Baseball has a problem staring it in the face and no more obvious is that dilemma apparent than at the downtown Cleveland offices of the franchise soon-to-be remembered as the Indians.
Plenty of uncertainty loomed over the state of the Major League Baseball landscape with the persistent public squabbles that put the 2020 season in jeopardy due to the safety and logistical concerns created by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic plaguing the country beginning ten months ago. While owners and players were ultimately able to get in 60 unattended regular season games at a financial loss, the ramifications of the lost revenues cast a gray cloud over the game as teams have had to adapt and adjust to the changed marketplace. The disjointed relationships between owners and players and the fiscal damages sustained, plus the wrecking ball smashed into the minor league system, all spell some unpleasant feelings about how negotiations may transpire as time ticks away on baseball’s most recent collective bargaining agreement, set to expire on December 1 of this year.
As for the Cleveland baseball club, the efforts of the front office this offseason seem to spell out both doom and gloom as the perennial playoff contending roster has been systematically dismantled for cheaper alternatives while once again putting the organization in a negative spotlight. Most recently in the news for its decision to rebrand for 2022 in the sake of political correctness, now the Dolan-led front office group is being criticized for having an active team salary base that is less than individual one-year commitments that teams have made to several dozens of the game’s brightest stars. Thursday’s trade of future big earner Francisco Lindor and moderate investment Carlos Carrasco to the New York Mets further highlighted the Indians’ extensive cost-cutting efforts.
If the team was looking to roll out “Pennypinchers”, “Scrooges”, or “Misers” as its new moniker moving forward, it has hit the ground running in embracing the name.
Comparing the present roster now to that of the summer, the Cleveland front office has dropped a nuclear bomb on the roster, with one of the most obvious commonalities attached to each player being a significant salary commitment coming in 2021 or even the years ahead.
The team has some of its largest salary payments due to its catchers. Roberto Perez will be paid $5.5 million after he was tendered a contract for 2021. He has a $7 million option on the table for 2022 with a $450,000 buyout. Austin Hedges, acquired in the trade that sent Mike Clevinger to San Diego last season, is estimated to make $3.1 million in his second of three arbitration years. Sandy Leon, who backed up Perez and briefly Hedges last season, signed a minor league deal with a big league invite with the Miami Marlins earlier this week.
The infield has been almost completely disassembled. Jose Ramirez is the lone remaining starter around the horn and is now the team’s highest paid player at $9.4 million, well below what he would make on the open market now if a free agent. He has an $11 million team option for 2022 with a $2 million buyout and a $13 million team option for 2023. The four-time All-Star Lindor, who was to be the team’s highest paid player after arbitration results, was traded on January 7 to the New York Mets as the team sought to get something for his production ahead of him leaving town at the end of his contract following the coming season. 2019 All-Star Carlos Santana signed a two-year, $17.5 million contract with the Kansas City Royals in December after his team option for $17.5 million was declined at the end of October. He received a $500,000 buyout from the club. Cesar Hernandez, who put in one of the best seasons at the plate for the Indians last season, is a free agent and is not expected back despite the contributions that he gave the club in 2020.
Yu Chang is still on the roster and utility man extraordinaire Mike Freeman is still with the organization after being outrighted to Triple-A Columbus. Both are in the pre-arbitration portions of their big league careers.
The outfield, one of the least productive areas of the roster over the last few years, has also been shaken up. Outfielders Delino DeShields and Tyler Naquin became free agents on December 2 after they were non-tendered. Josh Naylor, acquired in the Clevinger trade from San Diego, and Oscar Mercado are on their second of three pre-arbitration years. Jordan Luplow, Franmil Reyes, and Bradley Zimmer are all in their final pre-arb years before entering arbitration eligibility. Daniel Johnson may get a bigger opportunity to play in 2021, as the rookie bounced back and forth between the Indians and their alternate training site in 2020. Jake Bauers was a camp casualty and never got a look by the parent club last year, as he spent his season in Eastlake. Those seven will be playing around MLB minimum salaries if in that outfield mix in Cleveland. Domingo Santana was bought out for $250,000 when his team option was declined in October.
