Cleveland Indians VP Bob DiBiasio explains smaller payroll during Talkin’ Tribe luncheon
Jon Spencer, Reporter
You can add economics instructor to Bob DiBiasio’s title as a vice president of the Cleveland Indians.
DiBiasio and team broadcasters Matt Underwood and Jim Rosenhaus were in Mansfield on Thursday for the annual Talkin’ Tribe luncheon sponsored by The Kiwanis Club and WMAN Radio. All proceeds went to The Friendly House.
The event quickly turned into an econ class, headed by DiBiasio, as he and his cohorts tried their best to back their audience away from a frozen ledge. (Some 200 attendees braved sub-zero temperatures to fill a Holiday Inn banquet room.)
After winning three straight Central Division titles, Cleveland opted this off-season to dump payroll via trades or by letting their big-name free agents walk, leading to a disillusioned fan base.
Even though the reception DiBiasio and Co. received Thursday was anything but chilly, they had a feel for the room and sensed many are having trouble warming to what the Tribe is doing — or not doing.
So DiBiasio spent much of his address on dollars and (good?) sense.
“That’s the nature of the beast right now,” DiBiasio said of the payroll slashing. “Salaries have gone so high; attendance has been relatively flat. We cannot sustain that business model. Ownership cannot continue to deficit spend.”
DiBiasio came armed with statistics that have nothing to do with OPS, ERA or WAR.
* From 2013 through 2018, the payroll under the ownership of the Dolan family was at an all-time franchise high each year. DiBiasio said the payroll went from about $70 million for the 40-man roster in 2012 to closer to $150 million last season, for a 117 percent increase.
* Attendance, which provides the best opportunity for revenue growth, went from 1.6 million to 1.9 million. That’s an increase of 20 percent.
* The Tribe was 14th in payroll in the major leagues last season, but only 22nd in attendance.
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“How do we get to some sustainable economic reality for our player payroll in 2019 and moving forward?” DiBiasio said. “Trading a (Corey) Kluber or (Trevor) Bauer might have helped us do that, but with the moves we’ve made, we’ve been able to sign (Carlos) Carrasco to a (four-year) extension and not trade Kluber or Bauer.”
Gone from last year’s roster, second-oldest in the American League, are free agent outfielder Michael Brantley and his team-best .309 batting average along with all-star catcher Yan Gomes. Edwin Encarnacion, who hit at least 30 home runs and drove in at least 100 runs in six of the last seven seasons, was traded to Seattle and Yonder Alonso took his career-high 83 RBI to Chicago in a swap.
Stepping in will be a collection of unproven youngsters, including Jake Bauers and Jordan Luplow. Also in the mix is Carlos Santana, who returns to Cleveland after seeing his career averages drop across the board last year, at age 32, with Philadelphia.
There are question marks galore in the outfield and bullpen, with former relief aces Andrew Miller and Cody Allen among those who have moved on. And yet, even if there are no more roster adjustments before the start of the season, the Indians will be favored to win the Central again because of one thing.
Actually, five arms.
Their starting rotation of Kluber, Bauer, Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber.
Kluber, Carrasco and Clevinger all pitched 200 or more innings last season. Bauer would have gotten there as well if he hadn’t ended up disabled by a line drive off his right leg in August. All four struck out more than 200 batters, a first in MLB history.
Bieber, the fifth starter, totaled 194 1 /3 innings with 195 strikeouts in his time at Class AA Akron, Class AAA Columbus and Cleveland, where he won 11 games as a rookie.
The rotation’s 76 wins were the most in the big leagues last year and its 3.39 ERA was third best behind Houston and the Dodgers.
“The core strength of this team is the (starting) pitching,” said Underwood, the Ashland native who has signed on with former Tribe center fielder Rick Manning for three more years in the team’s TV booth. “That is going to be the bedrock of the ballclub. If they win the division or not will fall on these five guys.”
Obviously, shortstop Francisco Lindor and infielder Jose Ramirez will have a big say as well. They are two of the bright young stars in baseball, combining for 77 home runs last season. But Ramirez went into a terrible tailspin in mid-August and for the second post-season in a row gave the Indians virtually nothing.
In 2017, when Cleveland blew a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five divisional series with the Yankees, and in 2018, when the Tribe got swept in the ALDS by Houston, Ramirez was 2 of 31 (.065) with 10 strikeouts.
Also faltering badly was the bullpen. Lights out in 2016, when the Tribe came within one win of a World Series title, the back end of the staff hasn’t been the same since, either because of injuries (mostly to Miller) or ineffectiveness. Last year the pen went 15-29 with a 4.60 ERA, third highest in the AL.
Rebuilding the relief corps, in front of solid closer Brad Hand, begins when pitchers and catchers report to Goodyear, Arizona on Feb. 12. First workout for the full squad is Feb. 18.
October looks a long way off. That’s probably a good thing.
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“Don’t get too down in the dumps or be too swayed by this overriding narrative that the Indians are sitting on their hands, not doing anything,” Underwood said. “I believe, when the time is right, they will strike and add to this roster and try and make it as good as they can.”
They absolutely did the last three years, adding Miller, Jay Bruce and Josh Donaldson for the stretch run.
But given the youth and austerity movements now in place, are there any guarantees the Tribe will be buyers, instead of sellers, at the trade deadline this time?
“People talk about the proverbial window closing on the ball club winning the World Series, which is hogwash,” DiBiasio said. “The mantra I want to leave you with today is ‘Trust in Tito’ (manager Terry Francona). Trust in (the front office).”