CLEVELAND -- Upgrading the outfield was already high on the Indians' to-do list this winter. But it is now imperative in the wake of the news that star left fielder Michael Brantley could miss the first month of the 2016 season following right shoulder surgery.
Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff are currently at the General Managers Meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., beginning to lay the groundwork for potential moves.
"A lot of our focus has been on trying to find position-player alternatives," Antonetti said. "We certainly have a very good understanding, or a developing understanding, of the outfielder corner market, both on the trade and free-agent front. And I expect that we'll continue to explore options to help us get better.
"But I think irrespective of Michael's injury, that was an area in which we were looking to try to improve on as we entered the winter, and I think we're well positioned to do that."
Prior to Brantley's injury, the focus would have been possibly finding a new center fielder (pushing Abraham Almonte to a fourth outfielder role) and a part-time platoon partner for Lonnie Chisenhall in right field. Now the Indians also need to figure out how to tread water in left field until Brantley is ready to return, which could be in late April or some time in May.
The switch-hitting Almonte played admirably in center and looked solid enough in the field to be able to slide to the corners, if necessary.
On that potential scenario, Antonetti said, "A lot of it will depend upon the final configuration of our roster, but we would be comfortable with Abe playing any of the three outfield spots."
The pure outfielders on Cleveland's 40-man roster are Almonte, Brantley, Chisenhall, Michael Choice and Jerry Sands. Utility men on the roster include Jose Ramirez and Zach Walters (currently rehabbing from left shoulder surgery). The Tribe has also discussed having corner infielder Chris Johnson try his hand as an outfielder during Spring Training.
Cleveland has a pair of highly touted center fielder prospects in Tyler Naquin and Brad Zimmer. Naquin has only played 50 games at Triple-A and Zimmer has only logged 49 games at Double-A, though, making both of them long shots to be on a Major League Opening Day roster. Another outfield prospect at Triple-A is James Ramsey, who was acquired from St. Louis for Justin Masterson in July 2014.
Realistically, the Indians will need to look over the free-agent and trade markets to shore up the situation.
"There are alternatives out there," Antonetti said. "Again, we've started the dialogue, both on free agents and trades. We'll continue that dialogue while we're here [at the GM Meetings]. The likelihood of it is really difficult to assess, but I know that's an area where we'll spend quite a bit a time in examining those alternatives and trying to improve upon the group we have in place."
On the trade market, the Indians have been linked to Miami outfielder Marcell Ozuna since before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline last season. If the Marlins are seeking a No. 2-type starting pitcher in return, as has been reported, expect Cleveland to balk at that kind of asking price. Young controllable outfielders will be of interest to the Tribe, though.
Given the Indians' financial limitations, marquee free agents such as Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes and Alex Gordon are not on the Tribe's list. Colby Rasmus and Dexter Fowler would make sense, but they come at a cost beyond their coming contracts due to the qualifying offer each received from their former club. Should they reject the QO, a team would lose its top Draft pick (if after the top 10 picks) if they signed them. The Indians currently own the 16th pick in next summer's Draft.
The Indians would need to look to the next tier of free agents for a potential fit.
"I'm just thankful that we learned of the injury now," Antonetti said. "To Michael's credit and our medical staff's credit, they had him ramp up his activity at the end of the season despite his shoulder feeling pretty good, just to make sure it was in a good spot in the offseason. Unfortunately, as he ramped up that activity, he felt some soreness and got it evaluated.
"But the good news is that we're talking about this in November and not talking about this on March 6. So I'm just thankful that we caught it at this point, and Michael will have most of the offseason to recover."