Small Market Limitations Create Difficult Situation


Sep 25, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians manager

Terry Francona

(left) and relief pitcher Justin Masterson celebrate a 7-2 win over the Chicago White Sox at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Current Contract Situations Have Indians in Difficult Position

I have a quick question for you. Are the Indians a contender, or are they preparing for another tear down and rebuild? Take a minute to think about that one. And I mean, really think about that.

Ok, now that you’ve had a second to ponder that question, you probably had one of two reactions. Either you laughed off the idea of a rebuild as crazy talk, or it made you second guess where the Indians are and what they are doing.

In all honesty, there is no real right or wrong answer to that question and only the Indians could tell us for sure what their long-term plans are. However, from the outside looking in their current situation can bring into question what path they are really on. As always, the main culprit in why I pose this question comes down to money and the fact that the Indians don’t have nearly as much of it as we would like.

For all intents and purposes, 2013 was a fun season all around. The Indians competed for the first time since 2007 and made the playoffs thanks to a handful of key offseason expenditures and surprise performances that helped improve the roster. Those improvements resulted in a playoff appearance and rekindled the love affair between the team and the fan base.

Here’s the thing, though. Because of the current way the team is structured and the bills that are about to come due, can the Indians continue on this contending path and if so, for how long? Just look at the difficult decisions that have already been presented and the Indians window of contention hasn’t even fully opened yet.

After spending big bucks heading into 2013 on Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, there is significantly less money to go around. Scott Kazmir and Joe Smith are already gone and Ubaldo Jimenez is likely to follow. Justin Masterson may be headed for arbitration with a long-term extension highly unlikely at this point. Michael Brantley is a valuable piece that may soon be priced out of the Indians comfort zone financially in relation to his skill set. Jason Kipnis is another year closer to a hefty raise thanks to arbitration with the price tag to keep him on the Indians growing exponentially by the day.

Aug 21, 2013; Anaheim, CA, USA; Cleveland Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis (22) against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium. The Indians defeated the Angels 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

And that’s just the notable players. What about all of the other pieces that will be reaching that critical point when decisions need to be made. We may hate the term “small market,” but it is hard to escape the fact that the Indians only have so much money and will have to make difficult decisions in regards to who should stay and who should go.

We’ve seen them run into this situation in recent memory as well. During their previous window of contention, the Indians decided to extend Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, and Jake Westbrook. In the end, this proved to be disastrous as Sizemore and Hafner eventually succumbed to injuries and Westbrook failed to live up to the financial commitment made to him. Meanwhile, C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Victor Martinez were pushed out of town due to the realities of simple economics. The Indians simply couldn’t afford to keep them around. The end result was a five-year rebuild that has place them at another cross roads.

The fact of the matter is that if the Indians want to prolong their current window of contention, they need to copy the model established by the Rays. Go all in on one guy and continue to shape and mold the roster on a yearly basis around the skills of that one key guy. In the Rays case it was Evan Longoria and a series of exceptionally smart free agent signings and draft selections. For the Indians, perhaps that means going all in on Jason Kipnis and shaping the roster around him long-term. It also means making difficult decisions on other players, i.e. David Price.

Under no circumstances should the answer be to tear it all completely down to build it back up from scratch. This is not the NBA where a single #1 draft pick can change the course of a franchise. Baseball is a much different animal. Bottoming out should never be an option.

Steve Kinsella, Wahoo’s on First’s resident expert on all things Rays, has preached non-stop in our staff email chains about how to build a stable winning environment and has gone so far as to brand the term “rebuilding” as blasphemy. To paraphrase, it should never be about rebuilding, but rather continuing to acquire talent whenever the opportunity presents itself. As long as you continue to acquire capable players that can make solid contributions, contending on a yearly basis is possible on a budget. That means having a solid major league roster and vertical depth throughout the minor league system than can contribute when called upon.

It is that last part that has been the biggest issue for the Indians. Poor drafting and poor player evaluations led to a weakened minor league system that is just now starting to rebound. The Indians have gone from the bottom of the barrel to the middle of the pack in terms of the talent in their minor league system. With better drafts and better trades, they can continue to build up that minor league system. In the end, a better minor league system keeps windows of contention open longer because the holes can be filled from within more easily and much more cost effectively. It’s almost a revolving door effect.

But again, no one can know for sure what the Indians are thinking right now. Perhaps they have the money held back in reserve to make the necessary financial offers to keep their key pieces in place for 2014 and beyond. Maybe they have a strategy for flipping some of their current assets into future assets. Whatever the decision may be, how the choose to handle their current financial decision in regards to several of their key pieces may go a long way in telling us what they have in mind.