with nine homers, 34 doubles and 63 RBIs in 87 games last year. Not only that, he boasted a .395 (!) average against left-handed pitching in the Minor Leagues last year.

For his career, Cunningham has hit .256 with a .741 OPS against lefties (Duncan had a .679 OPS vs. LHP last season) versus hitting .217 with a .620 OPS against right-handers. Only two years ago, Cunningham hit .288/.331/417 in 53 games for the Padres, and that included a .364 average and a 1.022 OPS against left-handers.

The Indians love to use three-year periods as a good way to gauge performance. Over the past three seasons — including his abysmal showing in the Majors last year — Cunningham has hit .299 with an .887 OPS against left-handers (combined between Majors and Minors).

These all reasons for not hating this move. In fact, I’m a fan of the addition because, if Cunningham is used right, he can be a valuable option of the bench. Now, if injuries decimate Cleveland’s roster again and Cunningham is getting full-time at-bats as a left fielder, that’s when it becomes an issue.

I understand where the frustration within the fan base is coming from, though. Indians fans want to see the Tribe go out and land an impact bat and the team sends out news that it has potentially filled a bench spot. Thing is, those incremental moves are often the ones that help strengthen a team from top to bottom.

Do the Indians still need a right-handed power bat? Sure. I’m not going to argue with anyone about that. At this point in the offseason, though, given the options remaining on the open market, it almost seems as if standing pat (for now) is best. I’m not a proponent in making a move for the sake of making a move.

The Indians got off to an incredible start last year and that was without a healthy Sizemore. Who’s to say they can’t repeat that early run in 2012? If they do, then pursuing an impact bat before the July 31 Trade Deadline might be the way to go. This is just me talking outloud here. The Indians are still searching for an upgrade this winter. I just wouldn’t expect it to come via free agency.


Indians in talks with Cameron, LaRoche can confirm a Cleveland Plain Dealer report indicating that the Indians are in talks with free-agent outfielder Mike Cameron and free-agent infielder Andy LaRoche. Both players would be brought into the fold on Minor League contracts that include non-roster invites to attend Spring Training with the big league club.

Cameron, 38, hit just .203 with nine homers and 27 RBIs in 78 games between stints with the Red Sox and Marlins in 2011. He would presumably come into camp with a shot at winning a bench job. His value for Cleveland is as a right-handed bat and a backup for center fielder Grady Sizemore.

As things currently stand, the Indians project to have three left-handed-hitting outfielders (Michael Brantley, Shin-Soo Choo and Sizemore) in the lineup. In all, Cleveland’s starting nine projects to have six lefties and two switch hitters under the current roster composition.

LaRoche, 28, is also a right-handed hitter, and he has enough versatility to handle multiple positions on the field. He hit .247 in 40 games with the A’s last year. LaRoche is a third baseman by trade, but he also has some experience at first base, second base, shortstop and left field.

On Friday, the Indians added infielder Jose Lopez and outfielder Felix Pie on Minor League deals as well. Cleveland also acquired right-handed-hitting outfielder Aaron Cunningham in a trade with the Padres. Cunningham, 25, might have a leg up on the fourth outfielder’s role considering he is out of Minor League options.

The Indians remain in the market for a right-handed power bat — preferably at first base. The trade route is looking increasingly more likely than free agency.

–Jordan Bastian

Introducing: Dunctana

Josh Willingham came off the board today, signing a three-year contract worth $21 million with the Twins. That takes one name that the Indians had some interest in off the big board.

It might also put the Indians one step closer to feeling their in-house options might be better than the realistic options on the free-agent or trade markets.

“I don’t think we’ve reached that point,” Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said on Thursday.

Fair enough, but that “point” is still out there on the horizon.

One of the internal possibilities for first base is Shelley Duncan. Or, more specifically, Duncan splitting time at first with catcher Carlos Santana. No, I’m not going to use the dreaded “P” word. This is not a platoon (whoops!) situation at all, so don’t please don’t confuse this with that.

The reality is Cleveland wants Santana to play some first base on occasion to keep his bat in the lineup as often as possible. Mixing and matching him with the right-handed Duncan is one way to go, if the Indians are unable to add a Major League first baseman this offseason. Keep in mind, Duncan is out of options, so it seems highly likely he’s on the Opening Day roster one way or another.

So, seeing as it’s the offseason and I get bored easily, I got out my handy dandy notebook and began jotting away (the above photo is from today’s exercise). I was “drawing numbers” as my 2-year-old has taken to calling it. Basically, looking back at last season’s production, I tried to project what a Duncan-Santana scenario — “Dunctana” is what I’m going with — might look like in 2012.

