Not much of anything happens at baseball's winter meetings, at least not when compared with the way the meetings were conducted years ago. The age of quietly whispered negotiations in smoke-filled rooms and raucous swap-meets in the lobby are gone, replaced by a handful of buzzing cellphones that act as the main conduit to what's happening in the team suites. The majority of people in attendance may hear rumblings of what's happening, but though they are standing in some cases just feet away from where it's all happening, they get their news from Ken Rosenthal and Jon Heyman, just like everybody else.
That's not to say that the meetings don't have their quirky charms, among them access to the managers. Sometimes you can catch one in the hallway or in line for coffee and sneak a question or two, but if you can't track them down in an empty elevator car, or say, outside smoking a cigarette, as I did last year with Jim Leyland, you can stockpile your questions for the 30-minute press conference that each manager holds.
There's some strategy involved in covering those pressers; they're lumped together in rapid succession, with two managers simultaneously holding court at opposite ends of the room. If you're transcribing notes or have a short deadline to publish something, you might have to sit out a round as the managers continue to march in two by two; if you're lucky, the manager you want to grill is someone like Walt Weiss, whose winter meetings debut as Colorado skipper were Rockies beat writers and the occasional national writer fluttering by for a quick throwaway question before floating away.
Weiss wasn't the only manager trying out a new role last December; Terry Francona had joined the Indians only two months earlier. After his unceremonious exile from Boston, he spent a season as a television analyst, but it was obvious that he was fervidly eager to return to managing. In his 30-minute session with the media, his every comment seemed designed to reminding those with the recorders that he was a man incredibly anxious to get to work, one who did not plan on heading a caretaker administration whose main goal was to kill time waiting for the 68-94 team to get back on its feet.
Someone asked a question that began, "When you talk about a rebuild," referring to the general "you" not Francona specifically, but the skipper interrupted him. "I didn't say that," in a manner that commanded everyone gathered around the folding table recognize that the word "rebuilding" wasn't in the organization's vernacular -- not publicly, at least.
It's not surprising that the Indians didn't want to hang the dreaded R-word on what they were doing. Teams have always resisted a designation that admits defeat before the season has even started. It's a particularly loaded term for the Indians, who went more than 40 years between looks at the postseason and haven't picked up a championship since 1948. Whatever they ultimately called it, the Indians had a serious challenge in front of them. They took an awkward first step in hiring an elite manager, one of just a relative handful with two championships to his name, without having a team in place for him to lead, but they weren't the first organization ever to buy a Porsche without having a garage to park it in. The Indians subsequently added main attractions like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, but subtracted Shin-Soo Choo in a three-team trade that netted them Trevor Bauer, Matt Albers, and Bryan Shaw. Those changes weren't intended to be the full package, just a temporary carport to provide some protect from another 94-loss season, stepping stones in a multi-year approach to rebuilding -- my word, not theirs.
In that same press conference, Francona said, "My responsibility is to take whomever we have and make them the best that they can be," which sounds like one of those canned speeches that they teach at manager's school like, "It is what it is," and, "We played hard today." But considering that the Indians won 92 games this season and secured the AL Wild Card with "whomever we have" -- and a payroll of only about $80 million, 23rd-highest in the majors, speaks to the whomeverishness of the roster despite the high-profile additions -- that Francona's words seem eerily prescient.
It takes more than wishful thinking and bold words for a team to win games, and while a portion of their success can be attributed to skill and talent, the fact remains that the Indians got most of it right by accident, especially when it came to pitching.
Ubaldo Jimenez (David Richard-USA TODAY Sports)
The buzz last offseason was that the Indians needed to sign an ace (or a number-two pitcher, at the very least) to bring some stability to the rotation after a rough 2012 in which their rotation ranked 11th in American League in starters' Fair Run Average and dead last in ERA+. When Francona spoke at the meetings, he tried his best to paint a rosy picture of the arms he had on board, but he also acknowledged pitching depth was a concern. His first priority would be to get Ubaldo Jimenez back to where he had been, which presumably referred to his years with the Rockies and not the 9-17, 5.40 ERA season he had just had. Francona made a similar comment about Justin Masterson, who had had mixed results in the majors due to his wandering command. He also had praiseful words for Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Zach McAllister, which seemed more like taking roll than an actual endorsement.
