Tribe Payroll Creates Problems for Roster Retool at Trade Deadline

I’ve never been a really strong math person, and I especially didn’t like word problems when I was in school, but Indians General Manager Chris Antonetti is facing quite the math problem in the next nine months.

The Problem

While some continue to hang on to hope that the Indians can make a run for a playoff spot in 2015, it seems unlikely with just 71 games remaining and just the 10th best record in the American League. At the trade deadline, the Indians are expected to stand pat, or possibly trade veterans David Murphy and Ryan Raburn.

The problem, or Antonetti’s challenge, is to begin building a roster that can compete in 2016. With a strong starting rotation and improving young defense, it’s fair to believe that the Indians are a couple hitters away from serious contention.

The Constants

The Indians have done a good job in recent years of extending their own players, buying out years of arbitration, in trade for a couple years past free agency. Those contracts all begin to make their impact on the payroll next season. The Indians core of Carlos Santana ($8.45 million), Michael Brantley ($7.375 million), Jason Kipnis ($6.167 million), Carlos Carrasco ($4.5 million), Corey Kluber ($4.7 million) and Yan Gomes ($2.583 million) make a very strong nucleus at a very fair rate. Contracts are all in different time frames of their escalation, but all are fair or below market value to the benefit of the Indians.

However, where the Indians payroll gets stretched very quickly is in the two albatross contracts of Nick Swisher ($15 million) and Michael Bourn ($14 million). Neither have played to the expectation that they portrayed when they were signed prior to the 2013 season. Bourn was promised to be better prepared and in the best shape of his life before this season, yet he’s having his worst season and Swisher continues to fight knee issues that will not allow him to stay on the field. As the Tribe’s defense improves, Bourn is the biggest sore spot remaining. For each, the decline of their careers is real. No one can spin this as a slump. The Indians will never get the value from either that they invested.

If Murphy and Raburn remain on the roster past the trade deadline, the Indians will have to decide to pick up or decline their options for 2016. Murphy is due $7 million, with a $500k buyout and Raburn is due $3 million, with a $100k buyout.

What that means, is if the Indians decline options on Murphy and Raburn, they’ll have a payroll of $63.375 million for 2016, dedicated to just eight players.

The Variables

In addition to the payroll commitments the Indians already have for 2016, they also have eight more players who will be arbitration eligible. Admittedly, the salaries on the above spreadsheets are my estimations. I’m not an arbitration guru, but I’m confident that I’m relatively close in my estimates. I may miss by a couple hundred thousand dollars one way or the other, but my estimations are based upon how players have grown in the arbitration system already, or how other players comparable to them did in their first year of arbitration.

Trevor Bauer is not arbitration eligible yet—he lacks the necessary MLB service time—but signed a Major League contract when he was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011. The Indians have negotiated modest raises with him in each of the last two seasons. Considering this is his best season with the Tribe, it’s very fair to assume another fair, modest raise.

Any player not offered arbitration in November, will become a free agent. While no one expects each of the players on the list to be offered arbitration, if they all were, the Indians would have 17 players for 2016 making approximately $98.7 million. If every other player on the team made the league minimum, the Indians would have a payroll over $100 million.

What Does This Mean?

