The American League Central is improving across the board, but the Indians are being left behind. While all the teams in the division lost significant free agents this year, every team, other than the Indians has worked hard to replace them. Each team in turn has evaluated their weaknesses and used their strengths to improve themselves.
The Tigers were already a top team in the American League, but that wasn't good enough. While their offense was prodigious and starting pitching was as good as possible, their defense and relief pitching was lacking. To fix the issues, they traded home runs (Prince Fielder) for defense (Ian Kinsler) and starting pitching (Doug Fister) for financial freedom. While the moves haven't necessarily made the team better, they have made it more well rounded with less glaring weaknesses. Moving Miguel Cabrera from third to first may be the most significant move as it will help keep their super star smasher in the line-up every day and help the team's defense at the hot corner. The Indians had trouble with the Tigers in 2013 and it doesn't look like it will be getting any easier next year.
The teams that finished below the Indians last season have also been busy trying to improve. The Twins starting pitching was dreadful last year, so they picked up two new starters and brought Mike Pelfrey back. The Royals have not been quite as successful, but have been trying even harder with their eyes set on higher level players. They lost out on Carlos Beltran to the Yankees, but grabbed former Tiger Omar Infante as well as Jason Vargas. Both of these teams are looking to compete in 2014 and beyond, whether they are ready to (the Royals) or not (the Twins).
Even the White Sox, who have been floundering since losing the World Series in 2005 are finally turning things around. They have been jettisoning players who won't be around in five years (like Hector Santiago) and picking up more long term options, like their new Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu. While Chicago is still likely to finish in fifth in 2014, they are vastly improved over the 2013 edition and will be competing on a top level in just a few seasons. They will also not be the push-over they were last season when they had no real hope of winning when Chris Sale wasn't on the mound.
With all this going on, the Indians have been mostly silent. While they were in the running for Joaquin Benoit and were interested in Grant Balfour and Ed Mujica, they settled for a much cheaper option in John Axford. Where the biggest holes for the Indians are located (in the bullpen where three pitchers left, starting rotation where two became free agents and the offense which has not had significant pop since Travis Hafner was hit in the face by Mark Buehrle) the Indians have done almost nothing to improve. They let Joe Smith go for a very fair deal to the Angels and have made no serious efforts to re-sign any of the other exiting free agents, including those remaining on the market like Ubaldo Jimenez and Matt Albers.
It is difficult for the Indians to compete with the big market teams for top free agents, like the perennial billionaire powerhouse Seattle Mariners who just dropped $240M on Robinson Cano, so instead they focus on the low level free agents. The problem with this is that inflation has finally caught up to these players as well, and it is difficult to sign any free agent for less than $5M (more often three years for $18M). The signing of David Murphy was a good deal and fit right in with this strategy, but the fact is that Murphy and Axford aren't the difference between Wild Card loser and World Series champion. There are plenty of players that could help make that jump, including Matt Garza, Bronson Arroyo, Ervin Santana and others among starting pitchers, but the Indians haven't been particularly interested. Also interesting are former Indians, Shin-Soo Choo, Jimenez and Jake Westbrook, but instead of making offers to these players, who would actually improve the team, the Indians are interested in Jamey Carroll.
While most of the big starters moving this off-season are free agents, the big hitters are to be gained through trade. The Indians need a DH to truly compete offensively and could improve offensively in the short term at third base or short stop (if they traded Asdrubal Cabrera to get some value out of his last year under contract). Mark Trumbo was likely the biggest hitter available for the Indians to go after, but instead he went to the Diamondbacks, where he will be used in the outfield. Billy Butler is still on the market, but is likely not an option because he is already in the division. If the Indians really wanted to go big, they could try to move for a player like Giancarlo Stanton, who would take a large haul of prospects, but would absolutely be worth it. There are still quite a few players in the Majors who are capable of hitting 30 home runs in a season and knocking in 100 runs, but they aren't on the Indians.
There are really only two ways the Indians can spend the rest of the off-season. They can continue signing the cheapest players available and getting average (Ryan Raburn) or below average (Brett Myers and Mark Reynolds) results or they can actually make an effort to win the World Series. While they have generally done a good job with these cheap players, getting more than was expected, but even at this, they will never be even All-Star caliber players no matter how well they over perform. Even the big signings in 2012, like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, were slightly above average players. In fact, the last superstar free agent signed by the Tribe was Roberto Alomar in 1999. The last superstar traded for was David Justice few years before that. The Indians can say whatever they want as far as attempting to win a World Series, but until they spend some money and make some moves they will have a hard time even making the play-offs.
The Tribe is trying to make things work with internal options as prime pieces, just using external players to fill in the gaps, but the fact is, the internal options are not good enough and don't stick around long enough. If they could keep players forever and C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez and others were still on the team, they could have won multiple championships, but since they obviously have no intentions of ever allowing a player to become a career Indian, they have to replace those players with someone equivalent from the outside. Yes, Danny Salazar will be a fantastic ace some day. No, he will likely not be as good in 2014 as Ubaldo Jimenez was in 2013. Even if he is, there will be no one to take Salazar's role from the 2013 team as he was, by far, the best pitching prospect in the entire system.
The Central Division is getting stronger. The Royals were tested down the stretch last season and failed, but that failure will strengthen them as a team and they will be ready for a similar run in 2014. The Tigers didn't need to improve, but did and will be looking to continue their reign at the top of the Central. The Twins and White Sox are not going to give in as they did last season, allowing the Indians to build up so many easy wins that their record was good enough to win the Wild Card. If the Indians don't do something significant soon, they won't need to worry about winning the division or the Wild Card game. They'll be fighting with the Twins to see who can come in third in their own division.