As they say of pitching, you can never have enough of it and as they say of baseball, it's unpredictable. In just one season, and without signing any big free-agent pitchers, the Indians went from one of the worst rotations in the AL to the second-best as measured by FRA. It happened due to a combination of the aforementioned pitchers doing well and elements then unknown even to Francona. Jimenez managed a remarkable 1.82 ERA in the second half, and Masterson improved his strikeout rate to 24.3 percent (the best of his career), but the difference-makers also included two pitchers who weren't on Francona's radar at that point: Danny Salazar and Scott Kazmir.
Francona got his first glimpse of 23-year-old Salazar on a trip to the Dominican Republic to see Jimenez pitch. Francona, his attention captured by an unknown hurler with an electric arm, asked pitching coach Mickey Callaway who the young pitcher was. One imagines Callaway smiling as he answered not with a name but simply said, "You're going to love him." This turned out to be an understatement. Salazar made his major league debut on July 11 then joined the rotation full-time in August. In 52 innings pitched, Salazar had a 3.12 ERA and struck out 30.8 percent of batters her faced. Though his immediate legacy will be the wild card game, in which he lasted just four innings and allowed three runs against the Rays, the Indians have an unexpected talent who should be a key piece of the rotation going forward.
Even more surprising was Kazmir, who rose from ashes of a once failed career to re-enter the league as a serviceable major-league pitcher. After the Angels granted Kazmir unconditional release (and ate $14.5 million of his salary in the process) in June of 2011, it seemed that he was irreparably broken and his career was over. Even with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League, Kazmir posted a 5.34 ERA and walked 33 batters in just 64 innings, a neon sign flashing "DO NOT BUY." Somehow, Kazmir figured out how to improve his velocity and command while practicing on his own behind his house, improving sufficiently to entice the Indians into signing him to a minor league contract. In return for the league minimum, they ended up with a much needed left hander who made 29 starts, pitched 158 innings, and posted a 4.04 ERA, dropping to 3.38 in the second half.
Perhaps Francona is responsible for "making them the best that they can be." The voters for Manager of the Year seemed to think so and bestowed the honor on him on Tuesday night, but next season's story might have a different ending. There was an element of luck, lightning in a bottle, of various pitchers reaching their ceilings collectively. It could happen again, but if it does, it may have to happen with a different set of guys, because Jimenez and Kazmir are free agents.
When the Indians traded for Jimenez in 2011, they emptied the farm for a pitcher who would boost them to the playoffs. He didn't. Jimenez came with a team-friendly contract, but the trade left the team trying to restock young talent without providing much upside during the first year and a half. There was a lot of resentment towards the pitcher for his rough 2012, but this season was a year of redemption for Jimenez. He had an option to return to the Indians next season for $8 million, but unsurprisingly he declined both it and the Indians' one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer, which means that any team willing to pay the price and turn a blind eye to his inconsistency could have him for next season.
The Indians also want to keep Kazmir, but given his rebound season, the fact that he essentially worked for a pittance last season, and the absence of reputable southpaws in the market, he's seeking a multi-year deal. It seems likely that he can find one. According to Jon Heyman, the Indians are unlikely to comply, so he could be gone as well.
Danny Salazar (Jared Wickerham)
The Indians are in an unenviable position. They had accidental success in the middle of their rebuilding plan, the resurgent pitchers pushing them to a 21-6 record in September, 92 wins overall, and a postseason berth. They arrived early, but with two of their best pitchers on the way out of the door and no clear replacements on hand, they face the difficult task of consolidating their success and, having arrived, figure out a way of staying.
There's the additional complexity of assessing whether or not keeping Jimenez and Kazmir is even the right strategy for doing so given that their careers are less notable for good pitching than they are for its opposite. But there's danger in slamming the door without viable solutions. The Indians know that, just as they know that whatever alternatives they secure may be less expensive than the men they replace, but there's no guarantee they will be more reliable or less blemished.
The Indians have time to make moves, especially when you consider how much they accomplished between Francona's press conference last December and Opening Day, but the likelihood of them stumbling upon rotation solutions next season in the manner they did this year -- a rookie that came out of nowhere, a long-term enigma who finally found himself, and a washed-up arm that they plucked out of the Atlantic League -- is somewhere between miniscule and zero. This is where a rebuild -- again, my word, not theirs -- get incredibly tricky. If the Indians can't work out reasonable terms with Jimenez and Kazmir, they won't leave their prize-winning car out in the rain again even though they have the money and the record to build a garage... would they?