Springtime Storylines: When will the Indians be finished with their rebuilding phase?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Another rebuilding year in Cleveland.

The Big Question: When will the Indians be finished with their rebuilding phase?

After three consecutive .500-or-worse seasons, including 93 and 97 losses in the past two years, the Indians have surprisingly little to show for a rebuilding effort that included trading away established stars CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Victor Martinez in the middle of their primes.

Not only do Manny Acta and company look very capable of losing another 90-plus games this year, aside from stealing superstar-in-the-making Carlos Santana from the Dodgers in a trade that may go down as one of the biggest heists in MLB history surprisingly few long-term building blocks have emerged in Cleveland. Some of that has simply been bad luck, as injuries wrecked Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, and one-time elite pitching prospect Adam Miller.

However, none of Andy Marte, Chuck Lofgren, Trevor Crowe, Jeremy Sowers, and Michael Aubrey panned out as prospects, Franklin Gutierrez, Jeremy Guthrie, and Brandon Phillips were let go before they emerged as valuable big leaguers, and now even Sabathia trade centerpiece Matt LaPorta’s upside is in question. Santana is a stud, Shin-Soo Choo is one of MLB’s best, most underrated players, and Lonnie Chisenhall, Alex White, Jason Kipnis, and Drew Pomeranz are a good group of top prospects, but Indians fans had to be hoping that the losing would be over by now and/or the traded stars would yield a more impressive next wave of talent.

So what else is going on?

  • I drooled over Santana while selecting him as one of my breakout picks for 2011, so instead of repeating all of that praise I’ll simply note that perhaps the most important aspect of the Indians’ entire season will be keeping him healthy behind the plate. He has a chance to be an MVP-caliber player at a premium defensive position, and while the rest of the long-term cupboard may not be as fully stocked as hoped a switch-hitting, on-base machine catcher is an awfully good block from which to start building.
  • This might be Sizemore’s final season in Cleveland, as the Indians hold an $8.5 million option on him for 2012. At his peak Sizemore was worth twice that much and he’s still just 28 years old, but his production has dropped dramatically, he missed most of last season with significant injuries, and will begin this year back on the disabled list. And even if he gets healthy and is playing well the Indians could be tempted to trade him.
  • Similarly, while Choo and Fausto Carmona are under contract through 2013 and 2014 respectively the Indians may decide that cashing them in for more prospects makes sense if they feel like the current team is another couple years from contending. Of course, if Sizemore, Choo, Carmona are all playing well alongside Santana the Indians may be respectable enough to balk at blowing things up again.
  • Despite being a very smart guy with some interesting ideas Mark Shapiro’s stint as general manager was ultimately underwhelming, but I’m very optimistic about his successor Chris Antonetti and in general the Indians have done their best to be ahead of the curve when it comes to technology, sabermetrics, and even social media. They’re on the right track–including an impressive 2010 draft–but some half-decent luck also wouldn’t hurt.
  • Acta’s choice of headwear, as always, will be the best in the league.

So how are they gonna do?

Kansas City’s presence in the AL Central should make it fairly easy for Cleveland to stay out of the cellar, but it would take an awful lot of things breaking right for the Indians to make a run at one of the top three spots in the division. My guess is they’ll show some relatively modest improvement from last season’s 69 wins to somewere in the mid-70s while having some very interesting decisions to make at the trading deadline.

Josh Donaldson is still seeking a long-term deal with the Blue Jays

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If it were up to him, Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson would finish the remainder of his career in Toronto. In fact, he’d be “ticked pink” if the club decided to sign him to a long-term deal. Whether the Blue Jays share that sentiment is still unclear, as Donaldson said Saturday that the team has yet to engage his agent in extension talks.

“I’ve said that I wanted to be here,” he told MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm. “That’s pretty much all I can say. I’m not the one who makes the decisions, nor would I try to put them in the position to do that. Like I said, I believe the situation will become more fluid when the time is right.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean an extension is out of the question. The Blue Jays reached an unprecedented one-year, $23 million agreement with the three-time All-Star in arbitration, and have been reticent to field trade offers despite continued interest from the Cardinals this winter.

Donaldson, 32, is poised to enter his eighth season in the majors and fourth with the Blue Jays. In 2017, he batted .270/.385/.559 with 33 home runs and a .944 OPS in 496 plate appearances, ranking sixth among all major league third baseman with 5.0 fWAR. He’s scheduled to enter free agency following the 2018 season.