What Tribenomics Face Antonetti Heading into Winter?

After a surprising 2013 Cleveland Indians season the organization has higher expectations for 2014 than any season dating back to 2008. The Indians and their fans will expect a playoff team and World Series contender. For the month of October, we’ll look at the how the Indians became a contender, but most importantly, How Do the Indians Reach the Next Level?

It’s all about the money. It’s always about the money.

In the modern era of sports, no two statements are truer. They especially are true with the Cleveland Indians, an organization that is dedicated to spending what they make, but not running themselves into the red.

The 2013 Cleveland Indians had an Opening Day team payroll just more than $80.6 million. They also paid $3.5 million of Shin-Soo Choo’s contract this season in Cincinnati and a $2.75 million buyout on Travis Hafner to avoid his 2013 option. In essence, the Indians spent $86.85 million to build the 2013 team.

What the 2014 payroll will be remains to be seen, but Indians general manager Chris Antonetti might find himself in a precarious position this winter when consulting his Tribenomics to construct and improve the team for next season.

Guaranteed Contracts

The Indians have seven players signed to contracts for the 2014 season; those contracts are guaranteed. Releasing a player does not excuse a Major League Baseball team from paying the player. The only way Cleveland can avoid paying any of these salaries in 2014 is if they traded a player, thus the new team would assume the contractual responsibilities.

Nick Swisher              $15 million
Michael Bourn            $13.5 million
Asdrubal Cabrera       $10 million
Carlos Santana          $3.7 million
Mike Aviles                 $3.5 million
Ryan Raburn             $2.25 million
Trevor Bauer             $330,000 (Arizona is paying $850,000 of his 2014 salary)

Total                           $48.28 million

Swisher, Bourn and Cabrera each have substantial escalators in their contracts from their 2013 salaries. Bourn makes $6.5 million more in 2014 than he did in 2013. Swisher makes another $4 million, and Cabrera makes an additional $3.5 million. Suddenly that $13 million coming off the books for Mark Reynolds and Brett Myers doesn’t look so substantial. It’s basically already spent on three players currently on the roster.

Contract Options

Late August acquisition Jason Kubel has a team option for 2014 for $7.5 million that the Indians certainly will not pick up. Kubel played sparingly after being acquired and was not on the Wild Card roster. It will cost the Indians $1 million to exercise the buyout and void his deal for next season.

Worse yet, second half sensation Ubaldo Jimenez has a mutual option for 2014. Both sides must agree to pick up his $8 million option for 2014. After a second half with a 1.82 ERA, and going 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA in September, Jimenez will not exercise his half of the option and instead elect for free agency where he certainly will get a deal paying him more and with additional years past 2014.

With the Indians buying out Kubel’s 2014 option, their payroll obligations now total $49.28 million for just seven players.

Arbitration Eligible Players

MLBTradeRumors.com does an excellent job of projecting what players will earn in the arbitration process. Agents and teams alike have noticed its series during the last two offseasons, even citing it in arbitration hearings. This year’s series has just begun, and to this point, the site has not covered the Indians, so these projections are reasonable hypotheses based on previous salaries and each player’s 2013 performance. When the site release its projections, I’ll update to reflect its numbers.

Another fair point of note is that the Indians avoid going to arbitration at all costs. They haven’t had an arbitration hearing since 1991 with Jerry Browne. The John Hart/Mark Shapiro/Chris Antonetti tree firmly believes in settling contract disputes before they get to arbitration.

