If Tampa Can Do It, Why Can’t the Tribe
By Craig Gifford
Cleveland Indians fans have watched many superstars walk away in free agency or get traded just before the end of their contract. Each time, the explanation from management is the same and usually involves something along the lines of being a smaller market team that cannot afford to spend in the same bracket as the New Yorks, Bostons and Los Angeles’ of the world.
On Monday, a jaded Tribe fan base received a reminder of how wrong that thought actually is. The Tampa Bay Rays, the lone team in Major League Baseball with a worse 2012 attendance than the Indians, ponied up in a big way to make sure Evan Longoria would never leave for the riches of the big cities. Tampa and Longoria agreed to a 10-year, $136.6 million deal, with a $13 million club option for 2023.
Next time the Dolans are not sure if they can afford to keep star players, they should look to Monday as an example of why they can. If Tampa can do it, any team in baseball ought to be able to.
The Longoria deal, in fact, was actually the second example the baseball world witnessed in eight months of a small market club holding onto its star players. The Cincinnati Reds gave first baseman Joey Votto a 10-year, $225 million deal back in April. Longoria is 27, Votto is 29. Both will be the faces of small market franchises for the remainder of their careers or close to it.
Tribe management should be taking notes and learning lessons. This is especially so in the case of Longoria, who is actually on his second long-term deal now. On April 18, 2008 – a mere six days into his career – the Rays gave their star player a six-year, $17.5 million contract to get him through his arbitration years.
You know who started the practice of signing young guys to long-term deals to avoid the arbitration seasons? That’s right, the Indians and then-General Manager John Hart. You know who no longer seems to do this much anymore? Again, that’s right, the Tribe.
Back in the 1990s, when the Indians had great teams and sustained runs of success, a large part of it was due to pinpointing young players who would someday be stars and giving them extended deals early in their careers. More times than not, the Tribe hit successfully on these deals. Guys like Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton and Sandy Alomar, Jr. were locked up for multiple years just a season or two into their time with Cleveland.
Mark Shapiro continued the practice, to an extent, locking up Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore and Jake Westbrook to long-term contracts in the mid-2000s. Problem is, all three deals blew up in Cleveland’s face. Each of those players spent more time on the disabled list and rehabbing than on the field over the duration of those contracts. Ever since, Cleveland has been gun-shy about shelling out big bucks to young players. This is a fear the Indians need to get over. Just because something did not work once, does not mean it will be bad again. That was something of an unprecedented run of bad luck.
The Indians took a step in the right direction this past April, extending catcher Carlos Santana for five years and $21 million. If Santana can be the hitter he was in the second half of 2012, rather than the first half, then it will be a deal more equivalent to those of the 90s rather than those of a half decade ago. That is a good start, but the Indians need to do more of this.
Guys like Jason Kipnis, Justin Masterson, Vinnie Pestano, Michael Brantley and perhaps Asdrubal Cabrera and Chris Perez, could be viewed as core players who should also be locked up long-term. None would be anywhere near the salary of Longoria signed on Tuesday, but several could sign a deal like he did in 2008 or Santana did last April.
Cabrera did receive an extension back in April, but it was a modest one through 2014. Cleveland essentially bought one more year of time before free agency. Questions linger as to whether he has the ability to play at a high level for a full season following consecutive years of second-half swoons. As for Perez, it remains to be seen if he really wants to remain in Cleveland after a season in which he made harsh comments about everything from the Indians fans to team management and ownership.
The other players should definitely be looked at as long-term options. If the Indians are not going to make a splash in free agency, as they never do, then they need to start keeping their own players more regularly.
If Cleveland management has questions as to whether or not paying multi-millions to young players is feasible, they need only look about four hours south to Cincinnati and one spot lower on the MLB attendance figures at Tampa. It can be done.
Photo: Associated Press