We’ve now reached the point where the Indians are too good for their own good.
For that, they’ve got only themselves to blame. If they were awful, like they were virtually every year between 1960 and 1993, when they had a losing record in 28 of the 33 years, with zero trips to the postseason, we wouldn’t be talking about what we’re about to talk about.
Which is this: the Indians are too good because they have too many good players, which means too many high-priced players, which means too bad for the too-good Indians.
The tax bill is coming due for making the playoffs in four of the last six years, the last three in a row, and it is not a pretty sight — unless you consider the news that the Indians are reportedly listening to offers for Corey Kluber to be a pretty sight.
Which, if you do, you need to immediately make an appointment with the Corey Kluber of optometrists.
Welcome to the Indians’ nuclear winter. Put on your parka and button up, the hardball wind chill could get brutal. Given their mouth-watering roster, their buttons-bursting payroll and the economic limitations within their modest-to-meek market, Indians officials are facing some hard decisions in the coming weeks, decisions that could leave many of their customers — how shall we say it? — “testy”?
Simply put, the Indians can no longer afford the gold-plated roster they so artfully constructed over the last several years.
The hired help is getting too pricey, which for ownership is making it dicey. The team’s independent contractors have reached the stage in their careers in which there are too many commas in the “amount” box on their paychecks.
For example, when Kluber won his first Cy Young Award in 2014, his salary was $514,000. Five years, three All-Star selections, two
Cy Young Awards and four top-three finishes in the Cy Young voting later, Kluber in 2019 will be paid $17 million.
Francisco Lindor, who this year will likely finish in the top five in the MVP voting for the second consecutive year, will see his salary jump from $623,000 in 2018 to around $10 million (through arbitration) next year.
Trevor Bauer, who might have won the Cy Young Award this year had he not gotten hurt late in the season, will likely see his 2019 salary (through arbitration) pushing $12 million, after making $6.5 million last year.
Those are just three examples, but you get the point. In 2018, the Indians’ payroll was $134 million, the highest in franchise history. The Indians aren’t expected to re-sign any of their significant free agents, a list that includes Michael Brantley, Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Josh Donaldson and Lonnie Chisenhall, among others, but the savings there will merely help cover the raises due the players still on the roster.
In other words, they could downsize their roster, from a talent standpoint, and still see their payroll go up. Next year they’ll dance that dance again.
This is the most talented, high-priced roster the Indians have had since their last golden era, from 1995-2000. The difference is this: from 1995 through 2000 the Indians finished first or second in the American League in attendance every year.
In the Terry Francona Era, which started in 2013 and includes four trips to the postseason and one World Series appearance, the Indians have finished 14th, 15th, 14th, 13th, 11th and ninth in the league in attendance.
That’s not to blame the fans. They are doing the best they can. These are different economic times in northeast Ohio compared to the late 1990s. Interest in the Indians now is just as great as it was 20 years ago, it just isn’t reflected in the attendance numbers.
It would also be unfair to blame Indians ownership, which bankrolled the highest payroll in franchise history in 2018.
The “problem,” if you want to call it that, is the core players on the roster, the ones who have anchored this run of three consecutive division titles, are moving into their prime earning years.
This is nobody’s fault. But it’s reality.
The tricky part for teams trying to win championships in non-major markets, is that you’ve got to try to win it all before reaching the point at which you can no longer afford the salaries of all the players you need to win that championship. That’s where the Indians are now.
Trade Kluber? It sounds insane. It wouldn’t look pretty. But for the right return — starting with a young, dynamic outfield bat — you’d have to at least consider it. The rotation would still be a strength, and top prospect Triston McKenzie could make his major league debut sometime in 2019.
Everything could and should be on the table as the Indians, unlike the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers, try to get a little bit better — on a budget.
Contact Jim Ingraham at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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