It’s really not as bad as Indians fans might think.

Now, let’s get a few things out of the way….

First, I did not take defense into account. This was an experiment in evaluating offensive projections. Second, I viewed Duncan’s season as a whole, choosing to ignore that a bulk of his production came during his late hot streak (that said, who’s to say regular playing time isn’t what spawned that offensive burst down the stretch?).

Last, yes, I know Lou Marson hits on the days Santana plays first. This was not an evaluation of the offense as a whole — only first base. Besides, the Indians are hoping youngsters such as Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall and Michael Brantley, among others, can take steps forward to help make up for any offensive struggles in other spots.

Now that we’ve got all that out of the way…

For starters, I had to decide how to split up the playing time between Duncan and Santana. Granted, it’s inevitable that other players will get some at-bats, but in this “perfect-world” scenario, I went with 350 at-bats at first for Duncan and 250 at-bats (600 total) at first base for Santana. On average, American League teams had 616 at-bats for first basemen in 2011.

I stuck with the respective batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage that Duncan and Santana posted last season. There will obviously be some level of fluctuation in 2012, but for the sake of argument, I just went with their 2011 slash lines. I went through and combined their efforts for the projectd Dunctana slash line.

Next, I went through their home runs, RBIs and total bases and computed what their season totals averaged out to over 350 and 250 at-bats, respectively. Based on his 2011 production, Duncan looked like .260/.324/.484 with 17 homers, 74 RBIs and 170 total bases in 350 at-bats. Santana projects at .239/.351/.457 with 12 homers, 36 RBIs and 114 total bases in 250 at-bats.

Combined, Dunctana would project like so:

.245 AVG/.344 OBP/.465 SLG/.809 OPS, 29 HR, 110 RBIs, 284 total bases

Last season, Indians first baseman combined to produce this line:

.247 AVG/.319 OBP/.444 SLG/.763 OPS, 22 HR, 82 RBIs, 261 total bases

American League first basemen on average looked like this in 2011:

.271 AVG/.340 OBP/.451 SLG/.791 OPS, 24 HR, 89 RBIs, 278 total bases

Are there flaws in how I did this? You bet. I’ve already had plenty of people point out some to me on Twitter. I get that this is not a perfect way to project what two players might do in the upcoming season.

The whole point of this is merely to pose this question: would a combination of Shelley Duncan and Carlos Santana at first base really be all that terrible?

According to this rough experiment, it’d at least be better than average. And if I told you the Indians could add a first baseman capable of hitting 29 homers and driving in 110 RBIs, who among you would say that was a bad thing? If Cleveland can’t sign a new first baseman, this at least provides a glimmer of hope.


“Love me tender”

The deadline for tendering — see: offering — contracts to any arbitration-eligible players is midnight ET on Monday night. For the Indians, that means decisions on seven of their players.

Among Cleveland’s arb eligibles this winter are sinkerballer Justin Masterson, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, closer Chris Perez, third baseman Jack Hannahan, sidearmer Joe Smith and lefty Rafael Perez.

The way I see it, the Tribe really only has one or two debatable contracts within that lot. If a team decides to “non-tender” one of its players, he would enter the pool of free agents. The Indians will surely be scanning the newest layer of players on the open market to see if there are potential fits for upgrading their roster.

The Indians continue to hunt for offensive help — still looking at the free-agent and trade routes for a possible solution — but the club does not have a ton of financial flexibility. That means, if Cleveland wants to bring on a Major League contract (one that costs some significant dough), the team might need to shed some salary.

One way to do this is through the non-tender process.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Tribe’s seven arbitration cases:

1. Masterson — Went 12-10 with a 3.21 ERA last year, piling up 216 innings while emerging as the rotation’s most consistent arm. Might’ve won 15+ games had it not been for some ugly stretches with a lack of run support. The righty made $468,400 last year and is eligible for arbitration for the first time. Considering Masterson might be Cleveland’s Opening Day starter, it’s a shoo-in that he is offered arbitation.

2. Cabrera — Asdrubal started for the AL All-Star team in 2011 and enjoyed a breakout season for the Indians. He hit .273 with 25 homers, 32 doubles, 87 runs scored and 92 RBIs. He set a franchise record for homers by a shortstop. Like Masterson, it’s pretty much a given that Cabrera, who made $2.025 million last year, will be tendered a contract. The only mystery to this point is why the Indians haven’t locked him up to a multi-year deal.

