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Tribe Happenings: First base void could be filled soon

Tribe Happenings: First base void could be filled soon
January 15, 2012
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Carlos PenaSome news, notes, and thoughts from my Indians notebook…

First base options come into focus

The Indians are about five weeks from the start of spring training as pitchers and catchers will report on February 20th. As spring training gets closer a lot of teams are still making moves to add players to their Major League rosters, and the Indians could be one of them very soon. Reports this week surfaced that talks between the Indians and free agent first basemen Casey Kotchman and Carlos Pena have heated up.

The Indians have yet to address their need at first base this offseason, but they have been talking to lots of free agents and to lots of teams about potential trades to fill their need there. After Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, the market for the remaining first baseman was expected to drag out late into the winter, and it has. In fact, Fielder has yet to sign with a team.

There are lots of options still available in free agency that could fill the Indians void at first base. The three best and most popular options after Fielder are Derrek Lee, Kotchman, and Pena. At the moment the Indians’ interest in Lee appears cool so the focus appears to be Kotchman and Pena. Both Pena and Kotchman bring their own intangibles and positives to the team, but also their own negatives as well.

Pena, 33, is someone a lot of people like simply because of his power. He has had five straight seasons of 28 or more homers including a three year stretch from 2007-2009 where he hit 46, 31, and 39 homers respectively. He also plays good defense and walks a lot as he has had five straight seasons with 87 or more walks, which has helped supplement a poor batting average in almost every season (career .239 AVG). On the flip side, he has also struck out at least 142 times in a season for five straight years.

Kotchman, 28, is a guy a lot of people like because he puts the ball in play. In 2588 career at bats he has struck out just 289 times, and last season he hit .306 with the Rays. Like Pena, he is also a good defender. The problem with him is he had a good 2007 and 2011, but the years in between there from 2008-2010 were not much better from an offensive standpoint than Matt LaPorta, so the Indians run the risk of getting that player. While he can hit 10-15 home runs, he lacks the big power of Pena.

If in fact the Indians are making a decision between the two players, it is a tough decision they have to make. The way things are looking they will likely sign one of these two players, but the question is who and which one is the best fit?

Both are are solid to above average defenders, so evaluating their defense is moot as both will provide a defensive boost at first base the Indians need. It is the offense that will be the separator and determines which player fits best.

Most of the focus is on adding a power bat, but the Indians also need guys that can consistently put the bat on the ball and be productive. The Indians were actually in the middle of the pack in power last season as their 154 home runs ranked them 16th in MLB, and their .714 OPS was 18th in the league. But the Indians struck out 1269 times which was 5th worst in the entire league and was the highest total in franchise history.

Do the Indians sign Pena and add him to a lineup already full of windmills? He struck out 161 times in 493 at bats last season. By the same token, Kotchman struck out 66 times in 500 at bats. Is the benefit of more extra base hit power with a guy like Pena more valuable than a guy like Kotchman who put the ball in play 100 more times than Pena did last season in the same number of at bats?

As I noted in last week’s notebook, the addition of a left-handed or right-handed bat at first base hardly changes anything with the Indians lineup. Even if they were to add a mid-level right-handed bat this offseason they would still have six left-handed hitters and two switch-hitters (that are best from the left side) in the lineup. Whether they sign a left-handed or right-handed bat, the lineup is still left-handed heavy either way and can be matched up to late in games.

At this point the Indians simply just need to sign the best player, be it the powerful, strikeout prone bat of Pena or the contact oriented, questionable bat of Kotchman. It is a tough decision, but then again that is why GM Chris Antonetti gets to sit in the chair and make those decisions.

Spring invites

The Indians announced two more signings this week as they inked right-handed pitcher Chris Ray and left-handed pitcher Chris Seddon to minor league deals with an invite to Major League spring training.

Ray, 30, owns an 18-19 record with 51 saves and a 4.10 ERA in six Major League seasons. Last year he pitched for the Seattle Mariners and in 29 appearances went 3-2 with a 4.68 ERA until his season ended prematurely on July 30th because of a right lat injury. His best season was with the Baltimore Orioles in 2006 when he was their closer and went 4-4 with 33 saves and 2.73 ERA. Due to his experience and past effectiveness out of the bullpen, he could be a dark horse candidate to win the final bullpen spot this spring.

Seddon, 28, owns a 93-88 record with a 4.64 ERA in 266 games (250 starts) over his 11-year minor league career. He also owns a 1-2 record and 7.03 ERA in 21 career big league appearances, with his last year in the majors coming in 2010 with the Seattle Mariners. He is not really an option to pitch in Cleveland this year and is simply depth for the Triple-A Columbus pitching staff.

