Will the Indians Ever Spend Big Again Under the Dolans?

You hate the small market discussions. You wish the Indians wrote that big check and brought in a big name, top tier player from the free agent market. You have heard all of the excuses about developing the farm, building from within, and retaining the home grown talent.

It gets old, but it makes sense. It doesn’t mean you have to like it, but it also means that it may not change any time in the near future.

How long will it continue, though? Are the Cleveland Indians doomed under the current ownership situation and poor gate figures from ever returning to a position near the top third of the spenders in baseball?

It really is hard to envision a situation in which the Indians would do that again because when the Indians were one of those free spending, big spending ball clubs, the city of Cleveland and the Indians roster were actually a destination that seemed close to bringing home a championship. Books have been written about the perfect situation that benefitted the Tribe’s ability to get hot with little competition in town with a strong roster of affordable talent supplemented with free agent veterans in a shiny new home in the downtown area.

That world doesn’t exist in Cleveland now.

The Cavaliers are good. Check that – the Cavs are great and again are positioning themselves to give Cleveland its most realistic threat for a championship.

The Browns are here. This is hardly a place to trash the once well-respected and storied franchise, but the new Browns were not cut from the same cloth as the old Browns, but the fans still pay attention, despite two winning seasons in the last 17 chances.

The city of Cleveland has struggled to move past its darker, drearier past. It’s still a joke to some, the home of the river that caught fire, still the mistake by the lake. Cities with life and night life and ocean fronts sell themselves. To bring big name, top dollar talent to Cleveland takes the right roster, the right manager, the right situation.

That opportunity appeared to be knocking at the doorstep of the Indians over the last few offseasons but ownership never answered the call.

You can’t just spend money to fix problems and win championships and sometimes people forget that. Sure, going into this offseason and buying a David Price, a Jason Heyward, a Zack Greinke, or Johnny Cueto, Chris Davis, Yoenis Cespedes, or Justin Upton, would have made the fans happy. But at what cost?

Throwing money around doesn’t bring home the crown. Ask the notoriously free spending New York Yankees, who last won a World Series since 2009. Or the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose last World Series dates back to their win in 1988 over the Oakland Athletics.

Money doesn’t buy titles. It takes the right team.

Since the Dolan family trust purchased the team from Dick Jacobs in 2000, the front office present then and the evolved variation of that group now hasn’t exactly had the best of luck on the free agent market. With their last big bank break going bad in such a detrimental way for the roster, it is hard to see the club pursuing big splashes again. Moves like a $7 million man like Mike Napoli, a $5.25 million guy like Rajai Davis, and the $1 scratch-off lottery tickets in the names of any of the slew of minor league signings with spring invites are going to be the norm for years to come, it seems.

And to some extent, who can blame the ownership group and even the front office from balking at the idea of a big purchase when those previous ones have failed so painfully?

The moves to get Nick Swisher (four years, $56 million) and Michael Bourn (four years, $48 million) made some sense at the time and shocked the fan base of the Indians, if not the majority of dedicated observers of Major League Baseball. The timing, linked to the addition of manager Terry Francona, looked on the surface like a change in mindset from the organization. Instead, both are gone, residing in Atlanta making agonizing sums of money to be at best average players trending towards the stage left portion of their professional careers.

While fans lament those moves now, they also cringed at the deals the team did not make to keep CC Sabathia or Cliff Lee in town when pending pay days were on the horizon.

At first, Sabathia’s seven-year, $161 million contract (pushed to an eighth year and $186 million through an extension in 2011) looked like a steal as he led the American League in wins in 2009 and 2010 and spent his first three seasons in the Big Apple as a top four Cy Young contender. But what about the 14-13, 4.78 ERA season in 2013, or the 3-4, 5.28 ERA in eight games of the 2014 season? How about that 6-10 season last year, with a 4.73 ERA? Only teams with exceptionally deep bank accounts can absorb the kind of lacking production from a $23 million a year player.