3. Choo — The Indians right fielder labored through a rough season on and off the field in 2011. He was arrested for DUI in May, broke his left thumb in June and suffered an oblique injury later in the year. Overall, he hit .259 with eight homers and 36 RBIs in only 85 games while making $3.975 million. Choo will be back in 2012.

4. Chris Perez — CP made an All-Star team, saved 36 games and anchored one of the best bullpens in baseball during the 2011 season. The right-hander made $2.225 million in the process. Teams have checked in on Perez’s availability this winter, but all signs point to Pure Rage being back for 2012. He’ll be tendered.

5. Hannahan — The Indians added Hannahan on a Minor League contract last winter and he wound up making the Opening Day roster. He proceeded to give Cleveland Gold Glove-caliber defense and a bat that got hot in spurts throughout the year. He made $500,000 last year and is eligible for arb for the first time this winter. The Indians have no plans to add a third baseman this winter, meaning it’s Lonnie Chisenhall and Hannahan as the front-runners for Opening Day. That said, expect “Supermanahan” to be tendered tonight.

6. Smith — The siderarmer earned $870,000 last season and turned in a career year for the Indians. Smith posted a 2.01 ERA over 71 games, during which he had a .217 average against over 67 innings. Smith’s contract is still affordable and I fully expect him to be tendered before tonight’s deadline.

7. Raffy Perez — Really, this is the only case where I see real debate. Perez earned $1.33 million a year ago and is due a raise after posting a 3.00 ERA over 71 appearances in 2011. That is a solid chunk of change for a lefty reliever. If the Indians feel there’s a viable alternative on the open market (or internall), then Perez could be non-tendered tonight. That said, I’m expecting him to be offered a contract.

I will update later tonight with the Indians’ decisions.

UPDATE: 7:21 p.m. ET — The Indians have tendered contracts to all unsigned players on their 40-man roster. That includes the seven players (listed above) who are eligible for arbitration.


Indians adding Pie to outfield mix?

The Indians have agreed on a Minor League contract with outfielder Felix Pie, according to Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun. The deal, which would include a non-roster invite to big league camp, could be worth $1 million in salary and performance bonuses.

Pie, 26, would provide Cleveland with some depth and insurance for an outfield that was beset with injuries a year ago. As things stand right now, the Indians’ outfield consists of Michael Brantley, Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo. All three suffered a variety of health woes in 2011.

According to the Sun’s report, Pie would have the option to opt out of his contract if he wasn’t on the Indians’ Opening Day roster.

Beyond looking for added depth, Cleveland remains on the hunt for some offensive help. Finding a right-handed hitter with some power — for either first base or the outfield — remains a priority. The Indians continue to check in with free-agent outfielder Josh Willingham, who has narrowed his list of suitors.

Willingham’s list might be down to the Twins or Indians, though Cleveland had not tabled an official offer as of late Saturday night. The outfielder is believed to be seeking three years and his situation might hinge on the pending decision of free-agent outfielder Michael Cuddyer. If Cuddyer re-signs with Minnesota, Willingham-to-Cleveland talks could gain steam.

–Jordan Bastian

Winter Meetings: Departing Dallas

It was a two-team show here in Dallas this week. The Marlins and Angels walked away the winnters, if your definition of winners is handing out huge contracts to free agents.

Combined, Miami and Los Angeles spent a reported $518.5 million on five players in this week (Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell to the Marlins; Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson to the Halos). Some perspective: the Indians’ payrolls for the past nine years (2003-11) combined were roughly $513.1 million.

The Indians weren’t in on any of those marquee free agents, but their signings do effect the Tribe. With some of the big dogs off the board (Prince Fielder will be the next domino to fall), the market is being set for the players that are more realistic for Cleveland to pursue.

The Indians didn’t complete any deals at the Winter Meetings, but that was hardly unexpected. Cleveland continued talks with free agents and also exchanged trade proposals with a few teams. It is becoming clearer, though, that some salary would need to be moved if the team wanted to sign an impact free agent.

One name to continue to keep an eye on is free-agent outfielder Josh Willingham. His situation will likely hold until Michael Cuddyer makes a decision on where he’ll sign, but Willingham is definitely on Cleveland’s radar. It’s mild interest right now, but the Tribe continues to check in and could be a potential landing spot. The Indians have not made an offer to this point.

During Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft, the Indians did not select or lose any players in the Major League portion. They did, however, lose two players in the Triple-A phase. Righty Marty Popham was picked up by the Twins and outfielder Donnie Webb was grabbed by the Marlins.

On that note, I’ve got to hit the road and head to the airport. Check later today for more Winter Meetings coverage. And, yes, I did wake up to Smashmouth’s “All-Star” blasting again this morning. Unreal.


