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Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part breakdown of the Indians’ offseason and future.
The past few weeks have been rather quiet for the Indians as baseball’s hot stove has frozen over, not too much unlike those in the Midwest who shivered through a polar vortex.
But for the Indians, a team securely within its contention window and with multiple holes to fill on the roster, silence can be the enemy (though, making some noise just for the sake of being loud isn’t ideal, either). Here’s the state of the Indians just a few weeks before pitchers and catchers report.
Here is part one, looking into the state of the Indians as they head into spring training with a focus on the driving forces for the front office this winter and how the Indians have spent on payroll the past several years. Tuesday will feature a look at their window of contention, where the Indians stand in the division and the American League and a response to their recent dealings (or, non-dealings).
President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti and General Manager Mike Chernoff made their primary objective clear back in December, one upon which they’ve acted multiple times. The front office has been fighting a battle on multiple fronts all winter. They needed to reallocate their resources to not only shed some payroll but also align some of those chess pieces to put themselves in a better position beyond 2019.
The trades that sent Yan Gomes to the Washington Nationals, Edwin Encarnacion to the Seattle Mariners (the three-team deal that netted Carlos Santana and Jake Bauers and also shipped Yandy Diaz to the Tampa Bay Rays) and Yonder Alonso to the Chicago White Sox hasn’t made the 2019 edition of the Indians a better team on paper. But what it did was limit the immediate impact while freeing up some financial flexibility. The Indians have been able to rework their roster and shift around their available resources to alleviate some of the pressures that an increasingly expensive roster was creating. It also lessened the need to deal Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer, at least for financial reasons.
But it has been more difficult than usual to really assess what these deals mean or their effectiveness because there was a significant qualifier attached to all of them: they were dependent on what the Indians do with those newfound resources. They all came down to the next move.
The outfield is a bit of a mess and the bullpen needed to be upgraded. To date, much of the savings hasn’t been reallocated into the roster, aside from the re-signing of Oliver Perez. That leads to questioning of the Dolan ownership’s spending habits, something that requires a deeper look to consider all of the needed context from the past few years.
The Indians have been on a steep incline in terms of spending since the 2016 trade deadline. But what was their starting point prior to that?
When evaluating a team in terms of financial commitments, a key measurement is the rate at which that club is converting revenue into player payroll. That’s taking into account how much money is coming in and how much money is being dedicated to the roster.
According to Forbes’ annual MLB organizational evaluations, one team had nearly the identical revenue-to-payroll rate as the Indians in the spring of 2015: the mighty New York Yankees. The Yankees, of course, were earning and spending at much higher figures, but the conversion rate made these two clubs their closest counterparts.
That was before the Indians began spending money at a higher rate than they ever had previously in their history. The Indians dealt for Andrew Miller, handed out the largest free-agent deal in club history to Encarnacion and signed others to smaller deals, including Boone Logan, Alonso and a few more. All of it, combined with the internal long-term deals to several key players, boosted the club’s payroll to new summits.
But eventually, flying at that financial altitude forces most teams to come back down for some oxygen. The Indians are experiencing that now, and it’s been one of the key driving forces this winter.
The Indians did save a little more than $30 million due to the free-agent departures of Miller, Michael Brantley and Cody Allen. That also doesn’t include Lonnie Chisenhall and a slew of others. But much of those savings were erased due to built-in salary increases to several players (including Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Jose Ramirez and Jason Kipnis) and expected arbitration increases, namely to Francisco Lindor and Bauer. The regained funds from Miller, Brantley and Allen can be looked at as revenue before expenses rather than sheer profits to be poured back into the company. It was needed and already accounted for collateral.
The profits arrived via the three major deals the Indians made this winter, which netted more than $20 million heading into the 2019 season. Antonetti said in December the Indians weren’t working with a particular number in terms of their payroll ceiling. So it didn’t necessarily mean the Indians would convert that extra financial flexibility into the free-agent market, nor did it mean that was their spending ceiling. But so far, Perez and his $2.5 million deal for 2019 is almost all they have to show for it.
Paul Dolan and the Indians front office likely haven’t received the deserved credit for the team’s spending habits since the summer of 2016, when it became clear they could have a winner. They — including Antonetti and Chernoff — made the aggressive trade to deal prospects in an effort to win now (Miller). They spent the big bucks on the “right-handed power bat” for which fans had been clamoring for years (Encarnacion). They locked up a young star to a long-term deal (Ramirez). They set franchise payroll records.
That financial well seems to have dried up this winter. And while those spending habits might have been unsustainable, it isn’t the right timing. It also doesn’t mean the needed move isn’t coming — it just might be have to wait.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.