Lee was traded in 2009 to Philadelphia, who traded him to Seattle before another trade to Texas, all preceding his first free agent opportunity after the 2010 season. He signed with the Phillies on a five-year, $120 million deal. While they reaped some reward, namely two top-six Cy finishes and All-Star appearances in 2011 and 2013, they absorbed his 6-9 record in 30 starts in 2012 and a 4-5 record with a 3.65 ERA in an injury-shortened 2014 season. In the final season of the contract? He did not pitch.

And don’t forget the seven-year, $130 million contract tendered to Shin-Soo Choo by Texas in 2014. He has not lived up to that hype by any stretch of the imagination since arriving in the Lone Star State.

Prior to those big departures, the Indians had focused on inking their internal options to long-term tenders that were both team friendly in cost and player friendly in added value and the buyout of low-paying pre-arbitration seasons.

The Indians used the same trend in the 1990’s, keeping the majority of their core intact throughout their run. They lost Albert Belle and Paul Sorrento to bigger money along the way, but the farm system was producing the talent needed to either plug the holes or to trade away for the cork.

As the 2000’s moved along, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome bailed, chasing dollars and opportunities on ships that did not seem to be sinking in the way the Indians were. Later in the decade and facing the task of trying to retain Sabathia, Jake Westbrook, and Travis Hafner. Westbrook signed a three-year, $33 million extension and Hafner signed a four-year, $57 million extension through 2012 with a club option for 2013, while the price tag on Sabathia appeared to exceed the Indians purse strings.

Westbrook missed almost all of May and June that season and pitched in just 26 games over the next three seasons for the club after injury. Hafner too was bit by the injury bug, hitting .259 in 429 games over his final five seasons with the club while just once in that span topping 100 games played.

They did drop a pretty penny on the Kerry Wood signing (two years, $20.5 million) in 2008, but otherwise did not pump a lot of money into outside players. That continued until the eventual albatross contracts of Swisher and Bourn that eventually became the now released Chris Johnson and a pile of cash Brinks trucked to Georgia.

The moral of the story? Expect more of the same. The Indians, as long as the small market mentality continues, won’t break the bank for one of those free agent money makers that fans will clamor for. Even if the club adds the long-rumored minority owner to the mix, it will not make a difference in how the club spends.

What the club likely will continue to do is follow the trend started by John Hart in the 1990’s, locking up young talented players on mutually friendly deals.

Such deals could happen again this very offseason, with several new candidates in tow who could merit the consideration already afforded to the pieces designated as core parts of the Indians future, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, and Yan Gomes. Those players, most notably Cody Allen, Francisco Lindor, and Danny Salazar, have all done enough in their MLB opportunities to at least garner some long-term discussions.

Photo: Plain Dealer file photo

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. I was reading an article that looked at the top ten free agent signings of last year and this guy said that 9 of the 10 clubs would if possible love to wipe them clean from their books. Almost all the signings were a mistake. Some people get excited to see their club spend but it seldom helps the club.

    People hate the Dolans but if anyone else owned the Indians it would still be a small market. I would love to see a list of owners listed by their personal wealth, their payroll, the money they each get from their TV and radio commercials and the money they get from the league. I’ll bet people would see that many small market owners are richer than many big market owners. Kansas City is the same way as Cleveland. Their fans won a WS and they are yelling at all the guys they are losing.

    Also steroids being out of baseball has kept teams from signing players into their late 30’s and 40’s. That has changed baseball back into player development and that takes time and doesn’t happen right now. All the big markets are into getting younger and not signing free agents where they lose a draft pick.

  2. This guy is a typical Dolan shill, nobody’s asking to go out there and sign a big free agent ,but stay competitive and payroll at least in the top half ,one legitimate playoff run in 15 years is not acceptable no matter what this brown noser says

    1. I would hardly classify myself as a brown noser and Dolan shill. At no point did I state that I found the behavior acceptable. I said that to some degree it can be rationalized, as much as all the fans might hate it, and that it won’t change under this regime. I stated that the team hasn’t spent wisely in the past, which could scare them away from similar risks in the future, and that the club is more likely to pump money into its own commodities rather than gamble in free agency, which has been their tendency for the majority of the last decade.

      But thanks for reading. I’ll try to remember to wipe my nose nice and clean for your next visit. -Bob

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