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I am ready to enjoy baseball without tiresome conversations– about ownership or payroll or attendance or market-size– despite an understanding that there is some merit to such on-going debates. The 2020 Cleveland Indians have rostered a collection of good character individuals who excel at the sport. The ballclub is among a small subset of organizations who can legitimately dream of holding the World Series trophy this November; should fortune fall in their favor. However, LEGOs remain scattered across the carpet of baseball discussions, so before I can set about barefoot and carefree to enjoy the prospects of the Tribe, those tiresome conversations must be acknowledged and contextualized.
The Dolan ownership era of the Indians has been a complex arrangement between the fans and franchise since the purchase was finalized before the 2000 season.1 The MLB standard of revenues being dominated by ticket sales was coming to an end as local cable deals began to become much more lucrative for teams; giving even greater advantages to those teams with larger media markets.2 The remnants of those 90s powerhouse teams were still in the lineup, but the development well had dried forcing short-term patches such as Juan Gonzalez and Ellis Burks to attempt to squeeze more life out of the bygone era.
The sellout streak ended in 2001. Jim Thome tore the jersey off his back on the way to Philadelphia for the 2002 season. Bartolo Colon was traded. The Indians entered their first rebuild since the thirst from a 41-year postseason drought had been quenched with two World Series appearances included among six postseason berths over seven years. Thus, ‘contention window’ entered the lexicon of Tribe followers.
A stable front office with roots as deep as the earliest portions of Dick Jacob’s ownership had remained and been bolstered by a group of analytical minds years before the Oakland Athletics would even consider Moneyball. This group of executives and quantitative analysts was tasked with ensuring the Tribe’s postseason drought would be short. Within their arsenal was DiamondView; the most advanced database in MLB to help collect, organize, and analyze data to help in everything from scouting to arbitration to free agency.
A three-year rebuild was to setup a four-year contention window. Instead, injuries, a lack of internally developed players, and some poor fortune resulted in the Indians only reaching October baseball in 2007 where the Boston Red Sox ended their championship bid a game short of the World Series. C.C. Sabathia and Casey Blake were traded in 2008. Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez were traded in 2009. The second rebuild of the Dolan era had arrived.
This rebuild went much deeper than the surface level of the MLB team’s win-loss record. A full organizational restructuring was undertaken in an attempt to repair the broken draft-and-develop minor league system that had consistently failed to produce results. The ballclub did not stay static with updates implemented in 2008 either as a methodology of continual improvement allowed the team to be at the forefront of advanced pitching development techniques.
The changes bore fruit. The tanking provided high first-round picks Drew Pomeranz, Alex White– both traded for Ubaldo Jimenez who helped a later postseason push– and, of course, Francisco Lindor. But, the organization was also developing draft picks throughout this rebuild period such as Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis, Roberto Perez, Tyler Naquin, and Cody Allen. Others such as T.J. House, Ryan Merritt, Cody Anderson, and Shawn Armstrong were able to reach The Show and fill gaps for short stints. More draft picks like Vidal Nuno, Joey Wendle, and Zach Putnam would find MLB success elsewhere.3
By 2013, the Indians were prepared to open their next window of contention despite the defending AL-champion Detroit Tigers residing in their division. The drafted talent was complemented by many players– Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco, Carlos Santana, and Justin Masterson– obtained from the previously mentioned trades, and then supplemented by a dip into free agency to acquire Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn alongside hiring well-respected Terry Francona to manage.
Over the next seven years, the Tribe would finish with more wins than losses each season and with more than 90 wins five times among the four trips to the postseason and three AL Central division titles. Lindor and Jose Ramirez added star power to the lineup, while Corey Kluber, Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, Shane Bieber, and others created MLB’s best rotation.4 Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Brad Hand, and a multitude of relievers for specific tasks ensured leads were kept safe. Thus far, Francona’s tenure has fallen short only of the 1948-1954 and 1995-2001 stretches in franchise history.
Of course, the backdrop of current consternation amongst the fanbase is not the success that has been born but the limitations placed upon the front office that have held back the roster from being as capable of contending for a championship; especially amidst the improvements in competitiveness of the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox within the AL Central division. There is an argument the restructuring from 2018 to 2019 was both needed for on-field reasons5 and financial considerations.6 Those reasons– or excuses depending upon your perspective– do not hold up when juxtaposed to the current 2020 roster construction as the payroll level continues to dwindle, while obvious areas for improvement in the outfield and at designated hitter are ignored. The continued drop in payroll conflicts with the statement ownership made upon the announcement of Sherman’s departure.
