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The Indians are probably going to punt on free agents again

The Cleveland Indians employed a unique strategy last season, and while the execution and results were imperfect enough to quibble about, they had an idea and followed through. It looks like they’re going to do it again. That bold strategy is to not try in the offseason.

It’s not something every team can get away with, but the Indians looked long at hard at the other teams in the American League Central and, rightfully, determined that the opposition was absolute crap. The Tigers finished in third place with 98 losses. The only possible competition before the season was the Twins, but the Indians weren’t especially worried about them. Turns out that was extremely prescient.

Here’s a compendium of moves the Indians made last offseason, not including minor-league free agents:

  • Signed Yonder Alonso
  • Signed Rajai Davis

Alonso fell back to earth, with a 97 OPS+, and Davis had his worst season in the majors. The Indians could have won the AL Central without them and thrown an $18 million party with Nine Inch Nails and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and a swan ice sculpture that was three stories high instead. If anything, they didn’t stick to their strategy enough.

Then in July, when they realized exactly what their biggest needs were (bullpen, relievers, and pitchers who aren’t starters), they attacked. They pounced on Adam Cimber and Brad Hand, two young-ish relievers with years of team control, and they parted with one of the best prospects in baseball, Francisco Mejia, to secure them. Not trying in the offseason isn’t a strategy. Not trying and then barrelling into the trade deadline like you’re playing Guy’s Grocery Games is a necessary second part to the Indians’ offseason plan. United lost Cimber’s strikeouts on the way over to Cleveland, and Hand’s walks spiked, but the idea made a certain amount of sense.

Then they jumped at the chance to acquire a floor-model Josh Donaldson with minor nicks and dings, and they got him at a serious discount. It was like they had their perfect offseason, just in July and August.

None of it helped the Indians beat the Astros in the ALDS. Back to the drawing board.

The drawing board was never erased, apparently. And now there’s something new scribbled in the margins:

Now, I’m choosing to read this as “The Indians are looking to trade anyone who is underperforming and making too much,” which is a class that would include Alonso, Jason Kipnis, and Leonys Martin. This is the strategy of every team, give or take. Put these players in your driveway with a sticker on them and see if a neighbor fancies them more than you.

But I’m also choosing to read that bit about “market constraints” as a hint that unless the Indians ditch these players, they won’t be more active this offseason. There are a lot of assumptions baked into this, and it’s possible that we’ll come back in February to an Indians team with Bryce Harper and Patrick Corbin, at which point you should feel free to laugh extremely hard at the premise of this article.

Gonna guess that’s not actually going to happen, though. Nobody is going to want Kipnis’ 700 OPS at $17 million, just like nobody is going to want Alonso’s 738 OPS at $9 million, and that $26 million would be spent on free agents, but no one’s biting, sorry, so here’s, uh, Tyson Ross. And at the deadline, the Indians will be aggressive with their prospects, looking for low-cost, team-control players like Cimber and Hand who happen to fit their exact needs at the time, while not being shy about a high-cost player like Donaldson.

On the one hand, it makes a ton of sense for a team in a division filled with derelicts. The Indians think they need bullpen help and some additional position players right now, but in July they might have an enviable collection of young, dominant bullpen arms and a stacked lineup, but need starting pitchers. Don’t ask how. Just know that baseball has a way of acting like Michael Scott and ruining all of your meticulous plans to sell paper. If that happens, the Indians will be flexible, and it won’t cost them the division.

On the other hand, c’mon Indians, spend some damned money. You haven’t won a World Series since color television was invented. Live a little.

The Indians have about $97 million committed to next year’s payroll, but they also have players scheduled to clean up in arbitration, like Trevor Bauer and Francisco Lindor, so their payroll could be as high as $130 million without doing anything. That’s about where they were last year, when they were the 16th-highest payroll in baseball, just above the Twins, Tigers, and Royals. Unless they trade some veterans, they’ll repeat their strategy from last year.

Maybe it will work. But before giving them a pass, let’s remember everything the Indians have going for them right now:

Corey Kluber is on a very owner-friendly contract that pays him $13 million next year and guarantees him just $2 million after that in buyouts, or the Indians could opt into two more years at $13.5M and $14M, respectively. Francisco Lindor is arb-eligible now, so he’ll be making millions, but he’ll still be underpaid for the next three years. Jose Ramirez is on a super owner-friendly contract that pays him like a left-handed specialist for the next two years and keeps underpaying him until 2023. Trevor Bauer is also newly arb-eligible, but there’s no way that he’ll make what he would on the open market, either. Carlos Carrasco can be a free agent after the 2020 season, but he’s still underpaid for next year.

Those are all huge advantages for a team looking to build a 25-man roster. They have two MVP-caliber talents making less than Albert Pujols will in the first half, as well as three excellent starting pitchers. Oh, and that’s not even mentioning Mike Clevinger, who isn’t even arb-eligible yet. The Indians’ entire starting rotation will combine to make a fair bit more than Clayton Kershaw next year, but it’s closer than it should be.

After 2019, a lot of the bad contracts will come off the books, too. The Indians can decline options on Edwin Encarnacion, Kipnis, and Alonso, while the players in bold above will still be paid below their market value. I would like to think that this means that 2020 is when the Indians will really start to spend. I get that they aren’t the Red Sox or Yankees, but there is still an open window to consider.

(They probably won’t spend in 2020, either.)

This leaves the Indians with the same strategy as before. Keep their best players. Don’t sweat the Central. Attack their specific needs in July and August. It makes a lot of sense.

There’s something to be said about selecting from a wide swath of potential contributors who are asking for only money, though. Free agents are imperfect, and most of the players who sign deals longer than three years will be iffy, at best, by the end of them. But, goodness, can they help teams that are already good. The Red Sox wouldn’t have won the World Series without big free agents from previous offseasons, but even if the Indians can’t compete with that, they could certainly afford one big piece to slap onto a roster that’s almost certain to win the division.

The Astros in 2016 didn’t need to do that, though. They won with a modest payroll and a crucial midseason acquisition, and that’s the blueprint the Indians will follow. It’s worked before, and it can work again.

The Indians just have to hope that there are more Justins Verlander in the deadline sea than Brads Hand. Because they can have almost anyone on the free-agent market, and all they have to give them is money, but they’re probably going to wait for what’s inside the mystery box at the deadline. Just giving mercenaries money seems a lot less complicated and safer, right?

We’ll see. But it looks like the same old song that worked for exactly 162 games last year. As a tithing member of the Church of Jeff Weaver, we know that what happens after that is incredibly hard to predict. That doesn’t mean that another offseason of austerity for the Indians isn’t thoroughly uninspiring, They’re a team with a wide-open window, underpaid superstars, and the longest championship drought in baseball. Feels like there should be a way to work some offseason reinforcements in there.

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