How Much Longer Can the Cleveland Indians Afford to Be Patient in Free Agency?

Toronto Blue Jays practice for the upcoming American League Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians

I’ll open this with a very obvious statement – the Cleveland Indians don’t need to make a splash in free agency this winter. I’ll feel this way regardless of what moves the team ends up making before next season.

Clearly, when you have a club which makes it all the way down to the final inning of the World Series without the help of two key starters and the best hitter on the roster, you don’t have to make massive changes. While a couple holes need to be filled, it’s nothing a small move here or there can’t fix.

If there was ever a time to do so, it was the MLB Winter Meetings. However, outside of some rumors – one in particular which has generated a ton of buzz – the sessions came and went without the Tribe doing anything of substance. Obviously, moves can still be made after Winter Meetings, something Cleveland has proven true in the past few offseasons. That said, right now the Indians appear to be sticking with their patient approach to the offseason.

Clearly there are obvious cons to such a strategy. That said, there are a few pros as well.

When it comes to the Indians’ hot stove, one name has launched to the top of every fan’s wish list – slugger Edwin Encarnacion. Ever since the rumors transformed from “Cleveland checked in on him” to “the two sides are discussing a multi-year deal,” everyone began to hope the Indians’ typically frugal front office would break the bank for a significant upgrade.

However, in the days since, the stove has cooled when it comes to Cleveland and the former Toronto Blue Jay.

This of course can be said about the Indians and any potential free agency target, as the team seems to be in no hurry to sign anyone.

The upside of this move has been on display all week. Encarnacion in particular turned down a four year, $80 million offer from the Toronto Blue Jays under the assumption he could make more. In the days since, teams have found other options or have simply admitted they don’t have the funds to bring him in. Suddenly, an Indians club many thought couldn’t afford Encarnacion’s services now has a chance to bring him on board.

Likewise, former Tribe first baseman Mike Napoli is still looking for a suitor. Instead of the Indians acting too quickly and throwing him a bigger deal than they were comfortable with, they’ve instead made one-year offers and challenged him to find something better. At the moment, Napoli has had as much luck as Encarnacion.

So, while Cleveland’s slow-playing of MLB free agency may make fans impatient, it’s certainly putting the team in a good place to take advantage of the shrinking market value for available first basemen.

That said, this doesn’t mean said strategy is without drawbacks. For one, the Indians aren’t the only team which can take advantage of the market shift.

Sure, players like Encarnacion, Napoli and Mark Trumbo seeing a reduction in leverage helps Cleveland in terms of negotiations. At the same time, there’s no way other teams won’t try to take advantage, too. There are likely a good deal of other clubs which also felt as though they didn’t have the money to spend on someone like Encarnacion, and are just as thrilled to see an opportunity open up now. The Tribe can’t call dibs because it was the first team to sit back and let this situation develop.

The Indians taking their time also meant watching other potential options at first base get snatched up. Steve Pearce, Mitch Moreland, Carlos Beltran and Matt Holiday were all linked to Cleveland in some way or another coming in to the offseason. Now all four have new homes, while a hole remains in the Tribe’s infield.

Sure, no rational fan is going to complain if the Indians passed up on Holiday and ended up with Encarnacion. Still, should other clubs sneak in and take players the Tribe felt it could wait out, the amount of backup options isn’t nearly as big as it once was.

Right now, Cleveland appears smart not jumping the gun and throwing an $80 million contract Encarnacion’s way. Holding firm on offering just a one-year deal to Napoli seems to be working out for the Indians, as well.

Eventually, though, you can be too patient. Cleveland is walking a tightrope, and right now the winds are blowing in its favor. However, if the team waits too long, it may be left with a list of options which won’t look nearly as good as it once did.

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