It was a rough year by the lake, and as a result, the Indians have dropped from 13th in our rankings a year ago, to 26th this season, one of the largest drops in our rankings (Arizona also dropped 13 spots). Heck, they couldn’t even turn a profit during their ingenious Snow Days event.
Present Talent – 67.50 (27th)
Future Talent – 80.00 (19th)
Financial Resources – 71.15 (24th)
Baseball Operations – 80.00 (13th)
Overall Rating – 73.60 (26th)
The perceived financial strength of the Indians may be lower than its actual financial strength. There are a few legitimate reasons for that. Right off the bat, perception is always going to drop when you trade world-class pitchers two seasons in a row, and then they square off in the World Series shortly thereafter. Second, the team’s three highest paid players the past two seasons – Travis Hafner, Jake Westbrook and Grady Sizemore – combined to miss significant time. Westbrook and Sizemore missed whole seasons, and Hafner didn’t play in more than 118 in either season. And while their payroll did – according to BizofBaseball.com – rank 24th last season, their average Opening Day payroll the past four seasons ranks a bit higher, at 20th.
Looking a little deeper, we can see that the reason for the shrunken payroll in 2010 and 2011 likely has more to do with the makeup of the team than any shortage of cash. The Tribe is very clearly in rebuilding mode, and while, as Matt Klaasen noted yesterday, some of their decisions may look better on paper than in reality, they have necessarily stocked the roster with young players who need to permanently play their way on to or off of the roster. The payroll won’t approach Red Sox and Yankees levels, but the Indians have shown that it can be higher.
For Cleveland, the key will be determining who they should be going year-to-year with, and who should be getting the early win-win extensions that have become de rigueur for today’s promising young players. It’s here where general manager Chris Antonetti is going to earn his money. While the majority of the Indians past extensions for their own have panned out, they haven’t been infallible. Since signing his extension in July of 2007, Hafner has been worth only 3.2 WAR. With so many players on the roster in the zero-three years of eligibility range, the importance of identifying the right players is currently higher than normal.
It’s a challenge for which the Indians should be well equipped. Mark Shapiro, now serving as team president, has talked this spring about getting back to the business of winning, and if there’s a reason to distract the locals from their burning hatred for LeBron James, it’s the Indians front office. Moving Shapiro to president in order to accommodate Antonetti was a master stroke. In the months leading up to that shift, Antonetti’s name was linked to every team with a GM opening. In addition, VP of Scouting Operations John Mirabelli has been a trusted lieutenant for Shapiro since he hired him back in 1999, and in Jason Pare and Keith Woolner, the Indians have a pair from the sabremetric set on staff as well. It’s a strong group overall, and if you need a reminder of that prowess, you need only to recall the Carlos Santana highjacking. Finally, field manager Manny Acta carries with him an enlightened reputation, and he deserves credit for helping keep the Indians out of the cellar last season.
As mentioned, the present talent is still very green, and most not named Shin-Soo Choo underperformed last season. As a result, players like Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley are no longer looked upon as impact players. The hope now is that they can merely be solid contributors, and those lowered expectations are a big part of why they now rank 27th in present talent. Still, LaPorta, Brantley and Asdrubal Cabrera are all projected for rebounds this year, and by season’s end, Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis could join Cabrera, LaPorta and Santana to form an entire infield that costs less than $4 million (the rotation is similar, as only Fausto Carmona will make more than the minimum).
While this low-cost infield won’t necessarily signal a 2012 free agent splurge for the Tribe, it does mean that they will have the luxury of pumping more money into the draft and international market in an effort to create the kind of talent cycle that Tampa Bay has and Kansas City looks to have. The talent on hand still needs to make the jump from paper champions to producing on the field – something evidenced by the fact that they felt compelled to sign Orlando Cabrera to man second base this season – but you can see how the pieces of the puzzle should fit. The best way to compete long-term is to have a core group of players that mature at the same time, and this group of Indians fits that profile as well as you possibly can.
The Indians payroll has regressed to 2005 levels, and the ballpark might not be chock full of Tribe fanatics like it used to be, but there is promise there. The team on the field this year may not be good, but it is largely cost controlled, has more reinforcements that should arrive in the near-term, and the front office is smart enough to determine who among this group of players should be there long-term. In addition, they still have Choo, a manager well versed in managing young talent, and the dream that Sizemore can return to glory. They’re more 1990 Atlanta Braves than 1991 Atlanta Braves, but if the talent isn’t necessarily there, the plan is, and in a city where the football team goes through GM’s like Charlie Sheen runs through adult film stars and the basketball team’s strategy amounts to a roll of the dice, having a concrete plan counts as something to be proud of.