Winter Meetings: Day 3

So it turns out the Smashmouth “All-Star” wake-up call (see previous post) was no accident. I woke up to the same nonsense this morning.

It’s like a Winter Meetings Groundhog Day for me here.

I’m camped out here at the lovely Hilton Anatole for Day 3 of these Meetings. The photo is of the courtyard here. I couldn’t tell you why, but I’ve loved elephants since I was a kid. I have a few unique little statuettes  in my home office on display. There are some huge statues all around this hotel.

But you’re not here to learn about my quirks. You want some Indians fodder.

Well, not much has changed since last night. The great Paul Hoynes of the Plain Dealer did note on Twitter this morning that Michael Brantley has brought in agent Greg Genske to handle his contract situation. He still has Josh Kusnick as a co-agent.

Tonight is the deadline for ranked free agents to either accept or decline arbitration offers from their former clubs. The decisions will bring the market a little more into focus. One name in particular that interests the Tribe is free-agent first baseman Derrek Lee. It seems likely that he’ll decline arb with the Pirates, preferring to test the open waters.

The same goes for slugger Carlos Pena. In both cases (more so for Pena), it seems like the Indians won’t have the spending money it might take to reel them in. Cleveland might have to free up more cash via trade if it wanted to take either first baseman on. I still say it’s more likely that the Indians pursue a bat via trade.

In case you missed Tuesday’s coverage, here are a couple links.

For stuff on a mysterious trade proposal, and the Indians’ ability to use pitching as trade bait, CLICK HERE. For stuff on Brantley being an option at first base and Hector Rondon being designated for assignment, click HERE and HERE.

This afternoon, we will be having lunch with Indians manager Manny Acta. We’ll also have a formal sit-down interview session with Acta today before we have our daily briefing with general manager Chris Antonetti.

Stay tuned for more…

UPDATE: Been a busy day. Apologies for lack of updates, but here are two stories that came out of today’s discussions: Acta talking about Indians’ rotation & the importance of Carlos Santana in 2012.


Winter Meetings: Day 2

Waking up to Smashmouth’s “All-Star” blaring is not my idea of a good start to the day. But, due to things beyond my control, that was how Day 2 in Dallas began for me at 7 a.m.

I jumped out of bed, thinking it was actually coming from inside my hotel room. Maybe the maid accidentally turned on the clock radio alarm clock? Nope. Turns out the song was blasting from my neighbor. Unbelievable.

I’d love to give the benefit of the doubt and say it was simply a radio station that was triggered by the alarm clock. The problem with that theory was the song jumped right to the chorus. It was too precise. Had to be intentional.

Moving on…

All’s quiet on the Indians front for the most part this morning.

One early tidbit is that a few teams have called the Indians to inquire about the possible availability of closer Chris Perez. The closer’s market has been a hot topic this winter, so teams wouldn’t be doing their job if they weren’t at least asking about an All-Star closer who is under team control. Nothing has been significant on that front.

The Blue Jays — looking for a closer this winter — were not one of the teams expressing interest in Perez. That became extremely evident around Noon CT, when Toronto swung a trade with the White Sox to bring hard-throwing closer Sergio Santos north of the border. Santos is a former infield prospect for the Jays. Some things come full circle, I guess.

On the first-base front, one name to keep an eye on is Detroit Minor Leaguer Ryan Strieby. He’s a right-handed hitting first baseman with some power, and he’ll be there for the taking in Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft after being outrighted to Triple-A Toledo on Monday. Cleveland’s 40-man roster is full, so the team would either need to designate someone for assignment or make a trade in order to select someone in the Rule 5.

Speaking of the 40-man roster, the Tribe is expected to announce the corresponding move to (finally) officially add center fielder Grady Sizemore some time today. As I noted last week, a prime candidate for removal is RHP Hector Rondon. He hasn’t pitched in winter ball in a while, and I was told he suffered a “setback”. Don’t have details yet.

Keep checking back here and following me on Twitter (@MLBastian) for updates throughout the day. Keep checking and, too. Click HERE and HERE for some of Monday’s Tribe coverage.

2:03 p.m. CT — The Indians designated RHP Hector Rondon for assignment, clearing room on the 40-man roster for Sizemore. Rondon underwent surgery (performed by Dr. James Andrews) on 11/15 to repair a fracture in his right elbow. Expected recovery time is 5-7 months. Rondon had Tommy John surgery on the same elbow in 2010.