Chris Perez ($7.3 million in 2013):                      projected $9 million
Justin Masterson ($5.687 million in 2013):          projected $9 million
Drew Stubbs ($2.825 million in 2013):                 projected $4 million
Marc Rzepczynski ($1.1 million in 2013):            projected $1.5 million
Lou Marson ($1 million in 2013):                         projected $1 million
Blake Wood ($560,000 in 2013):                         projected $1 million

Michael Brantley ($526,900 in 2013):                  projected $3 million
Josh Tomlin ($501,800 in 2013):                         projected $1.5 million
Vinnie Pestano ($501,00 in 2013):                      projected $1.5 million
Frank Herrmann ($495,500 in 2013):                  projected $1 million

Total:                                                                    $32.5 million in arbitration

I don’t work for MLBTradeRumors, nor am I an agent who has covered countless arbitration proceedings, but I am confident in my projections at least to build a general idea of what the Indians are facing in arbitration. Perez’s struggles likely cost him some money in arbitration, while Masterson will receive a good raise after a strong season. Brantley, Tomlin, Pestano and Herrmann all are new to arbitration this season. Pestano cost himself dearly with a subpar season, while Tomlin and Herrmann could get moderate pay increases based upon accomplishments prior to their arm injuries that derailed their 2013 seasons.

Stubbs was a first-year arbitration player last winter and earned just less than $3 million. Considering Brantley has had much better offensive numbers the last few seasons, it is very fair to believe he will exceed that mark and the $3 million threshold.

Teams offer arbitration in November, yet they don’t have the hearings until March. Organizations and agents have all winter to negotiate. Teams can elect to not offer a player arbitration by the November deadline and they become free agents. Once offered arbitration, the player’s rights can still be traded without a contract settlement. This happened last winter involving Stubbs and the Indians. Cincinnati offered him arbitration, but the Indians negotiated his contract after the Dec. 3 three-team trade.

The Problem

That’s roughly $81.78 million in salaries for just 17 players. If the eight remaining roster spots were filled by players making the league minimum, the Indians will have a payroll nearly $86 million, or the same amount they spent on this year’s squad.

That doesn’t leave any money to resign Jimenez (projected to get a three-year, $39 million deal), Scott Kazmir (projected to get a two-year, $16 million deal), Joe Smith or Matt Albers. That doesn’t address the need for an offensive threat in the middle of the order or a bullpen with several question marks moving forward. This doesn’t even include the idea of trying to give Masterson — or Brantley or Jason Kipnis — a long-term contract extension.

It likely would cost more than $110 million to bring the 2013 Indians back at 2014 contract values. No matter how optimistic you are about the Indians’ finances or their willingness to spend, it’s realistic to assume the Indians are not surpassing a $100 million payroll next season. It’s unlikely they’ll exceed $90 million.

The Solution and More Questions

If Antonetti and Francona intend to make the 2014 Indians a stronger team, one serious to contend for the Central Division and beyond, they’re likely going to have to make several changes to the roster. Unfortunately, they can’t just add to the roster already built. Tribenomics doesn’t allow it.

Instead, the Indians will have to be creative and active like they were last winter. A winter ago they were rebuilding; now they’re looking to retool so that they have a chance to resign some of their own free agents and add to the roster.

It’s likely the Indians will not tender arbitration offers to Marson, Herrmann or Wood. They would be free agents and could sign with any team. The Indians can sign role players at a lesser value or promote through their minor league system for those small spots, but that does not take care of the bigger problems.

If Cleveland wants to build a pennant-contending team for 2014, an expectation fans will have, Antonetti is going to have to consider and execute some big decisions. Do the Indians not offer Perez arbitration and relieve themselves of his contract and headache, but receive nothing in return for him? What team would be willing to take on the strings attached to him at such a large price tag?

The Indians could trade Cabrera, relieving themselves of his salary, and elect to use Aviles until top prospect Francisco Lindor is ready for the big leagues. But the Indians could not find the value they felt Cabrera was worth last winter. After a disappointing season at the plate, are the Indians willing to accept less in a trade for him to relieve themselves of his salary?

Is Stubbs on the trade block to a team that needs a center fielder?

Could the Indians strengthen their roster by trading someone — like Santana, Brantley or Kipnis — thought to be a part of their core that would bring back young, economical value?

