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.
There are things in Cleveland sports that are synonymous with each team, whether they try to shake it or not.
The Cleveland Browns and quarterback play will always be a discussion point as will the Cleveland Cavaliers and their relationship with Lebron James. In both situations, the drama has taken many twists and turns, but each have been topics for nearly 15 years on the Cleveland airwaves.
For the Cleveland Indians, it’s always about payroll and spending.
Organizations and owners are always defined by certain actions or statements, and Paul and Larry Dolan will forever be linked to their comments about spending money when the time is right. The direct quote, and when it was specifically said, are tough to find anymore, but the comment has lasted a generation.
Nevermind that the Indians have spent $260 million on payroll since Terry Francona was hired as manager after the 2012 season, or that the Indians have nearly doubled their payroll since 2011. In Major League Baseball, where no salary cap exists, fixing the problems of a baseball team is always perceived as a direct correlation to how much money you are willing to spend in the eye of the fans.
Sure, building a winner is easier with a bigger budget, but a bigger budget does not guarantee a winner. Fourteen teams exceeded the $100 million payroll threshold in 2014, with the St. Louis Cardinals finishing just $10,000 under. Of the 15 highest payrolls, seven made the postseason. Kansas City was the eighth playoff team ahead of the Tribe in payroll, spending just over $89 million. Cleveland was 21st at $84 million. Only Pittsburgh and Oakland made the postseason by spending less than the Tribe.
Nevertheless, Cleveland will likely spend about the same $83-85 million in payroll in 2015, just as they did in 2014. Assuming most of the profits from the sale of SportsTime Ohio have accounted for the $260 million invested in the team, and finishing last in attendance, it doesn’t seem fair to expect payroll to rise.
But the Indians do have wiggle room as they build their 2015 roster. It isn’t a perfect payroll situation, but there is money on the table for General Manager Chris Antonetti to spend this winter. If Antonetti spends wisely—and possibly makes an aggressive trade or two—the Indians could find their way into the postseason on an $85 million budget.
Like always, it isn’t going to be easy, however.
Below is a breakdown of the Indians’ payroll commitments for 2015 and the options they have while trying to build a winner.
Overrated and underperforming. Assign the terms however you’d like, but through two years, Bourn and Swisher have each been disappointments. Each provide the argument that building a baseball team is not about spending money, but about spending wisely. When Antonetti became a big player in the 2013 free agent market, Bourn and Swisher were the pieces that were supposed to put the Indians back into contention. Instead, they may be the hindrance that has held them back from greater success. After a solid first half in 2013, Raburn was given a contract extension through 2015 (with an option for 2016). After disappointing seasons, all three players are immoveable and a part of the roster moving forward. If the Indians are going to improve, they have to get better production from all three.
Murphy—the epitome of the $6 million player—providing marginally better production versus a young player making near the veteran minimum, also had a streaky season. If Cleveland wanted to dump his salary, and open right field to a combination of younger players, they probably could but they wouldn’t get much in return by way of talent.
This is the group that receives applause for the front office when they are signed long term. Antonetti and the organization committed long term money to each of the five players, buying out their arbitration years in trade for an extra season or two of control before the player hits free agency. Santana was signed early in the 2012 season, while Brantley, Kipnis and Gomes were each inked during spring training of 2014. While fans make jokes about Atchison’s age, his MLB service time does not make him eligible for free agency. Had the Indians not extended him at mid-season, he would be eligible for salary arbitration this winter. Committing to Atchison for only one year additionally was probably a lesson learned from giving Raburn a year too many.
Those nine players’ contracts are solidified as the Indians enter the 2015 offseason, totaling $55.142 million. Now, is where the decision making begins.
Mike Aviles ($3.5 million team option)
Aviles has a $3.5 million team option for 2015 and despite a subpar year at the plate, the super-utility player had great value to the Indians on the field. Defensively, he and Jose Ramirez, were the only regulars to have positive numbers. Assuming the Indians make a conscious effort to improve defensively, and entrust Ramirez and/or Francisco Lindor to play shortstop, Aviles has great value to the roster as a defender and insurance policy if the young players struggle. It’s a safe bet the Indians exercise Aviles’ option and bring him back for one more season.
MLBTradeRumors does an excellent job each winter of projecting players’ value who are arbitration eligible, but those numbers have not been released yet for the Tribe. A few things about arbitration are true; first, every player gets a raise, no matter how poor the season, and second, each time you go back to arbitration the raise rises a bit more. Rzepczynski and Tomlin each are eligible for arbitration for the second time. Since Tomlin made 16 starts this season, but now seemingly could be the Indians’ seventh starter, he could be non-tendered, meaning the Indians refuse to offer him arbitration and renounce his rights, making him a free agent to sign anywhere. Rzepczynski will improve upon last season’s $1.375 million, but only to $1.6-1.7 million.
Shaw, Chisenhall and Carrasco are all first time arbitration eligible players, but could each command a fair salary. Shaw’s 80 appearances will earn value for his durability and approximately $1.8-$2 million. Chisenhall’s best season in the big leagues will also garner him around $2 million. Carrasco could be a unique case considering his time split between the bullpen and rotation. His outstanding August and September will make him some money, however. Cleveland will certainly try to settle with him before going to arbitration, but he could earn between $2-2.5 million based on his solid season and projections as a starting pitcher.
Gimenez will either be non-tendered or released and possibly re-invited to spring training on a minor league contract. If he makes the team, he would have a salary south of $1 million, but the Indians will never go to arbitration with him.
If the Indians exercise Aviles’ option and settle on contracts with the arbitration eligible players in the approximate ranges above, the Indians are staring at a payroll of $66.042 million for 14 players. If they fill out the rest of their roster with players around the league minimum, or players with less than three years of service time, they’ll have a payroll of about $72-73 million.
More importantly, they’ll have about $12 million to spend on the free agent market if they want to improve their offense or add a veteran pitcher to their rotation. Sadly, it’s probably not enough to sign a middle of the order, premier bat like Victor Martinez or Nelson Cruz. To complicate matters even more, Cleveland likely will try to sign Corey Kluber to a long-term contract extension and add him to the group with Brantley, Kipnis and Gomes for the future. MLBTradeRumors speculates he could negotiate a contract that would make him an annual salary of $6.5 million.
That contract could be back loaded, but any extension will still cut into that 2015 payroll. The same predicament is true with Cody Allen. Allen, a young closer, stands to earn a lot of money in the current arbitration system if he is closing games over the next couple years. The Indians could also make a trade, dealing someone like Murphy, in an attempt to free up more salary, or instead deal someone like Chisenhall for a veteran and avoid free agency altogether.
The Indians’ payroll may be smaller than their Central Division rivals, Kansas City and Detroit, but their goal remains the same. With a tightened budget, how they use their available $12 million for payroll seems to be even more important than in other organizations. A mistake in December or January has serious and direct effects to the standings the following September.
As usual, with the Indians, it’s always about the money.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland.com