CLEVELAND, Ohio — The rumor season is upon us and the Indians find themselves smack dab in the middle of it. That’s not unusual for a winning team with a talented roster.
It has happened plenty of times before. Remember when Cliff Lee was supposedly traded to the Pirates? Or Omar Vizquel was shipped to Seattle? What about Danny Salazar being traded to the Cubs? All those rumors surfaced during the winter.
Those rumors never came to fruition, which is not uncommon. But this winter, when you see the Indians linked to a rumor there could be more than a kernel of truth involved.
The Tribe’s roster is getting more and more expensive. Chris Antonetti, president of baseball operations, and GM Mike Chernoff watched 12 free agents — Michael Brantley, Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Lonnie Chisenhall, Josh Tomlin, Brandon Guyer, Rajai Davis, Melky Cabrera, Oliver Perez, Adam Rosales, Josh Donaldson and Brandon Barnes — come off the books after the World Series. Those players earned an estimated $49 million this year.
But that has not prompted a spending spree because the $49 million has been almost neutralized by raises due to players still on the roster via their guaranteed contracts or upcoming arbitration negotiations. The Indians’ payroll in 2018 was a record $135 million, according to Cot’s Baseball.com. They ranked 15th (out of 30 teams) in payroll, but only 21st in attendance.
Attendance isn’t the only revenue stream for teams, but it is still an important one. The Indians have topped two million in attendance just once in the last 10 years.
The Indians have 12 players under contract for an estimated $94 million in 2019. That does not include Francisco Lindor and Trevor Bauer, who are eligible for arbitration. Lindor could top Kris Bryant’s record of $10.8 million for a player in his first year or arbitration. Bauer’s salary could jump from $6.525 million to $11.6 million, according to mlbtraderumors.com.
This week Antonetti and Chernoff are at the GM meetings in Carlsbad, Calif. talking to teams about possibly trading one or more of their veteran players. They have been fielding calls on starting pitchers, including Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Bauer, and middle infielders Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Erik Gonzalez and Jason Kipnis. Lindor and Ramirez are thought to be off limits, but it never hurts to talk.
The Indians are also deep at catcher with Yan Gomes, Roberto Perez and Eric Haase, but the most attractive part of the Tribe’s roster is the rotation — Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber. Jon Heyman reported that the Yankees talked to the Tribe on Tuesday about Kluber and Carrasco.
What the Indians are trying to do is move payroll — Edwin Ecarnacion will make $21.7 million and Kipnis $14.7 million next year — and still stay competitive. They’ve won three straight AL Central Division titles and have posted a winning record for six straight seasons.
If the Indians can pull off this delicate surgery, the AL Central might allow them to continue to prosper. The Twins, White Sox, Tigers and Royals are all rebuilding. The Indians won the division by 13 games this year with a 91-71 record. Minnesota was a distant second at 78-84.
The division didn’t prepare them for the postseason where they were swept in three games by Astros. But because this does not appear to be a fire sale, the Indians could still continue to rule the Central for one or two more seasons as long as their ego doesn’t get in the way. Bad teams can turnaround fast as the Indians showed in 2013 when they won 92 games to win a wild card spot after losing 94 games in 2012.
What the Indians need is to find a way to acquire help in the outfield and bullpen. They could do that by trading one of their prized starting pitchers, but they have to get it right. It took too long for them to acquire and develop that rotation to punch a hole in it by making a bad deal.