By Craig Gifford
Remember the days when the Cleveland Indians went to arbitration due to contract disputes with their players?
If that answer is no, you are likely not alone. The last time the Cleveland Indians had a player go to arbitration was 1991 when both second baseman Jerry Browne and starting pitcher Greg Swindell did. It’s not happened since, but may very well this year.
The Indians entered last week with seven arbitration-eligible players needing new contracts. The club came to terms with five of those players, leaving only shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and reliever Rafael Perez unsigned and looking toward arbitration hearings that are scheduled to commence Feb. 1. Cleveland has until then to come to an agreement with those two players or the contracts will be settled upon in court.
It hasn’t reached this point in 21 years for the Tribe because the last two regimes followed the same model for signing their own players. General Manager John Hart, though the 1990s and his successor Mark Shapiro, through 2010 believed in identifying young, core players who could help the team win. They signed those core players to long-term deals, at a young age, avoiding arbitration and the player’s first couple years of free agency.
The current regime, headed by GM Chris Antonetti, who is going into his second year on the job, appears reluctant to offer long-term deals to its young players. The question is, why? Why are the Indians no longer locking up young guys to avoid having the courts determine a one-year salary for a superstar player?
Perhaps the answer is that the club may be gun-shy.
The model adopted by Hart worked exceedingly well in the 90s. He locked up players like Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga at young ages. He hit on all of them and others. It led to the long-term success Cleveland enjoyed from 1994-2001.
When Shaprio’s Indians attempted the same thing in the mid-2000s, it was met with a lot of failure. Cleveland tied up the like of Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, Fausto Carmona and Jake Westbrook. Westbrook needed Tommy John surgery and was traded away in 2008. Hafner and Sizemore are still with the team, but neither has been fully healthy in the last several years. Carmona, too, is still with the team. The news from last week that Carmona has been playing under a false identity, aside, he has not lived up to the lofty heights reached in 2007. He has not come close, having subpar to average years since.
It would seem the Indians may be wary of giving out a long-term, somewhat expensive deal to a young player only to see him get hurt or regress. That is a mistake. The only way for a small or mid market team, like the Tribe, to have success against the free spending clubs is to lock up their players for at least five years. Otherwise, the moment a guy like Cabrera or Shin-Soo Choo becomes a free agent, he will be in large market entering his prime.
Sure the Indians have a sour taste in their mouths from five years ago. However, they should realize that sort of string of bad luck is not likely to happen again. Granted, the string of good fortune from the 90s can’t be envisioned, either. The thought is somewhere in the middle. Lock up 10 young, core players and you have to think seven of them should fulfill their contracts and give productive seasons throughout. Choo, Cabrera, Chris Perez, Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana, Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin and perhaps even Jason Kipnis should be identified as core players and given long-term deals.
Unfortunately, the Indians don’t seem as willing to take risks any more. However, baseball, much like poker, requires risks in order to success over the long haul. The Indians should, and hopefully will, get back to that old business model.
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