8:27 p.m. CT — Just finished today’s stories for Check back there later for stuff on Cleveland possibly using its bullpen depth for trades, Michael Brantley’s possible part-time move to first base and more information on Rondon’s latest setback. Another note, Indians met with Joe Speed, the agent for third baseman Jack Hannahan, on Tuesday and Speed said the meeting was productive. Nothing was decided about Hannahan’s contract situation, though. The deadline to tender contracts to arbitration eligible players is Dec. 12.

12:13 a.m. CT — Heard that Indians are indeed willing to listen to offers for closer Chris Perez. A trade is unlikely considering the current market for late-inning relief pitchers, though. What would it take? Probably a package along the lines of a Major League-ready player plus a prospect or two.


Winter Meetings: Day 1

I’m set up here in the war room in the Hilton Anatole, but I’ll be spending most of the day walking around the building in search of rumors and news related to the Indians.

Keep checking back here for updates throughout the day. Cleveland’s big need is a bat, though the club will also be searching for depth on the mound and probably for a utility role. Those last two areas could be addressed with some lower-level signings or Minor League deals.

As for free agents, it’s not clear how much money the Tribe has to spend. The way things stand right now, the payroll projects to be around $60 million before any more additions. It has been estimated that the Indians could operate between $60-$70 million for the 2012 season.

One early report from ESPN pegged the Indians as one of nine teams to call on free-agent outfielder Josh Willingham. I’ve written on already that he would be a good fit for Cleveland at the right price. That said, Indians GM Chris Antonetti has said the starting outfield is set with Michael Brantley, Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo.

Being one of the teams to call on a player is not really huge news. The Indians’ brass wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they weren’t at least calling to learn about acquisition cost, even if it’s one phone call that doesn’t go beyond that. I’m sure Cleveland has inquired on plenty of other free-agents, too. See: Michael Cuddyer and Carlos Pena. That doesn’t mean those players are coming to C-town.

Barring a trade, I see the Indians’ focus being on adding someone to the first-base mix. Otherwise, Cleveland might be looking at another year of pinning its hopes on continued progress from budding stars such as Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera, Brantley and others.

Look for the Indians to also continue to search for right-handed utility options. Casey Blake and Mark DeRosa have been linked to the Tribe. Those are hardly big names, but these wouldn’t be big contracts being handed out, either.

More as I hear…

1:52 p.m. CT — Spoke to a source that indicated that Indians’ interest in Willingham is “mild”. So don’t make too much of that earlier rumor for the time being. The Tribe has also called on free-agent 3B Kevin Kouzmanoff, but the interest is very minimal. More checking in than anything else. Indians have also reportedly expressed interest in Casey Kotchman. Truth be told, Indians are checking in with just about any available first baseman not named Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder.

Indians GM Chris Antonetti is scheduled to meet with Cleveland media around 3:30 p.m. CT, so stay tuned for more from that session. Earlier today, he offered a “no comment” when asked by Paul Hoynes of the Plain Dealer if there was any interest in pursuing Manny Ramirez. I don’t see the Tribe going down that road.

The Marlins are rumored to be in pursuit of Pujols, which would leave Gaby Sanchez as prime trade bait. Heard that Miami would most likely want a Major League starter in return in any potential deal for the right-handed-hitting first baseman. I don’t know if Cleveland has inquired, but he is a player I’d keep in mind. Seems to be a potential fit.

4:55 p.m. CT — My how a few hours can change things around here. Reports now are that Rays are getting close to reeling in Willingham. So, moving on…

Met with Antonetti and discussed the first-base situation, among other topics. Per his policy, Antonetti refrained from addressing specific players that the team might be targeting. He reiterated that Matt LaPorta needs to show the Indians he can be far moe consistent than he’s been up to this point. One thing to note: LaPorta has an option, but Shelley Duncan does not.

Antonetti noted that Ubaldo Jimenez will likely make 4-7 starts in winter ball. Indians also working closely with shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera on his offseason regimen. It’ll likely include a limited stint in winter ball, too. Cleveland wants to find a way to prepare Asdrubal so he doesn’t fade down the stretch like he did last year. As of right now, no winter ball for Carlos Santana.

Shin-Soo Choo is currently in Korea finishing up his military obligation. He’ll be back in the States in about two weeks. Heard that he’ll be diving into his hitting program come Jan.1. Also heard Indians still interested in an extension for the outfielder. I still think it’s unlikely, given agent Scott Boras’ history of taking his clients into free agency.

Antonetti noted that the Indians will likely announce 40-man move later today or tomorrow. The move will be to officially place re-signed CF Grady Sizemore on the roster. The GM said the holdup has been approval of all the terms from the league office. Seems like Thanksgiving and the CBA deal sort of put the Sizemore signing on the backburner.