Indians Can No Longer Afford Mediocrity on Field or Budget
By Mike Brandyberry
The view through the Indians’ window isn’t as sunny as they originally forecasted for this season.
When Indians General Manager Chris Antonetti made the trade for Ubaldo Jimenez a year ago today, the trade was made to open a window of contention for the Tribe through 2013. This season was to be the one in which the Indians hopefully would be a playoff team and contend for a World Series.
Instead, Cleveland wakes this morning at 50-52, five and one-half games out of first place after being swept by the Minnesota Twins. The Indians, as they are currently constructed, aren’t a playoff team. They probably aren’t a playoff contender by September. The offense appears average on paper and below average with the eye test. Their all-left-handed-hitting lineup doesn’t work. They hit .220 as a team against southpaws and are 10-22 when a lefty starter opposes them. Casey Kotchman and Jack Hannahan have struggled most of the season, while the Johnny Damon and Shelley Duncan platoon has been a failure.
The pitching staff is no better. After Justin Masterson and Jimenez, Josh Tomlin and Derek Lowe each have had ERAs north of 6.00 since the beginning of June. Their problems aren’t just a bumpy stretch. At 39 years old, Lowe might be at the end of his career. Tomlin, who had pinpoint control a year ago, now lacks the placement and the velocity to consistently retire hitters three times through the lineup. He might be headed to the bullpen or the minor leagues by his scheduled start on Thursday.
And while Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith have been dominant in the back end of the bullpen, the middle relievers and long relief have not been able to keep the Tribe in games. Often when the opposition forces Indians Manager Manny Acta to the bullpen early, Scott Barnes, Jeremy Accardo and Nick Hagadone have only made the problems worse. Tony Sipp, who was once part of the back end, no longer is reliable and cannot retire right-handed hitters.
There are just too many leaks in the dam. A trade, even two, probably doesn’t fix the Wahoo woes and make them a contender or a team that could compete in October. Antonetti said before Thursday’s game they were exploring several trade options, but the players on the current roster would have to play better. With the exception of Carlos Santana’s poor production this summer, what players truly are under achieving? The core members of the offense and pitching staff have played well, but maybe the additional pieces needed to hold a team together just aren’t good enough?
Worse yet, the cost of mediocrity is on the rise.
With Lowe, Damon, Kotchman and Grady Sizemore all free agents at year’s end, and the expectation that the Tribe will not pick up Travis Hafner’s $13 million option for next season, it would appear at first glance that the Tribe would have money to spend this winter to fix some of those leaks. However, the team has several players about to receive hearty raises through salary arbitration.
Shin-Soo Choo ($4.9 million in 2012) and Perez ($4.5 million in 2012) easily could garner salaries more than $7 million through arbitration, and Masterson ($3.825 million in 2012) could make between $5.5 and $6 million. On top of the big three to push the arbitration envelope, Rafael Perez, Smith, Accardo, Lou Marson, Esmil Rogers, Hannahan, Sipp and Duncan all are eligible this winter. None will command a big payday like the top three, but the Tribe easily could spend more than $30 million to keep all the arbitration eligible players on the roster.
The Indians have a $6 million option on Roberto Hernandez for 2013. Considering they stood by him through his identity situation, restructured his contract and will have a tough time finding a veteran starter for below that value, fans should expect the organization to exercise that option. When you add in Asdrubal Cabrera’s ($6.5 million for 2013) and Santana’s ($550,000 for 2013) guaranteed contracts and assume Jimenez’s ($5.75 million for 2013) option to be picked up, the team could fill out its roster with 10 contracts near the league minimum and it would have a team salary around $55 million dollars.
That’s a lot of money for a team that is last in attendance this season and spending only $65 million on payroll. With its attendance struggles this season, it’s safe to assume the organization won’t exceed that number — or could even cut payroll — for 2013. With at most $10 million to spend, the Indians still don’t have a first baseman, designated hitter or starting left fielder under this plan. With these economics, the Indians would be fishing from the bottom of the free agent pool again, filling those spots with the next class of Kotchmans and Damons.
It also doesn’t leave any extra money for the possibility of giving Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis or Masterson a long-term contract, buying out arbitration or free agency years in trade for immediate stability, like they did with Santana last spring.
Sixty-five million dollars just doesn’t buy what it used to. That’s why it’s time to retool through trades, not rebuild.
With the new wild card and so many teams in contention, the asking price from teams looking to trade quality, veterans has never been higher. The Los Angeles Angels just traded Jean Segura and two Double-A prospects for Zack Grienke. Segura was Baseball America’s No. 55 prospect at the start of the season, and already has seen major league action.
The Detroit Tigers traded Jacob Turner, Rob Brantly and Brian Flynn to the Miami Marlins for Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante last Monday. Turner was Baseball America’s No. 22 prospect, Brantly is a Triple-A catcher and Flynn a Double-A pitcher. Sanchez will be a free agent at the end of this season, and Infante a free agent at the end of 2013. That’s a large price to pay for a free-agent-to-be and a quality role player.
The Indians have less than 36 hours before the trade deadline expires, but if Choo and Chris Perez were available to contending teams, the Indians would be able to ask for similar packages of players for each one, or more. Teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland Athletics and Washington Nationals, which have deep farm systems, are thirsty to give their teams a winner. The Indians could command a steep price for two players who are under team control past this season.
Choo is a free agent after the 2013 season and has Scott Boras as an agent. Boras is known for playing teams against one another and squeezing every penny out of franchises for his clients. He doesn’t believe in signing early or hometown discounts. If the Tribe doesn’t trade Choo before the deadline, they’ll explore options this winter or at the deadline next year so that they don’t lose him to free agency for nothing.
Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review said the Pirates had inquired about Choo to help their offense, and speculated the Pirates would have to part ways with 23-year old outfield prospect Starling Marte. Marte has excelled at Triple-A this season and recently was called up to the big leagues. He’d make a nice centerpiece to a trade, not the lone piece.
Perez is under team control through 2014, but has a very capable and economical replacement in Pestano. Perez is in line to make a big pay day this winter and could be more the following year if he has another successful season. It’s tough to justify spending between $7 and $10 million on a player who only pitches one inning and only with the lead. Closers, as a breed, are known to be very unpredictable and unstable from year to year. Several mid- to low-market teams refuse to spend large amounts on closers for that reason.
The Indians could acquire for those two, five or six players who could be major league ready this season and definitely next season. They could use the next two months to evaluate new, young acquisitions and some players in the Tribe’s minor league system, at the major league level. All the players they would obtain via trade would be under team control for the next five to six seasons and the Indians — even by their own economics — could afford to offer long-term extensions to the likes of Brantley, Kipnis and Masterson.
Antonetti and the Indians have preached an open window of contention through 2013, but this season is lost. As the current roster is built, it can’t become a legitimate contender through a trade or two for veterans.
If the Indians would consider moving a couple of veterans of their own, they could retool, fill several holes and build a core of young players that will be in Cleveland for the next five seasons. The 2012 season window already closed, but the Indians could compete in 2013 and beyond at their own price and hopefully rebuild a fan base with a constant core of players that won’t be able to leave town through free agency over the next two seasons.
That window has a much prettier view to me than the one Antonetti is looking out.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images