Naylor and Bauers, as well as former top prospect Bobby Bradley, may be in contention for some time at first base as well to fill the spot vacated by ‘Los.
As for the pitching staff, only reliever Nick Wittgren ($2 million) is outside of the arbitration or pre-arbitration portions of their contracts. Shane Bieber and Adam Plutko should become arbitration eligible after the 2021 season. Starters Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac and relievers James Karinchak and Cal Quantrill will not be eligible until after the 2022 season at earliest. The team removed the only real obligation left on the pitching staff in Thursday’s trade of Cookie to the Big Apple, getting the team off of the hook for $12 million in 2021, another $12 million in 2022, and anywhere from a $3 million buyout to a $14 million salary in 2023, depending on what decision would have been made on his team option for that campaign.
The bullpen, like the rest of the roster, has been shaken up. Closer Brad Hand was bought out for $1 million as the team avoided his $10 million pay day for 2021, putting the team in the position of looking at Karinchak, Wittgren, or Emmanuel Clase in the closer and setup roles for the years ahead. Adam Cimber, who had provided mixed results to Cleveland after coming over in the same trade that brought Hand to the Indians, was placed on waivers and dealt to Miami in November. Ageless wonder Oliver Perez survived the new three-batter pitching rules and posted a 2.00 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP in 21 games in 2020, but he is homeless at 39 years old looking to pitch in a 19th big league season somewhere after his contract ended in Cleveland. Jefry Rodriguez is also gone from the roster after missing the year on the 60-day injured list, released in December after being non-tendered.
Outside of Wittgren, there is little cash strapped to the ‘pen. Phil Maton enters the arbitration process for the first time this winter and is expected to see a raise that would bring his salary to around $1 million, putting him in position to be one of just two relievers to earn a seven-figure income on the shores of Lake Erie.
The club also added five prospects to the 40-man roster in November, including third baseman Nolan Jones, shortstops Gabriel Arias and Ernie Clement, and pitchers Eli Morgan and Carlos Vargas. Jones’ ability to produce on the field at the hot corner could expedite Ramirez’s departure down the road, unless the team seeks to find him a spot opposite the diamond or in the corner outfield vacancies.
With all the reductions, the Indians’ expected payroll as of now sits at a miniscule $22.95 million (according to Spotrac), nearly half of the commitments of the four lowest teams above them in the Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates, Miami Marlins, and Tampa Bay Rays (that figure is a stark and appalling contrast to the estimated Opening Day payroll of $135 million that the team played with in 2018, according to Cot’s, and $119 million in 2019, per Spotrac).
While this would imply that the Indians have some money to spend, there is little hope among the fan base that any significant portion of the slashed funds are going to be reinvested into strengthening the present team with a flashy free agent addition or splashy trade for a higher-priced big league talent. The team would be wise to allocate some of those monies to locking up some of the young pitching (chiefly Bieber, Civale, and Plesac) before their respective price tags get too large by buying them out of their arbitration years on more team-friendly pacts, but it is hard not to envision a scenario a few more years down the road in which these same budding arms are not dealt the same fate as their predecessors and are given their evictions in the same manner seen by Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, and Clevinger and a decade earlier by CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee.
It all harkens back to one of the comical scenes early in the 1989 classic, “Major League”, which is shared below with some creative liberties attached.
Dolan: This is a list of players that I want to invite to Spring Training this year.
Antonetti: I’ve never heard of half of these guys and the ones I do know are way past their prime.
Chernoff: Most of these guys never had a prime.
Antonetti: This guy here is dead.
Dolan: Cross him off then.
Unfortunately, it feels like this scene has left the creative mindscape of Hollywood and is becoming reality in Cleveland. At least in this scenario, we can be confident that Paul Dolan cannot go full Rachel Phelps and try to move the team to Miami.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images