Stanton-Size Contract Not Something the Indians Should Consider

Let’s get this out of the way right out of the chute. The Cleveland Indians are not going to be throwing $300 million-plus at any one player any time soon, nor should they.

When the Miami Marlins signed their superstar outfielder Giancarlo Stanton to a 13-year, $325 million deal, with a team option for a 14th season at $25 million, it was the richest contract in North American athletics history. That Stanton was awarded that kind of money is not necessarily a surprise – though it is, to some degree. That it was the Marlins who ponied up that kind of cash absolutely shocking.

The Marlins, since becoming a Major League Baseball franchise in 1993, have historically had a payroll in the bottom third of the sport. Twice the team’s payroll spiked to seventh, overall. That was in 1997 when the organization decided to “buy” a World Series championship it its fifth campaign and again in 2012, the first year Marlins Park was open. In both cases, the payroll plummeted again by the next summer.

The last two years, Miami boasted franchise salaries of 39,621,900 and $46,440,400 in 2013 and 2014, respectively. To put it plainly, the Marlins are not in the habit of dishing out large contracts.

Naturally, Miami’s block-buster, bank-breaking deal did not go unnoticed in Cleveland. Tribe fans, who have seen their beloved Indians keep a pretty tight payroll over the past decade, begged to know why Cleveland has never been able to afford such a contract if the Marlins can. After all, the Indians have generally had a higher payroll than the fish. Cleveland has also drawn better, attendance-wise, in most seasons. Neither club has done well in ticket sales over the last few years.

The thing is, the Indians could sign a player to that kind of money. If the Indians wanted to pay someone $20 – $25 million a season, they could do that. It would fit easily into what was a payroll of $82.6 on Opening Day this past year. Even if the Tribe raised payroll to the $90 – $100 million range, where the defending American League champion Royals appear to be headed, that kind of money would fit on the payroll. The problem is, not a lot of other salaries would fit into the payroll.

A team like the Indians, one that is in a smaller-middle market area, would have a hard time putting a good team on the field by paying one player 20-25 percent of its team salary. If the Tribe paid that kind of deal to one guy, there would not be much room to fill out the roster with other quality players. One-star teams do not usually go very far – just ask this year’s Marlins.

Now, where the Marlins were smart was in back-loading Stanton’s deal. The two-time All-Star who led the National League with 37 home runs in 2014, will make $30 million of his salary over the first three seasons. He will be paid $77 million over the following three for a total of $106 million through the first six years of the deal. That is a lot of money, to be sure. However, it is an average of $17.8 million during that time. That kind of salary is a little more doable for a team in the position of one like the Marlins or Indians.

After those first six years, Stanton has a player option and can opt out. That could be both good or bad for Miami. It remains to be seen if Stanton did that for himself to get out of a possible bad situation, wins-losses wise, after his age-30 season or if he did it to help the team in case the Marlins are in dire financial straits after three years of paying Stanton more than $20 million per.

Whatever the case, it would seem Miami’s window of contention is now and may be short. The next three years – at $6.5, $9 and $14.5 million – Stanton will not really hamstring the club from doing other things and putting good players around him. The next three years – at $25, $26 and $26 million – the Marlins could have difficulty. Miami seems like it trying to buy three years of contention before possibly going into the tank again. short-term contention should not be the goal of any professional sports franchise.

Essentially, Miami is banking on improving, soon, on the field and having larger attendance figures. That is a large gamble considering the Marlins have not seen their average game attendance go over 30,000 since the team was still rather new in 1994. Even the years in which the squad won the World Series the average attendances were 29,190 in 1997 and 16,290 in 2003. The team has been in the 18,700 neighborhood the last thee campaigns in its new home. Fans simply do not show up enough to bank on such a large deal drawing an audience and drawing significantly more money.

That is why the Indians would be unwise to break the bank by that kind of degree. Cleveland’s payroll was roughly double that of Miami’s in 2014. Even coming off a 2013 Wild Card year, the Indians drew less than 18,000 fans per game this past season. It would likewise be a gamble for the Indians to go crazy with a contract for one player.

This is not to say the Indians should not or will not spend money this winter. They should and probably can afford to. This past season’s payroll was the team’s largest since 2001. The Tribe may even raise its salary again going into 2015. However, throwing a mega deal at one player would not be the path to take.

For a team to compete in Cleveland’s market, good deals need to be given to young players before they are ready to break the bank. It takes good scouting and wise free-agent decisions. The Indians have actually done some of that over the past couple years. The Tribe has extended young, core players like Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis and Yan Gomes. Cleveland has done all right in its smaller free-agent signings. Where the Tribe has erred most, actually, has been in giving large money to players like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn.

Of course, Swisher and Bourn are making nowhere close to the salary Stanton will be making. Which adds another depth of fear to a deal like that. What if it doesn’t work out? Large contracts for Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez have not exactly worked the way the Angels and Yankees had hoped. However, when you are in market sizes like Los Angels and New York financial mistakes can be made by throwing more money at a replacement. If Stanton regresses, which is unlikely but can happen, the Marlins are on the hook for a lot of money and can not spend money to erase any mistakes.

The Indians would be in no situation to compensate for a bad contract, either. Remember when the team issued contracts to Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore and Jake Westbrook some years back? All three were injured or failed to live up to expectations and it sunk the team for several years.

While Miami’s deal with Stanton will make fans of the Indians and other teams in similar markets wonder why their franchise is not break the bank, the fact is they should not.

We in Cleveland want the Indians to spend a little more money on a team that has been in postseason contention the last two years. The Indians are in position where it is time to lock up young players like Corey Kluber and maybe Cody Allen. The Tribe should augment that with signings of good, veteran players who know how to win and can help a young core that is still figuring that part out. The Indians should not throw a ton of money at one player. It would be unwise and would not help the team remain competitive for the long-haul, which really is the ultimate goal. Winning consistently will raise attendance and interest around here – not one megastar on a team struggling to get to .500.

Photo: Marc Serota/Getty Images

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