I think it means a lot of things…

  1. The Indians front office never publicly discusses payroll, but they’ve hovered around the $85 million threshold since 2013. While anything is possible, and I think a slightly larger payroll is possible, it seems very unlikely that the Indians are going to go to a $100 million payroll.
  2. If the Indians are to keep the core players they’ve invested in long term, along with the two albatrosses, and Bauer, Brandon Moss, Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw, the Indians are looking at $78.575 for 12 players. If the other 13 players made the league minimum, that would get the Indians to about a $86 million payroll for 2016. That doesn’t include necessary role players like Marc Rzepczynski, Zach McAllister or Nick Hagadone.
  3. Trading David Murphy and/or Ryan Raburn at the trade deadline does not fix any of these problems. It does alleviate the Indians having to pick up their options, but that is only a possible $600k savings. While each would be a small addition to a contender, the Indians aren’t going to get a valuable prospect in return for either. In the past, the Indians have some times paid the salary of the player they are trading for the rest of the year, to get a better prospect in return. If the Indians dealt Murphy or Raburn, they may send the cash necessary for the buyout to get a better player in return. That also doesn’t help the payroll situation.
  4. Lonnie Chisenhall may appear as an easy trade candidate, and a way to cut some salary, but it isn’t quite so easy. At this point, I would think Chisenhall is a potential non-tender candidate. The Indians are not going to pay him somewhere between $2.5 and $3 million in 2016 after four years of opportunity to take the third base job, only to be passed by Giovanny Urshela. In order to trade Chisenhall, the Indians will have to find a team that doesn’t just think the can be fixed with a change of scenery, but also willing to pay the money he is entitled through the arbitration process. No team will trade for a player they are going to non-tender in five months. Finding that potential team could be somewhere between “tough” and “impossible.”
  5. It’s obvious the Indians payroll problems, just like many of their on the field problems, revolve around Swisher and Bourn. It’s easy for a fan to want the Indians to trade them and trade them for anything, but the fact of the matter is no team is trading for either of these players and assuming their salary. It was speculated a week ago by Ken Rosenthal that the Indians and Braves were discussing a Swisher for Chris Johnson trade. Each are on bad contracts and playing below the level they were signed for. Johnson is signed through 2017, while Swisher is signed for just next season with an option for 2017 that is based upon plate appearances. The value of each remaining contract is approximately the same. The Indians would basically just be financing their salary commitment over an extra season. That’s not a bad deal for the Indians, if it was the case. The deal also hasn’t been made. We also don’t know what payroll implications are involved either. Atlanta may still be asking the Indians to pick up some of Swisher’s salary. Trading Bourn or Swisher and being rid of their payroll would be ideal, but that money isn’t going to be wiped off the books. One way or another, the Indians made that commitment and they are going to have to honor it.
  6. To me, this all means the Indians are going to have to trade a player they would rather keep a part of their roster. The only upside to trading a valuable player is that you should be able to get valuable players in return. I’m not sure that the Indians make this kind of deal in the next two weeks, but it has to be one they at least explore while some teams are desperate to make the playoffs and try to win in October. Maybe a team gives more value now for a chance to win. However, major trades that shake up rosters, usually happen in the offseason.

If I was going to speculate on players that could fit this mold for a big trade, I’d think Santana, Moss or Bauer could all be possible. Moss has one more year of arbitration before being a free agent after the 2016 season. While he’s had a decent year, he doesn’t seem like someone the Indians will want to invest long term money in to avoid free agency. Santana is signed for 2016 and has a team option for 2017. The two years are worth a total of $20 million. Despite coming out of the All-Star break hot, Santana has had declining offensive numbers. While he walks at historic levels, and that’s what makes him valuable, he has continued to struggle to drive in runs or play quality defense. Bauer’s gradual raises prior to arbitration means he is going to escalate in salary quickly when he finally does reach the arbitration process. Considering the Indians financial constraints, it might be tough for the Indians to meet those demands.

The Solution

There is no easy solution. It’s a dilemma Antonetti and Indians manager Terry Francona have to face beginning today and into the winter. They definitely built this team with the idea winning in 2015. The Indians are in a financial crunch, and in the past, this might have indicated a fire sale, but I don’t think that is something to fear this time around. The Indians have underachieved and have many flaws. They’ll have to work through their financial problems, and while they will have to make some difficult decisions, they could make a trade or two that improves the roster offensively and defensively, while slashing some payroll.

It’s a problem we’ll all have to watch the Indians try to solve over the next six to nine months.

Note: All salaries were found from Cot’s Baseball Contracts.

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