CLEVELAND — Though fans may not share his belief, general manager Chris Antonetti is optimistic that the Indians can contend for a Central Division title in 2012.
That is with or without Carlos Pena.
“Organizationally, we feel our major league team is in a very good spot right now, and in position to contend for a title,” the second-year GM said Friday during a meeting with reporters at Progressive Field.
Helping to fuel Antonetti’s optimism is a somewhat busy offseason for the Indians, who finished second in the Central last year, despite a wealth of injuries to key players. Cleveland signed a number of fringe veterans and some notable ones, including starting pitcher Derek Lowe and outfielder Grady Sizemore, who agreed to a one-year contract worth $5 million after the club declined to exercise his $8.5 million option.
“I would say it’s been very wide-ranging,” Antonetti said of the Indians’ offseason search. “We’ve been aggressive in trying to improve the team.”
And Antonetti might not be done yet.
In need of offense, Cleveland is reportedly interested in the 33-year-old Pena, a free-agent first baseman with power who hit .225 with 28 home runs and 80 RBIs in 153 games for the Cubs last year, and has averaged 34.4 homers and 97.4 RBIs over the past five seasons. Though Antonetti would not comment on individual players, he did admit the club could improve at the position Matt LaPorta has held for the majority of the past two seasons.
“We continue to look at any areas to improve the club,” Antonetti said. “First base is a position we can potentially upgrade.”
As always, money is an object for the low-budget Indians, whose pursuit of Pena figures to be affected by the Prince Fielder sweepstakes. Fielder, also a free-agent first baseman, has been courted by a handful of teams. Once he signs, the market for Pena and another free-agent first baseman, Casey Kotchman, should become clearer.
“We have some (financial) flexibility,” Antonetti said. “Obviously, it’s not unending. Whether that flexibility and individual players’ desire fits, we don’t know yet.
“We still have a lot of players that teams like both on our major and minor league levels. To date, we haven’t been able to line up the right value.”
If the Indians don’t land a first baseman, the job could fall back to LaPorta, who has largely been a disappointment since arriving in a much-publicized trade with the Brewers for CC Sabathia in July 0f 2008. LaPorta, who has hit .234 with 23 homers and 94 RBIs in 217 games for Cleveland over the past two years, has been working with hitting coordinator Bruce Fields in Florida to improve the fundamentals of his swing, according to Antonetti.
“Matt understands that this is an important year for him,” the GM said.
First base reps could also go to catcher Carlos Santana and Shelley Duncan, with Jack Hannahan an option as well. Santana played in 66 games at first in 2011, and the Indians would have no problem sheltering one of their top hitters from the rigors of catching on a regular basis.
Antonetti said his search would not be limited to first basemen, but that it would not include the prospect of reuniting outfielder Manny Ramirez with the Indians.
“I think with where we are, it’s probably not a good fit for us,” Antonetti said of signing Ramirez, who began his career in Cleveland, starring for the Indians from 1993-2000, and has said he would like to return.
The Indians hired Adam Everett as a special assistant to baseball operations.
Everett, 34, retired after playing in 34 games as a utility infielder for Cleveland in 2011. He is a veteran of 11 major league seasons.
In the mix?
Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes told The Associated Press that six teams, including the Indians, are interested in his services.
Cespedes, 27, made his professional debut in the Dominican League playoffs Thursday, but is still awaiting residency in the DR, which would clear the way for him to become a major league free agent.
The other teams reportedly interested in Cespedes are the Cubs, Marlins, Orioles, Tigers and White Sox.
The plan was for Ubaldo Jimenez to pitch winter ball, but the right-hander shut it down after getting a case of the flu following his first start. Jimenez, Santana and Fausto Carmona have been working with a strength and conditioning coach in the Dominican Republic.
Jimenez had a groin injury coming out of spring training last year with the Rockies, which many believe contributed to a down season. Antonetti believes the strength and conditioning work will better prepare Jimenez for the regular season.
He went 4-4 with a 5.10 ERA in 11 starts for the Indians last year after arriving in a trade for prized pitching prospects Drew Pomeranz and Alex White.
Antonetti said Jason Kipnis has a leg up on the competition for the starting job at second base, while Lonnie Chisenhall will have to beat out Hannahan and Jason Donald to open the season at third base.
Kipnis was one of Cleveland’s top offensive players late in the year, hitting .272 with seven homers and 19 RBIs in 36 games, but missed time with hamstring and oblique injuries.
Chisenhall batted .255 with seven homers and 22 RBIs in 66 games.
The Indians have invited six internal non-roster players to big league spring training camp – right-handed pitchers Hector Ambriz, Austin Adams, Chen-Chang Lee and Tyler Sturdevant, catcher Chun Chen and outfielder Chad Huffman.
Ambriz, who is coming back from Tommy John surgery after spending the majority of the 2010 season in Cleveland’s bullpen, and Huffman, a candidate to win an extra outfield spot last year, are the only candidates to break camp with the Indians.
The Indians signed three players – infielders Chin-Lung Hu and Argenis Reyes, and right-hander Willy Lebron – to minor league deals. The trio will report to minor league training camp in February.
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