The Indians also announced six internal non-roster spring invites from their farm system: right-handed pitcher Hector Ambriz, right-handed pitcher Austin Adams, catcher Chun Chen, right-handed pitcher Chen-Chang (C.C.) Lee, outfielder/first baseman Chad Huffman, and right-handed pitcher Tyler Sturdevant. All of these players are not expected to make the opening day roster, but will be options the Indians consider adding to the roster later in the season.

With the two minor league signings and six internal invites the Indians are now up to a total of 15 non-roster invites this spring. The other players recently signed to minor league deals with an invite to Major League spring training are catcher Luke Carlin, catcher Michael Hernandez, infielder Andy LaRoche, infielder Jose Lopez, catcher Matt Pagnozzi, outfielder Felix Pie, and right-handed pitcher Robinson Tejeda.

Winter Development Program starts Monday

The Indians annual Winter Development Program every January starts up on Monday. It is a two week program that was started up by Team President Mark Shapiro 17 years ago in January of 1996 as a way to hone each player’s physical, mental, and fundamental skills.

The program mostly involves players who are expected to make their Major League debut in the upcoming season, who have recently been acquired in a trade, or are a high level prospect nearing a big league opportunity. It serves as an introduction for many of the minor league players to the Progressive Field facility, big league coaching staff, and the city itself.

The Indians will conduct the program out of Progressive Field the first week of the program. During the first week players will live with host families in the Cleveland area and attend various extracurricular activities as well as other community and charitable appearances and tours of local attractions. For the second week of the program they will go to the Indians Player Development Complex in Goodyear, Arizona. There they will hone their skills on the diamond while continuing to take part in strength and conditioning activities.

The 11 participants this year are right-handed pitcher Austin Adams, right-handed pitcher Rob Bryson, catcher Chun Chen, outfielder Aaron Cunningham, infielder Juan Diaz, outfielder Tim Fedroff, outfielder Jordan Henry, left-handed pitcher T.J. McFarland, outfielder Thomas Neal, catcher Roberto Perez, and right-handed pitcher Tyler Sturdevant.

Carolina dreaming

On Thursday the Indians’ announced they have extended their Player Development contract with their new High-A Carolina Mudcats affiliate an additional two years. The Mudcats will now be the High-A affiliate home of the Indians minor leaguers through the 2014 season.

The Mudcats are the Indians new High-A affiliate this season because their former High-A Kinston Indians affiliate was sold to the Mudcats last winter. As part of the celebration with their first season working together, the Indians will play an exhibition game against the Mudcats at their home field Five County Stadium in Zebulon, North Carolina on April 3rd.

The Indians will travel to Zebulon at the conclusion of spring training to participate in the exhibition game before moving on to Cleveland for the season opener against the Toronto Blue Jays at Progressive Field on April 5th.

Tribe on Tour

The Indians have unveiled the dates, locations, and participants for their annual winter promotional tour. This year “Tribe on Tour” will run from January 26-29 and include several Cleveland Indians staff members, players, and radio personalities. Each event will feature live player interviews, autograph sessions, Indians themed games with the opportunity to win great prizes, and team mascot Slider will be on hand as well.

Each event is free to attend and will include the following Indians’ participants: manager Manny Acta, Shelley Duncan, Jason Kipnis, Jack Hannahan, Jason Donald, Josh Tomlin, Vinnie Pestano, and radio voice Tom Hamilton.

The date, time and locations are as follows: January 26th (7-9pm) at Westfield Southpark Mall in Strongsville; January 27th (7-9pm) at Westfield Great Northern Mall in North Olmsted; January 28th (12-2pm) at Summit Mall in Akron; and January 29th (12-2pm) at Beachwood Place Mall in Beachwood.

All of the participants listed above will be at each event except Pestano and Hamilton will not be at the January 27th event in North Olmsted. Radio broadcaster Jim Rosenhaus will sub in for Hamilton on that date.

Parting shots

Former Indians infielder Adam Everett has been signed as a Special Assistant to Baseball Operations. In the role he will be in uniform as an instructor in spring training at both big league and minor league camp this spring. During the season he will provide infield instruction and evaluation within the Player Development system. … The Indians have hired Scooter Tucker to be their hitting coach at High-A Carolina. He was a catcher that played for the Indians in 1995 and in 17 games went 0-for-20 at the plate. … Former Indians’ bullpen pitcher Chad Durbin signed a minor league deal with the Miami Marlins this week. …. Former Indians pitcher Justin Germano, who left the organization midseason last year to pitch in Korea, signed a minor league deal with the Boston Red Sox this week. … The Indians signed infielder Chin-Lung Hu and right-handed pitcher Willy Lebron to minor league contracts this week, but neither player will report to big league camp this spring as they are only depth for Triple-A Columbus.

Follow Tony and the Indians Prospect Insider on Twitter @TonyIPI. Also, his latest book the 2011 Cleveland Indians Top 100 Prospects & More is available for purchase for $20.95 to customers in the US (shipping and handling extra).

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

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