The Non-Presence of Josh Willingham and the Premise of Standing Pat

It's become totally clear that the Indians are out on Josh Willingham (who is, as I'm writing this at 10:30 pm on 12/13, very close to being a Twin) and were never in on Michael Cuddyer. There are still other options floating around but most of the unsigned players carry significant contract demands (Carlos Beltran), significant performance concerns (Casey Kotchman), or significant baggage (Manny Ramirez). The Indians may still be in on a player from the latter two categories but, more and more, there seems to be a chance the Indians will either make a trade or enter the season with the roster more or less as-is and try to make a move if the team contends.

Zack Meisel, Jordan Bastian's second in command, has been making this point in various ways over the last few days:

For a reasonable price, there are really no FA options that would provide Tribe an upgrade. Might as well save $ for in-season acquisition.

Indians contended last year before hit hard w/ injuries. They're hoping for similar start, and another Ubaldo-like add to put them over top.

Again, I'm using logic to give you organizational standpoint, not my own opinion. But the FA market is barren and overpriced. Few gems.

I'd quibble with the idea that the free agent market is 'overpriced', only in the sense that I don't think it's relatively overpriced to its history. The free agent market is a difficult way to acquire talent on the cheap—you go seriously into the free agent market because you're ready to swing a big money stick and acquire guys that are close to proven commodities. This is, more or less, the approach of the Tigers, the Red Sox, the Yankees, and their ilk. It's certainly not a foolproof strategy but it's even more certainly not a strategy built on financial efficiency. It is, after all, an open bidding market.

Many other teams, like the Indians, try to operate on the periphery of the free agent market. They make moves to fill obvious roster gaps (hello, Jack Hannahan!), they attempt reclamation projects, and they hand out minor league deals with opt outs. When it comes time to seriously enter the market, to try to add a player that will be integral to the team's success, it's not surprising that they find the offerings unappetizing. The mechanics of the big money free agent market work against the philosophy that underpins the actions of all teams on a budget: get something for less than its worth.

One of the big leaps Meisel's making here is this: if the Indians want to contend, the front office feels that simply coming back full strength and evaluating is a legitimate plan. It's clear the Indians want to contend—they signaled that when they dealt for Ubaldo Jimenez and, even if they hadn't, they'd be fools not to try to contend. The division is in disarray and the Indians have a real chance to be the tallest lilliputians of the bunch.

Full credit to Meisel, he made this point before Mark Shapiro took to Twitter last night and reminded me why I like him so much. Shapiro was candid and charming, and answered people who didn't deserve his time. In his conversations, he basically made Meisel's point again. First, regarding the free agent market:

Free Agency is an inefficient market. Better to spend it on your own as they hit their prime

Then, regarding his own team:

Need to be healthy. Team is in its prime.

Pretty much the same story, huh? The Indians may well make a move on the trade market before the season, but my sense after reading through Shapiro's time line is that leadership is comfortable going to Spring Training with this team in its current form. The assertion isn't that the team is a finished work but instead that it has a fighting chance to put itself in a place where the front office can use its financial flexibility to patch the most glaring hole come July. Contrast this to the assertion that the team has to add a piece or else it's a poor imitation of a major league squad that doesn't really have a shot.

I don't know which of those two perspectives I hold but I appreciate Shapiro's candor. There's something buoying about the idea that this might actually be a team that can have a prime, that the majority of the roster is congealed into a living organism, one that might eventually learn to walk, run, and rise to the status of top-level predator, sniffing A.J. Burnett on the crosswind that blows across the Serengeti. I'll end it here, with what was Shapiro's best line of the night:

Does anyone know when the blog comments under Hoynsie's columns replace[d] my Twitter feed?

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