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What the Shell(ey)? Cleveland Indians Sign Shelley Duncan and Austin Kearns

ATLANTA - APRIL 12: Outfielder Austin Kearns #25 of the Washington Nationals sets for play against the Atlanta Braves April 12, 2009 at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Lewie PollisSenior Analyst IIIJanuary 5, 2010

Pots atop the Hot Stove have been boiling furiously over the past few days.

Jason Bay signed with the Mets. Adrian Beltre signed with the Red Sox. Matt Holliday is nearing a contract with the Cardinals. The market’s best offerings are suddenly disappearing.

Lost in all this was the news about the Cleveland Indians.

After three months of ranking among the most stagnant teams in baseball, the Tribe has quietly signed two free agents in 24 hours.

The first, Shelley Duncan, has spent the last few years as an effective Quad-A player with the Yankees, racking up 30 home runs at Triple-A last season. He took baseball by storm when he was first called up in 2007 by smacking seven homers in just 74 at-bats; he has one homer and a .514 OPS in the 72 big-league at-bats he’s received since.

The second, Austin Kearns, was a star in Cincinnati before a 2006 trade to the Nationals dampened his bat. He’s regressed from a .907 OPS (and third-place ROY finish) in 2002 to a miserable .633 the last two seasons.

Both are solid sleeper picks, and good signings at the right price—and, given the Indians’ budget, we couldn’t have signed them had they not been cheap.

Best-case scenario: Duncan finally earns regular playing time and emerges as an elite power hitter (like former Indian Russell Branyan did in 2009) and Kearns’ bat finds some new life upon returning to Ohio. The worst that happens is that Mark Shapiro wasted some money (it wouldn’t be the first time).

With no obvious candidates to play left field or first base, Duncan and Kearns should get the opportunity to revive their careers in Cleveland.

Oops, I’m sorry. I was thinking of some other team. The Indians have Michael Brantley, Trevor Crowe, Jordan Brown, Matt LaPorta, Andy Marte, and Chris Gimenez clamoring for playing time in exactly those spots.

Alright, so what’s the difference between those guys and Duncan and Kearns? None of them have stepped up to claim a job for themselves, what’s wrong with a little competition?

The difference is that Duncan and Kearns are not part of the Indians’ future.

This year isn’t about winning—if it was, we wouldn’t have traded Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez. This year is about developing the prospects, auditioning the rookies, and showcasing the future stars who can lead us to glory in 2011 and beyond.

Finding sufficient playing time for all of these prospects was already going to be a tall order. Why make things even harder?

Every time Duncan steps up to the plate, it will mean one fewer opportunity see whether Marte has finally become a serviceable player, or if Brantley can get on base enough to take advantage of his speed. Each inning Kearns plays in the field will mean a lost chance to see if LaPorta has mastered first base, or if Crowe’s arm is really that bad.

Does one missed opportunity really mean that much? No, of course not. But they can add up pretty quickly.

To be fair, their stealing playing time from the prospects is not a foregone conclusion. Both Duncan and Kearns are signed to minor league contracts, which means they will have to earn to a spot on Cleveland’s roster. Still, Shapiro wouldn’t have signed them if he didn’t want them to play.

In addition, why is this area the subject of our attention? If we wanted to add some veterans, why not bring back fan favorite Omar Vizquel as a utility infielder? Or sign one of the many free agent pitchers hoping to make a comeback to mentor the Tribe’s young staff?

It’s obviously way too early to see how the situation will play out. But this isn’t rebuilding—it’s redecorating.

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