Every offseason, every Major League Baseball team has tough decisions to make. Most teams – even the good ones – rarely start a new season with every player that they had the year before. Expiring contracts, contract options, and free agency are facts of life for all MLB clubs.
That is why this past season felt so special for the Cleveland Indians. Very few tough decisions had to be made last winter. The ones that were ended up being greeted with happy returns. Mike Napoli had to go, but the Indians upgraded with Edwin Encarnacion. Rajai Davis was not retained, even after his near-heroics in the 2016 World Series. Cleveland did not miss a beat without him. Those players represented the only difficult decisions that the Tribe’s deep thinkers needed to make last offseason.
It will not be so easy this winter.
Cleveland has more free agents and contract options to consider this time around. At the core of every decision the team makes this winter, may be the greatest debate of all – the question of Jay Bruce or Carlos Santana?
Both sluggers were key to the Indians running away with a second consecutive American League Central Division championship this year. Both were integral parts of the 22-game winning streak, the second-longest such streak in the game’s long history. Santana and Bruce represented two of the Indians’ only bats that did not go silent during the disappointing ALDS against the New York Yankees.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, both Santana and Bruce are free agents and neither one is going to be cheap.
Even for an Indians management team that proved a newfound willingness to spend money last winter, it seems a stretch that both Bruce and Santana can be retained, especially if each earns anywhere near market value.
The Tribe broke the bank last offseason when inking cleanup hitter Encarnacion to a guaranteed three years and $60 million deal. It was the largest contract in club history. Cleveland had a bit of a windfall of money after last year’s postseason run to Game 7 of the Fall Classic netted a good chunk of extra revenue for the team.
Even with an early exit from this year’s playoffs, the Tribe’s financial situation would still appear to be sound. The Indians broke the two million mark for regular season attendance for the first time since 2008. They hosted three postseason games. There is some money potentially coming off the salary books. Still, the bank will likely need to be broken for both of the Tribe’s slugging free agents. It is hard to envision a real scenario in which both are back in Cleveland next April. It will be up the Indians front office to decide who they value more.
Santana is the old hand for the Tribe while Bruce is the newcomer. Santana became a member of the Indians organization in a 2008 trade deadline deal that saw third baseman Casey Blake go to the Dodgers. Santana was Cleveland’s unheralded, at the time, return. Santana made his debut with the Tribe in 2010 and has been a key member of the squad ever since. Santana has mashed 174 home runs and driven in 587 runs in seven full seasons (parts of eight in total) while wearing the Wahoo red, white, and blue.
Bruce was added this past August in a trade-with-waivers acquisition from the Mets. In 43 games with the Tribe, he hit seven homers with 26 RBI and batted .248. He certainly was as advertised in his quarter of a season with the club.
When it comes to sentimentality, clearly Santana wins the race with Bruce over who the Indians should bring back. He has been a building block for the franchise while Bruce was a hired hand, in a sense.
When it comes to affordability, Santana may also be winning the race. He is nearly a full year older than Bruce. Santana will turn 32 on April 8, while Bruce will be 31 on April 3. Spotrac.com estimates Bruce’s market value to be $22.7 million with Santana at $17.5 million. Both numbers seem a little high, given the $20 million per year Encarnacion is averaging (though Encarnacion is nearing his 35th birthday).
While neither Bruce or Santana may make that kind of crazy money, it is likely Bruce will net a few million more per year than Santana. That is partly due to age and partly due to the fact that the newer of the two Indians has been more consistent at the plate over the years.
Bruce made his debut with the Reds in 2008. In ten full seasons, he has crushed 20 or more long balls nine times. He has mashed 30 or more five times. He has two seasons with more than 100 RBI and another three with 97-99. He has been a consistent source of power over the years while earning three All-Star nods.
By comparison, Santana has seven full years. In five of those seasons, he knocked 20 or more taters. Only once, in 2016, did he go over 30. He has never driven in 90 runs in a season, let alone 100. He has never been to a Mid-Summer Classic. While Santana has been a nice player for the Indians, he has been maddeningly inconsistent. When he is hot, he can flat out carry a team. When he is cold, however, he can slump and stay horribly cold for multiple months. It’s why 2014 and 2015 saw Santana with mirroring .231 batting averages. While he is good at drawing a walk and getting on base, his bat can go through prolonged struggles of finding the ball.
Where Santana can be more of an asset than Bruce is in the field. Bruce has essentially played right field his whole career (with brief chunks of time logged in center, left and at first base). He is average, at best, in the outfield and seems a prime candidate to eventually be more of a regular designated hitter.
Comparatively, Santana has played all over the field. He began his Tribe career as a catcher and moved to third base to save on wear and tear. He was a serviceable catcher and not very good at third. He was moved to first a few years ago and has found a home there. He was set to split time with Encarnacion at first and DH during this past season. By the end of the year, Santana was playing the majority of the first base duties because he has become an above-average fielder at the position. He showed, in the 2016 World Series, he can also man the outfield in a real pinch.
Santana has the history with the Indians, the better glove, and is above-average at the plate. Bruce is a monster at the plate, while a little inadequate with the glove and does not have the history of Santana with the organization. Santana will be cheaper than Bruce. Both will command $15-$20 million per year and at least three or four guaranteed seasons in any deal.
This is why keeping both will be very difficult, if not impossible. The Indians’ 2017 Opening Day payroll was in the $125 million range. By season’s end, after adding Bruce and reliever Joe Smith, that number jumped further. The team was middle-of-the-pack in spending after more than a decade of being near the bottom in MLB average salary.
According to the Hero Sports website, the Indians currently have just $77 million in tied up in guaranteed salaries for 2018 (this does not take into account any money owed potentially to arbitration and pre-arb players). The club has an $11 million team option on Michael Brantley, $6.5 million on Boone Logan, and $3.5 million on Josh Tomlin. Tomlin, of that trio, is the only one that seems really likely to have his option picked up. Logan is unlikely and Brantley represents one of those tough decisions. If he and Tomlin both get picked up, that takes the payroll back over $90 million right there (without paying the younger kids on the roster). Signing both Santana and Bruce would take the Tribe’s salary places that the club, and many other teams, may not be comfortable going. This does not even take into consideration that two of the squad’s top four relievers in Bryan Shaw and Smith are both free agents and at least one should be retained on a multi-year contract.
The logistics say the Indians won’t be able to have their cake and eat it too. Santana and Bruce are not likely to both be in Cleveland when the first pitch of the 2018 campaign is thrown. Unlike losing Napoli last offseason, there is probably not going to be an exact replacement walking into the clubhouse door for either one who leaves.
The guess is Santana will stay and Bruce will be gone. The Indians have a glut of outfield options at the Major League level and in the minors. They may not hit 30 jacks like Bruce, but they can be good. Santana could come at a team-friendly price and allow the Indians to dip their toes into other, less costly (but not cheap) free agent waters. Bruce could eat up too much of the books.
There may well be other guys like Bruce who could be traded for next July or August. A guy like Santana, who is one contract away from becoming a career Indian, is rare these days, especially in a smaller market.
The home run power may say to sign Bruce. Sentimentality, defense, and money say to sign Santana. Neither answer is really wrong. Neither answer is easy. Both answers are just one of the many tough decisions facing MLB ball clubs across the league this winter.
Photo: Mike Stobe/Getty Image