Dolans Provide Money but Front Office Has Not Spent Wisely
Craig Gifford | On 03, Oct 2014
Today continues DTTWLN’s three week examination of the Indians 2014 season and where it fell short of the playoff expectations established last winter. The staff will examine where the season went wrong and the challenges the front office faces to make the Indians contenders in 2015.
The ownership of the Cleveland Indians, namely Paul and Larry Dolan, have received a reputation among the Tribe fan base for being, “cheap”.
In a lot of ways, that label has been warranted. Larry, the owner and Paul, the chairman and CEO, took over the club in 2000 while the team was still in the midst of its boon years that began in 1994. By 2002, the club had been stripped of its stars and high payroll as the team began a period of scuffling not seen on the shores of Lake Erie since the early 90s.
That was strike one, in the minds of a lot of fans. After that, the Dolans continued to not endear themselves to Clevelanders by keeping payroll typically in the bottom third of the league, refusing to sign star players and letting some of the club’s own superstar talent walk away.
Since the end of the 2001 season, the Indians have gone through more losing seasons (8) than winning campaigns (4). They have had one year right at .500. The Tribe has been to the postseason twice in that 13-year stretch.
Certainly, the Dolan’s refusal to go above the $80-$85 million threshold of payroll has had something to do with the lack of consistent success under their watch. In a Major League Baseball world in which there is no salary cap, it is hard to put a competitive team on the field. However, the inability to win more games and, more recently, the inability to have more than Wild Card aspirations can not all be put on the Dolans.
Former Tribe General Manager and current team president Mark Shapiro and current GM Chris Antonetti deserve some of, and maybe more of the blame for Cleveland’s on-field failures. The Dolans have had several moments in which they have opened up the checkbook a little wider than normal, giving their baseball people more reign to bring in and keep talent. Too many times the moves made with the ability to spend a little more than usual have backfired.
The first wave of GM blundering came in the mid-2000s as a young group of Indians were starting to knock on the door of contention. In 2005 the club came within a win of the playoffs, while breaking through to the American League Championship Series in 2007. Those squads certainly had young players that deserved to be richly rewarded.
As the Dolan’s have promised time and again, they were willing to spend when the time called for it. Shapiro, then GM, was given a bit of a wider spending margin to lock up some of the guys from those mid-2000s squads to long-term deals. Cleveland secured designated hitter Travis Hafner, outfielder Grady Sizemore and starting pitcher Jake Westbrook. None of those signings worked out.
The main reason the contracts for that trio proved a bust was that all three suffered through injuries for the majority of those contracts. Most notably, Hafner and Sizemore saw the training room more than they saw the field once the Tribe had locked them up.
Of course, injuries can not be predicted. Sizemore was one of the most dynamic players in baseball for three years. It is hard to argue, even today, that signing. It is the signings of Hafner and Westbrook that are curious. Both came in 2007. Hafner’s deal coming at the start of his career regression, when the hope was the contract issue was weighing him down. It clearly was not.
Both the Hafner and Westbrook signings can be questioned on multiple levels. However, the biggest is in the other guys that could have been signed. Why sign a guy who could only DH when someone like Victor Martinez could have been inked for the long haul instead? Also, why lock up Westbrook over C.C. Sabathia? Those were not Dolan decisions, but were decisions that hindered the growth of the team and took it back into a stark decline beginning in 2008.
As that 2007 club began to be traded away and the albatross contracts of the annually injured Hafner and Sizemore made it hard for Tribe brass to do much by way of free agent signings, the team went through another run of losing seasons from 2009-2012.
However, in 2011 and 2012, under then manager Manny Acta, the club showed signs of turning the corner. A young team, both seasons, won games and looked like contenders early in those years before folding in the final couple months.
After 2012, with young guys like Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Justin Masterson and Carlos Santana in tow, the Dolans again felt it was time to make a splash. It was time to make good on their promise to spend when it seemed like the team may only be a few players away from contention.
During the 2012-13 offseason, Antonetti made such a splash, beginning with hiring of two-time World Series-winning manager Terry Francona. After that, the club broke the bank on lucrative, long-term deals for Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. They also added veterans Mark Reynolds, Brett Myers and Ryan Raburn. Heading into 2013, the thought was adding those veterans to the young core already assembled would thrust the squad back into postseason contention.
In 2013, the Indians reached the Wild Card game almost despite the big spending. Few of the moves the prior offseason worked well. Bourn was injured and unable to steal bases the way he had in Atlanta and Houston. Swisher was mostly ineffective until September’s stretch run. Reynolds and Myers were designated for assignment before August. Only Raburn, of that group, worked out. He provided power from the right hand side as a utility outfielder and was rewarded with a two-year extension.
Almost as if there is a curse of being secured to multi-years, Raburn scuffled this past season and was mostly a nonfactor as the Indians won 85 games. Raburn was signed to an extension through 2015 after half of a good season in 2013. Bourn again spent a lot of time on the DL in 2014, while Swisher struggled early and was on the DL for the final couple months. None of those long-term signings have gone well after two years.
After writing large checks before the 2013 season, the Indians did not spend as much last offseason in the hopes that a team that reached the postseason would get better with return to form of guys like Swisher and Bourn and the continued growth of the younger players.
Antonetti did sign a pair of free agents in closer John Axford and outfielder David Murphy. Axford struggled and was jettisoned to Pittsburgh in August for little in return. Murphy did all right, but was hardly the consistent power bat the Tribe hoped for.
In all, the Indians have spent $260 million on free agents since Francona was hired. Most of those signings have not worked out. Can you imagine if that kind of money had been spent on players that did work out and were added to a good, young core that has won 92 and 85 games each of the last two years? We may be celebrating more than one postseason game in that time. We may be watching playoff baseball right now in Cleveland.
Credit the Dolan’s for opening the pocket book since hiring a great manager in Francona. Along with allowing Antonetti to sign some free agents, they also allowed him to extend some key pieces already in house. Yan Gomes, Brantley, Kipnis and Santana have all been locked up to multi-year deals in the last year. The hope is those signings work better than those of the mid-2000s.
In Year One of those four being secured to the team, Brantley was an MVP candidate while Gomes proved to be one of the better hitting catchers in baseball. Kipnis had a forgettable year at the plate, while Santana got of to a miserable start to the season before cranking things up from June on and leading the team in home runs. Overall, the extended players have worked out better than not.
This offseason, it seems increasingly likely that Cy Young hopeful Corey Kluber may get a contract extension. Conversations to that end will certainly be had. That will add another great piece to a promising core.
However, the core needs help to get from Wild Card contender to true postseason contender. It is doubtful the Indians will spend a lot of money with so much committed to players already on the team. While it will be fun for fans to bash the Dolans for not spending more for another winter, it is not their fault that there is so much money invested in players who have not panned out.
Even if Antonetti is given some extra money to work with and bring in a few players, can we believe the signings will work out? The contracts of Asdrubal Cabrera and Masterson are now gone. Kluber will probably be given some of that money, with room to sign a needed bat or pitcher.
Until we see it on the field, it is hard to have faith that a free-agent signing will work out for sure.
The Dolans have opened their wallets when the time was right, as promised. Shapiro and Antonetti have mostly failed to capitalize and take advantage of their opportunities to grown the team through free agency.
Money has been spent on this team. Money has not necessarily been spent wisely. Do not blame the Dolans for that.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images