As Jarad Regano pointed out in his excellent column earlier this week, C.C. Sabathia might be putting some handwriting on the wall for the Indians to see.
The tone of his comments in a recent story in The Plain Dealer don't exactly cause Tribe fans to swell with confidence that the hefty lefty will still be sporting a Wahoo cap in 2009.
C.C. said he is "definitely excited" about the contracts that have been dished out to starting pitchers this winter. Mediocre pitchers Gil Meche and Ted Lilly have gotten five-year and four-year deals, respectively. The market-setting ace, Barry Zito, got seven years and $126 million from the Giants.
C.C. can be excused for having visions of a Zito-type contract in his future. I mean, if that's what the market is paying, who can blame him?
C.C. says he likes Cleveland, and would certainly like to stay, but it doesn't take a super sleuth to find clues that say he is anticipating playing for another team in two years.
Just like the fans, C.C. knows what the Indians generally pay out for contracts. He knows the comfort zone the Indians operate in, and knows that the type of money he'll be looking at after the 2008 season is far too rich for Larry Dolan's blood.
The Indians also know what type of cash C.C. will be looking at upon becoming a free agent. They aren't holding onto any delusions of their No. 1 starter accepting a 50 percent hometown discount. The Jim Thome negotiations taught them that the hard way.
The Indians also have the impending free agencies of Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez to worry about in the next three years.
With that in mind, the two sides might have already come to a kind of wink-nod understanding that C.C. will be employed elsewhere in two years. C.C.'s comments in the newspaper certainly do nothing to dissuade that line of thinking.
So the real question is, why not trade him, say next offseason?
The reason is simple: Keeping Hafner and Martinez is far more important than ponying up the cash for C.C.
Why? C.C., in a nutshell, has a better chance of being replaced than Pronk or Martinez.
Ever since the Larry Dolan-Mark Shapiro tandem has taken over the team, there has been a renewed emphasis on pitching. We are starting to notice the effects.
In much the same way the Tribe of the '90s had a glut of big bats in the upper tiers of the farm system, the Indians of the 2000s have arms waiting in the wings.
Jeremy Sowers and Fausto Carmona had their first taste of the big leagues last year. Power arm Adam Miller is just over the horizon. With proper nurturing and a bit of luck, those three could form the front of the rotation by 2008 or '09.
That's the sunny side of the coin. The flip side is kind of dark.
The Indians do not have a replacement for Hafner or Martinez anywhere on or over the horizon. Hafner can be a free agent at the same time as C.C., and Martinez can follow them a year later.
They are the two proven heart-of-the-order hitters the Indians have. Without them, the offense, already inconsistent, could come crashing down to the level of the Kansas City Royals at their worst.
Pronk is one of the 10 best all-around hitters in the game. He is vastly underpaid and deserves a huge raise. Of the trio I mentioned, he is by far the most important to keep. If Dolan is ever going to pick a time to break the bank, it should be when his people talk turkey with Hafner's people.
Martinez draws complaints about his arm. But don't let one aspect of his game cloud your overall view of him. His bat can go dormant for weeks at a time, but when he gets hot, he stays hot for half a season.
His catching skills aren't top-notch, but what he lacks in defensive prowess he makes up for in presence. Pitchers love working with him, and as he becomes a veteran, he will always be one of the most respected and sought-out guys in the clubhouse.
On several fronts, Martinez would be tough to replace.
C.C. has all the tools to be an ace, and sometimes he puts it all together for stretches. But he's never showed up on the Cy Young Award radar except at a distance, and he always seems to disappoint when you expect him to finally round the corner and become a true staff ace.
Somebody is going to drastically overpay for this guy, and given the talent that is waiting in the wings to work for a sliver of the price, I'd just as soon it not be the Indians.
The reality of the Dolan regime is that, even when times are good, you'll probably see them occasionally pawn off an established player for prospects to replenish the farm system, which is the organizational lifeblood. A C.C. deal would have the chance to become another Bartolo Colon trade, where the Indians manage to land two or three top prospects from a stocked organization.
That doesn't mean Shapiro should be trying to dump C.C. on the highest bidder, but if the right deal comes along, it's something he should consider.
C.C. is almost certainly gone in two years. You know it, I know it, the Indians know it and C.C. himself knows it. The better option would be to add some top prospects and use the leftover money to keep Pronk and Martinez swinging for the Jacobs Field fence.