CLEVELAND — It appears the Indians have finally found their first baseman.
Cleveland agreed to terms Thursday with free agent Casey Kotchman on a one-year contract worth $3 million plus incentives. The deal is not official but pending a physical will likely be announced today.
The move comes just two days after the Indians traded cash to Tampa Bay for first baseman Russ Canzler, who was the International League MVP at Triple-A Durham last year.
If Kotchman’s acquisition becomes official, it will complete a lengthy process for the Indians, who have searched all offseason for a replacement for first baseman Matt LaPorta.
But the move isn’t just to replace LaPorta’s anemic bat.
“He’ll make all of our infielders better, because he’s as good around the bag as any first baseman in the game,” Mark Shapiro, Indians president and former GM, said of Kotchman at Thursday night’s Greater Cleveland Sports Awards. “Defense was definitely part of the equation for us.
“He’s still young, and we feel we’re getting him at the right time.”
Cleveland was in the market for free-agent first baseman Carlos Pena, reportedly offering him more money (one year, $8 million) than Tampa Bay but ultimately losing out to the Rays, who signed Pena to replace Kotchman.
The Indians then turned their attention to the 28-year-old Kotchman, who had his best year of six-plus in the majors last season, batting .306 with 10 home runs and 48 RBIs in 146 games for the Rays.
Handing the job to Kotchman doesn’t appear likely, but he will come to spring training as all but a lock to win the starting spot at first in a competition with LaPorta and Cantzler — both of whom have minor league options.
Kotchman, a career .268 hitter, is a vast defensive improvement — .998 fielding percentage at first base — for the Indians, who have watched LaPorta struggle at the plate and in the field as the regular starter the past two seasons.
But he doesn’t fill Cleveland’s need for a power-hitting right-handed bat — another area of interest for the Indians this offseason.
The left-handed hitting Kotchman has just 59 career homers, and LaPorta’s power numbers last year — 11 homers and 53 RBIs — outweighed Kotchman, who had 500 at-bats to LaPorta’s 352.
The Indians, who have been active this offseason, could still make more moves, but anything substantial seems unlikely at this point. That means they could enter the season with two switch-hitters — Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana — and seven left-handed hitters in their projected batting order.
Shapiro said he’s not concerned about that.
“Just having a right-handed bat does not help,” he said. “You need the best hitters possible.”
LaPorta, the key cog in the 2008 trade with Milwaukee for CC Sabathia, now appears destined to begin the season at Triple-A Columbus. He could win a spot as a utility infielder/outfielder, but that job is likely to go to veteran Shelley Duncan, who is without minor league options and was a contributor off the bench for the Indians last year.
It’s down to Asdrubal.
Relief pitcher Rafael Perez agreed to a one year-contract Thursday, leaving Cabrera, the Indians’ all-star shortstop, as the club’s only remaining arbitration-eligible player.
Cabrera, who stands in the way of a lengthy arbitration-less streak for the Indians, is asking for $5.2 million in 2012. Cleveland, which hasn’t had an arbitration case heard since two (Greg Swindell and Jerry Browne) in 1991, is offering $3.75 million. Cabrera made $2.03 million in 2011.
Major League Baseball arbitration cases began being heard Wednesday. Cabrera’s date has been scheduled but not revealed.
The 26-year-old Cabrera, who hit .273 with 25 home runs and 92 RBIs in 151 games last year, started for the American League in the All-Star Game.
Perez, 29, did his part to keep Cleveland’s arbitration streak intact, signing a one-year deal that will pay him $2,005,000 in 2012.
The left-hander, who went 5-2 with a 3.00 ERA in 71 games last year, was asking for $2.4 million at arbitration, while the Indians were offering $1.6 million. He made $1.33 million last season.
Perez, who has been a staple at the back end of Cleveland’s bullpen since 2008, will earn a $25,000 performance bonus should he appear in 55 games in 2012, a total he’s reached in three of the past four seasons. His 71 appearances last year ranked second among AL relievers.
The Indians entered the offseason with seven arbitration-eligible players. They have agreed to terms with six of them — Perez, Shin-Soo Choo, Chris Perez, Justin Masterson, Jack Hannahan and Joe Smith.
Shaprio said he had no updates on Fausto Carmona’s situation.
The pitcher, discovered to actually be Roberto Hernandez Heredia when he was arrested in the Dominican Republic on false identity charges last month (and 31 years old instead of 28) has been placed on the restricted list.
“It’s not ours to handle right now,” Shapiro said. “We’ll wait to see what happens and we’ll adjust from there.”
As for the Tigers signing one of baseball’s top free agents in power-hitting first baseman Prince Fielder, Shapiro said he isn’t discouraged or any less optimistic about the Indians’ chances this season.
“We feel if we’re the team we can be, we’ll be a power in the division,” he said.
Chronicle-Telegram assistant sports editor Scott Petrak contributed to t his report. Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.