Indians have bigger offseason plans than bringing back Omar

Indians general manager Mark Shapiro has bigger priorities this offseason than bringing back shortstop Omar Vizquel.

Vizquel, who will become a free agent next month when the Indians don’t pick up his $5 million contract option for 2005, wants to return for a 12th season in Cleveland. However, Shapiro is targeting a starting pitcher and perhaps a closer before he can even consider offering the 37-year-old Vizquel a new deal.

Shapiro called bringing back the widely popular Vizquel “a longshot.”

“We’re trying to build a championship team and Omar could be a part of that, could be,” Shapiro said Tuesday. “That doesn’t mean he has to be. I want Omar back, but I want this team to have the best chance to contend next year from Day One.”

Shapiro met with Vizquel and the shortstop’s agent, Adam Katz, on Monday to discuss the possibility of his return. No financial parameters were discussed, said Shapiro.

“It was a positive meeting,” Shapiro said. “It was a good chance to talk to Omar about the challenges of my job. I told him if our payroll was at a different level, it would be a no-brainer. We could do (a new contract) in five minutes.”

Instead, the Indians, who could have as much as $15 million to spend in free agency, will pay Vizquel’s $1 million buyout and then wait and see who might be available on the market.

Shapiro said the club will sign a starting pitcher this winter, “a No. 2 or No. 3.” The Indians are also waiting to hear from closer Bob Wickman, who is contemplating retirement.

Vizquel batted .291 (165-for-567) with seven homers and 59 RBIs this season. He also scored 82 runs, stole 19 bases and played well enough in the field to possibly win a 10th Gold Glove.

If he plans to test the free-agent waters, Vizquel will be a hot commodity.

“There should be, and I assume there will be,” Shapiro said. “There are a lot of good shortstops out there but not many of them had as good of a year as he had.”

Shapiro would like a veteran middle infielder and said it was “very unlikely” he would start the season with Jhonny Peralta at shortstop together with Brandon Phillips at second base. The Indians could offer salary arbitration to Ronnie Belliard, who had a strong first season in Cleveland, or Shapiro said his coaching staff feels third baseman Casey Blake could shift to second.

On other issues, Shapiro said:

— He has only three or four holes to fill on his 25-man roster next season. “Some of the teams playing in the playoffs will go into the offseason with 11 or 12 holes,” he said. “We don’t have that. We’re in a pretty good place.”

— Coco Crisp and Matt Lawton are the only outfielders who have locked up starting spots for next season. Crisp batted .297, hit 15 home runs and refused to stay on the bench.

“To have a young guy overcome challenges, frankly ones we put in front of him, says a lot about him,” Shapiro said.

— Shapiro said he wasn’t disappointed in C.C. Sabathia’s 11-10 season. He said Sabathia has lost 5 percent body fat and will continue to work on his conditioning this winter. The club may have put too much pressure on Sabathia by naming him the No. 1 starter, but Shapiro is confident Sabathia will rebound.

“I think he’s special and I’m going to bet on him improving,” he said.