If Jimenez and Kazmir each leave Cleveland via free agency, who replaces all those quality innings in the rotation? It’s unfair to expect Tomlin and Bauer to provide the same results.

If the Indians are to contend and improve in 2014, Chris Antonetti has some work to do.

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This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. I think they will decide to keep Blake Wood, who may end up a candidate for closer. They can trade Perez, Cabrera, Pestano, Tomlin and, perhaps, Stubbs. May not get what Perez and Cabrera would have fetched last winter, but I think a set of carefully crafted deals could reduce payroll and bring in some young talent. More consistent playing time for Raburn and Gomes could supply the pop in the middle of the lineup. Lots of options, decisions to be made. Thanks for this helpful rundown of what it looks like from the financial side.

    1. Abi’l-Khayr, they may keep Blake Wood but he is not going to close. He’s never been a closer. At best he is a middle reliever, but the Indians have several middle relief options in their minor league systems.

  2. I think there’s a better chance of Bourn being dealt than Stubbs; adds needed payroll flexibility, moves Stubbs to CF, opens RF to add a power bat in a trade.

    1. The same reason you want to trade Bourn and his $15M salary in 2014, is exactly why a team won’t be interested in trading you their players for him.

        1. Banking on a another team’s GM to make a bad trade seems like a bad strategy to have entering the offseason.

      1. Not that it makes a huge difference but Bourn is only getting $13.5M next year (not $15M). Sure that’s a lot but remember one reason some teams backed off him was they didn’t want to lose a draft pick, not the money they would have to pay him. A team that trades for Bourn won’t have to give up a draft pick now and only have to pay Bourn for 3 more years. Not exactly great but not too bad either, especially if they don’t like what some of the free agent CFers are asking for (Ellsbury, Gradnerson, and Choo should all cost a draft pick). I think you’d find at least 1 taker if not more for Bourn.

        1. You are right, Bourn makes $13.5M, not $15M. The salaries and figures in the story are correct. I just answered to the comment too quickly. I suppose Bourn does have a trade value, but considering his salary and a down year, you would not bring back a lot in return. I’m not sure–if you want to contend in 2014–that is your best option. Trading Bourn and keeping Stubbs would be a surprise to me, but I suppose it is possible.

  3. This season was certainly more interesting than it was the last number of years. The starting pitching was better than anyone predicted and M Calloway is a great story. But, for reasons outlined in this piece, the Tribe went all in for this year to get to one wild card game. It is unrealistic, due to their age, to expect that we’d get more from Swisher and Bourn in their remaining years.

    Meanwhile, Joe Madden came in here and explained that the only way a team like his (or the Indians) can win is by drafting and developing their own starting pitching. This front office regime has never had the fortitude to tear it down and build it back up in this manner. Despite this year’s excitement, I think we’re looking at more mediocre, at best, baseball in Cleveland for the foreseeable future.

  4. A few comments: first, we’re pretty flexible with Santana after Yan emerged as a very good catcher. We can keep him to platoon behind the plate, DH, or 1B, or trade him away. I love Carlos (he’s filled a Sandy-sized hole in my heart the past few years)
    Second, we still have questions at 3B with Lonnie’s up and down season.
    Third, you’re right about Bourn vs Stubbs with the later being more of a trade option due to the lower salary. Either way, can someone teach one of these guys to bunt??
    Fourth, I think we can assume Perez won’t be an Indian, clearing a projected $9M.
    I don’t think things are as strained as you imply, but you are absolutely right: Antonetti has some work to do.

    1. Steve, I didn’t intend to make it sound like the Indians are strained or imply a fire sale is coming. I think some people have misinterpreted that from the story. My point is that this roster does not allow the Indians and Antonetti to try and add a couple missing parts to a 92 win team. Instead, readers should expect a roster shuffle because of escalating salaries. They built a good team this year and I think they will do the same for 2014, but if the winter has several changes (like it did last winter), no one should be surprised.

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