So we've just went through one of the most exciting weeks in Winter Meetings history in which the Indians didn't make a major move. We were tempted with four-team trades, three-team trades, then finally your garden variety two-team trades. The Indians were close to signing Shane Victorino, then Jason Bay, and now is in on both Nick Swisher and Kevin Youkilis. Now Bay is type of the player the Indians usually are stuck signing (and in this case they lost out to Seattle) but the other three free agents are usually above their weight. But after several years in which the Indians had a single-digit (in millions) budget, they came into this winter with as much as $30M or perhaps more to spent, and given the offer they threw at Victorino, in looks as though that's true.
In the case of Victorino, I think the verdict is unanimous that it's a good thing the Red Sox upped their offer, for if not, the Indians might have had their four-year, $40-$44M offer accepted by the native Hawaiian. Four years is the type of free agent contract not seen given out by the Indians since (correct me if I'm wrong) they signed Roberto Alomar in the winter of 1998-99. Now they've done extensions that long or longer, but rarely have the Indians extended that long a contract to an actual free agent. And what an odd player to offer that long a contract; Victorino will be 32 this season, having posted at age 31 (split between Philadelphia and Los Angeles) a 91 OPS+ with just 11 home runs. Yes, he stole 39 bases, but that decline in offense, especially at an age where you'd expect a decline would be concerning to even a club that can afford to take those risks. So when the Red Sox upped their dollars per season, I think the Indians dodged a very expensive bullet.
Let's think a bit about if the Indians had landed Victorino, besides the financial end of things. A center fielder for most of his career, Victorino slid over to left field after being dealt to the Dodgers, and will most likely play right field in Fenway. If the Indians had signed him, he likely have been ticketed in left field, as I think Michael Brantley's a better defender in center than Victorino at this stage in their careers. An the plate, Victorino would have a top-of-the-order guy, batting either first or season in the order (depending on who the Indians traded this winter). Victorino would have given the Indians more speed and a right-handed (actually switch-hitting) bat, but would not have helped fill the power gap that saw the Tribe's leading home run hitter have 18 in 2012.
Jason Bay was more of a scrap heap signing. He's a right-handed hitter with an outstanding hitting history, but unfortunately that history ended in 2009 with Boston. In his three years with the Mets, Bay hit .234/.318/.369 with a grand total of 26 home runs. The Indians weren't offering much, but even assuming that Bay is healthy now, they wouldn't have gotten much.
There are two free agents still pending that the Indians have been publicly in on. Kevin Youkilis would be signed to play first base with the Indians; the Indians as of this moment have the longest and richest offer on the table, besting a 1/$12M from the Yankees. Yes, let that sink in; the Indians are outbidding the Yankees for a free agent. Youkilis probably wouldn't have even entertained an offer from the Indians had not Terry Francona been managing the club (although he would be close to where he grew up). With the Yankees, though, he'd be on a winning club, and perhaps that will turn out to be the deciding factory. Had Youkilis become a free agent after the 2011, he would have gotten a lot longer and richer offers, so perhaps he'd rather have a 1-year deal and go out on the free agent market in 2013 with a better contract year under his belt. If the Indians sign Youkilis he'd be a first baseman; if he signed with the Yankees it would be to play third base at least until Alex Rodriguez is healthy.
Then there's Nick Swisher. Unlike Victorino, Bay, and Youkilis, Swisher entered free agency on a fairly high note, posting a 126 OPS+ and hitting 60 extra-base hits (36 doubles, 24 homers). Offensive he's what the Indians need; however, he's going to demand at least the type of contract Victorino got in terms of years, and I'd guess the dollars/year might approach $18M. We'd be getting into the territory of the richest contract the Indians had ever given out. Swisher, like Victorino, will be 32 years old next season, and usually outfielders fall off dramatically at that age. Swisher has never been an outstanding outfielder, and you'd expect his range to decrease as the years go by, eventually being moved to first base or DH. But as far as offense goes, Swisher might be the best non-Hamilton free agent out there.