Are the Indians Ready to Fool Fans in Free Agency Again?
By Mike Brandyberry
The Cleveland Indians have fooled fans many times in their pursuit of free agents, often chasing a player to the final negotiation, only to lose out to another team. It happened again on Tuesday when Cleveland lost out on Shane Victorino when the Boston Red Sox inked the outfielder to a three-year, $39 million deal.
Maybe the Indians are about to fool fans again, in another way.
Cleveland currently has a contract offer on the table to both Kevin Youkilis and Nick Swisher. The Tribe offered Youkilis a two-year, $18 million contract, and Swisher a four-year, $48 million deal. Youkilis is weighing the Indians’ offer against a one-year, $12 million deal from the New York Yankees. Considering Youkilis is from Cincinnati — his family often visits Progressive Field when Youkilis comes to town — and Swisher was born in Ohio, raised in West Virginia and was an Ohio State Buckeye, there are reasons for each to take the money and join Manager Terry Francona in a unique opportunity to be a part of an Indian revival.
But since when do the Indians spend money on the free agent market, especially deals nearing and exceeding $10 million a year in annual salary? Last year, the Indians had a $65 million Opening Day payroll. This can’t possibly work, can it?
Cleveland currently has only four contracts signed for 2013: Carlos Santana ($550,000), Blake Wood ($560,000), Ubaldo Jimenez ($5.75 million) and Asdrubal Cabrera ($6.5 million). Factor in the projected salaries of the Tribe’s arbitration eligible players Shin-Soo Choo ($7.9 million), Chris Perez ($7.2 million), Justin Masterson ($5.7 million), Joe Smith ($2.7 million), Mike Aviles ($2.3 million), Tony Sipp ($1 million) and Lou Marson ($800,000), and the Tribe payroll starts to come into focus. To be fair, they still owe Travis Hafner his $2.75 million buyout for not picking up is 2013 option, and the rest of the 25-man roster would be filled out by pre-arbitration salary players.
If the Indians signed Youkilis and Swisher for their proposed deals, the Indians would find themselves with an Opening Day payroll of just more than $76 million. But the Indians seem determined to trade Cabrera for young pitching. If Cleveland does trade Cabrera for a pitcher(s), who has little Major League service time, the Tribe could sign Swisher and Youkilis and have an Opening Day payroll of $69.71 million.
That’s enough to finance another Rock ‘N’ Blast and still be under $70 million. That seems reasonable, even for a tight-fisted organization that is selling its television station for between $200 and $250 million and is receiving more money from a new national television contract. It also doesn’t take into account that Swisher’s and Youkilis’ deals most likely would be back-loaded (most contracts are), so the Tribe’s payroll could be even less.
Cleveland could parade an Opening Day lineup of Michael Brantley, Youkilis, Choo, Swisher, Santana, Jason Kipnis, Russ Canzler, Lonnie Chisenhall and Avilies. That’s an offense with a lot of positional flexibility and no true designated hitter — along with new leadership — to compete in a new interleague schedule that is scattered throughout the entire season. It certainly beats a lineup including Shelley Duncan, Casey Kotchman and Jack Hannahan.
Granted a starting rotation of Masterson, Jimenez, the pitcher acquired for Cabrera, Zach McAllister and Carlos Carrasco could be a little shaky, but the bullpen would remain intact with Perez, Smith and Vinnie Pestano. The Tribe won plenty of Central Division crowns in the 1990s with big bats, mediocre starting pitching and a dominant bullpen. This light version of the same formula would be good enough to contend into July when the Indians could trade for another starting pitcher to strengthen the rotation, or trade off Choo if this roster doesn’t work.
The plan might not be perfect, but it certainly is a better team than the 94-loss roster of 2012, and one more fans would spend their hard earned money to watch. It couldn’t hurt the dwindling season ticket fan base that sits at only 8,500 seats.
This couldn’t possibly happen, right? The Indians don’t spend money on free agents or bring in veterans. The Indians don’t roll up their sleeves and “go for it” with a free agent like Choo looking to walk out of town at season’s end.
Maybe the Indians are ready to fool fans again by not spending any more money than they are used to, but just spending it a little more wisely.
Photo: Getty Images