It took a lot of losses for the Indians to get Alex White and Drew Pomeranz. There were a pair of 162-game seasons involved, and the Cleveland fans had to watch a lot of bad baseball to get their consolation prizes of White and Pomeranz, a pair of first-round picks that led the Indians' list of top prospects before last season.
They weren't supposed to contend. Not sure if they had a two- or three-year plan, but I'm sure even the Indians were a little stunned to look up at the end of May with the best record in the American League and a five-game lead over the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central. But when the trade deadline came, the Indians were still in contention, jockeying for position with the Tigers. They had a taste for this contending stuff again. The two- or three- or eighteen-year rebuilding plan went out the window. White and Pomeranz were jettisoned in favor of Ubaldo Jimenez. All those losses, all that patience, was now in the right arm of Ubaldo.
The Indians' success turned them into a win-now team. To be completely fair, it might have been the best strategy available to them. It's not like White and Pomeranz would have immediately helped the Indians into contention this year, especially when you consider that counting on Ubaldo isn't a bad gambit at all. And the Indians' farm system isn't highly regarded, so that long-term thinking was already missing a couple of pieces.
But it's a weird kind of win-now mode that the Indians are in. They can't be a completely crazy win-now team, like the Phillies, who aren't really concerned right now with what Jonathan Papelbon does in 2015. It's also a bad time to be filling each and every hole with veteran stopgaps, as they're looking to ease in youngsters like Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall.
No, the Indians are in kinda-sorta-win-now-maybe-let's-go-for-it?-I-guess mode, a weird side effect of having such a supremely hot start in 2011. And with that in mind, they've acquired two of the biggest kinda-sorta-win-now-maybe-let's-go-for-it?-I-guess mode players in Derek Lowe and Casey Kotchman. Really, it's hard to pick two players who could have possibly exemplified where the Indians stood this offseason.
Lowe is a known quantity, a guy who will probably stay healthy without absolutely murdering your team or your bullpen. Over the last three years, his ERA+ was 86, though he certainly wasn't helped by the defensive support he was getting in the infield, especially last season with Alex Gonzalez only able to do so much between Chipper Jones and Dan Uggla. After he left Los Angeles, Lowe quietly slipped into the Jason Marquis/Carl Pavano mold of quasi-efficiency. He's a worthwhile gamble; he's completely unexciting. Both things can be true. And for the 2012 Indians, caught between strategies, worthwhile and unexciting is the cost-effective and mostly harmless way to go.
Kotchman is less of a known quantity. He's a good fielder coming off a fine year, but he's a first baseman who hits like a decent second baseman if his hits aren't finding holes. He could hit .306 with a .378 on-base percentage again, just like Lowe could reclaim his past glories. Kotchman was always supposed to be a plus-prospect coming through the Angels' system. But I doubt even the Indians are looking for Kotchman to repeat. He just represents a worthwhile and unexciting lefty bat to go with Matt LaPorta and/or Russ Canzler at first.
There are those words again. Worthwhile and unexciting. The Indians aren't blocking any prospects with Lowe and Kotchman, so the modest expectations they bring make them worthwhile. The evidence suggesting they'll be something close to average if a couple of things break their way, that's the unexciting part. Exciting costs money. Exciting forces teams to commit to players into the next decade. The Indians weren't in the right place for exciting.
But just because Lowe and Kotchman aren't going to sell season-ticket packages doesn't mean that the Indians can't be exciting this year. They have a chance. Kipnis and Chisenhall could live up to their potential. Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo could stay healthy. The sinker-and-control-heavy rotation has potential. And they still have that Ubaldo cat, don't forget. The Tigers are right to be optimistic, but the Indians are worthy competitors.
The Indians, though, were never going to have an exciting offseason. They were going to have a Derek Lowe and Casey Kotchman kind of offseason. And here we are. There wasn't any exciting left on the shelves for less than $200 million. The Lowe and Kotchman combo is sort of a casserole made from stuff left in the fridge. Hey, don't knock it. Those things can occasionally turn out great.