“John has been a great partner of ours since 2016 and we are grateful for his contributions to our organization in his time with us. Moving forward, this transition will not alter our organization’s operational approach. We remain committed to our pursuit of winning the World Series while creating a compelling fan experience.”
The optics for the franchise became worse as three beloved star players found their names constantly in the MLB Hot Stove rumor mill despite at least two years each remaining on their contracts. Soft rebukes from the front office stating they ‘expect’ Mike Clevinger and Francisco Lindor to be on the Opening Day roster are of little comfort to a fanbase that is mourning the trade of the only two-time AL Cy Young Award winning pitcher in franchise history.
Flipping Corey Kluber for Emmanuel Clase and Delino Deshields Jr. might prove as effective as those made in 2008 and 2009 for the future, but the pain felt in the present is still quite real. The messaging upon the completion of the Kluber trade was the team received an exciting bullpen piece (Clase), a useful MLB player (Deshields Jr.), and money in the budget to spend on patching holes in the roster.
“With the way the finances in this deal work,” Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said, “we will have more resources available to re-invest in our team and that’s our expectation here as we head on into the rest of the winter is that we will continue to look for avenues to improve our Major League team, both in trades and in free agency.”
Given the depth of starting pitchers in the system demonstrated last season and the successful pitching development, there was merit to this philosophy. That is, if the organization would have done more than spend a mere fraction of those payroll savings on Cesar Hernandez. Hernandez is a useful second baseman and a fine addition to the lineup. But, Major League rules prevent him from taking three spots in the lineup, and physical laws prevent him from taking three spots in the field. The signing also gave insight to the front office having enough financial flexibility to sign Hernandez only AFTER the Kluber trade, which is problematic when considering where payroll might remain.
“We were prepared at that point, having made the Corey Kluber trade, and had some financial flexibility to go out and improve second base,” Antonetti said.
Meanwhile, the franchise icon and the most marketable player in all of baseball is left to carry the team as Frederick Douglass might have difficulty winning a debate on the side of stating the Tribe is maximizing the Lindor window. The quietness of the Indians and the depletion of available players both in free agency and available on the trade market seem to indicate the team will not make any big additional moves.
Antonetti said. “A couple of those additions with the guys that we have returning, both our veteran, established players, as well as some young players, and we feel good about the spot we’re in heading into Spring Training.”
“We did win 93 games last year and a lot of that was with young players and young players that transitioned effectively to the Major League level,” Antonetti said. “We played better as we got younger.”
There are reasons for optimism. The bullpen has the potential to be among the best in MLB. The rotation still boasts Bieber and Clevinger; legitimate aces. The lineup still has Lindor, Ramirez, Santana, and Reyes. Carrasco is set to return after his cancer scare. Civale shined in his rookie season with many other starting pitchers ready to contribute. Perez, Luplow, and Mercado are useful players who could continue to progress. Hernandez was a solid addition. Daniel Johnson, Bobby Bradley, and others could burst onto the ballclub and provide needed value. Each player has also thus far proven players easy to cheer on success.
However, the financial restrictions have introduced unnecessary risk as the chart shows above. Rather than bolstering the lineup in obvious ways with even marginal investments to boost the fWAR projections– perhaps just a level upwards into the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees level– the tightrope the team fell off in 2019 has made a return appearance.
Instead of having dependable veterans line the bench, the team will once again dip into youth and possible mid-spring signees. Such is how Max Moroff, Eric Stamets, Brad Miller, and Mike Freeman became recognizable names in Northeast Ohio last season, while Tribe fans were left with a sour taste from the last known remnants of the careers for Hanley Ramirez and Carlos Gonzalez.
Thus, the season’s success depends on a multitude of young players either making positive progression on their development path or maintaining previous successes, while also relying heavily on none of the most valuable members of the franchise being injured or showing signs of a depreciated skill set.
The Tribe could end the 72-year franchise championship drought in 2020; the 100-year anniversary of the franchise’s first World Series win. It is just the margin for error is as thin as the garlic slice in Goodfellas.
The Indians are not obligated to disclose if the Dolans are going to sell the team or if there are ongoing negotiations about such a sale affecting the current state of the franchise.7 The team does, however, owe the fanbase honesty about the intentions of the upcoming season and how they are going to proceed. The Dolans might be surprised how much proper messaging can affect the optics and fan temperament if done properly. But, then again, despite being a stable steward who has overseen one of the best front offices in all of sports, perhaps such nuance shouldn’t be expected from an owner who is constantly in need of removing his loafers from his mouth.
Here's how Paul Dolan capped his acceptance speech tonight: pic.twitter.com/eZiaY0VpJb
— Zack Meisel (@ZackMeisel) January 23, 2020