Winning and Payroll Really Don’t Go Hand in Hand in for the Indians


Spending Money and Winning a World Series are Not Exclusive to Each Other

A consistent narrative that Cleveland fans have when talking about the Indians typically remains that the Dolans, owners of the team since 2000, are cheap. With each passing year, the Indians have allowed some players to walk, others were traded, and most weren’t necessarily replaced with names the casual fan would recognize right away.

The most recent valuation of the team, done by Forbes, lists the Indians as the 24th (of 30) most valuable franchise in professional baseball. The team is worth $570 million, makes money, sure, but also operates at a loss. Attendance has been down for almost three years, and while fans argue attendance will go up to match the product on the field, that argument holds very little water. The team has won 92 and 85 games the past two years and no one comes to see them play. We have last year’s Manager of the Year (Terry Francona), a Cy Young Award-winning pitcher (Corey Kluber), and a guy who finished third in the most recent MVP discussion (Michael Brantley). Average attendance: a little under 19,000 a game.

In 2012, the Dolans sold Sports Time Ohio (a network they created in 2006) to Fox Sports for reportedly close to $250 million, with an additional $40 million a year to broadcast Indians games. With an influx of new money, the front office was given permission to try and bring in some free agents that might not normally fit the Indians perceived tight wallets. Now, almost three years later, the Tribe has spent almost $300 million on various contracts and have those two winning seasons. But fans want more.

With, presumably, all that initial television money spent and attendance down each year, expecting the Dolans to blindly invest money shows, for lack of a better word, ignorance from fans of the team. Every year, there’s a big fish that every fanbase wants their team to take a swing at, and invariably, one of the “premiere” franchises will be the ones to land such a player. Fans tired of a perceived lack of competitive balance get sick of hearing about the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, and Dodgers of the baseball world. But, if you really break it down, how much of those teams success is tied to the ultimate goal of winning a World Series, or for that matter, multiple World Series titles?

Nov 25, 2014; Boston, Ma, USA; Boston Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington (left) and third baseman Pablo Sandoval hold a jersey during the introductory press conference at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

With this offseason looking to belong to a Boston team, at least in terms of early signings, the rest of the league now plays catch-up. This is a Red Sox team that just won a World Series in 2013, but seemed content on building through youth (until a last place follow up changed their minds). With nearly $200 million committed to big name additions Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, the Sox probably aren’t done as a top-flight starter seems on their radar as well. So, where does that leave a team like the Indians?

The Cleveland Indians Will Not Spend Unnecessarily

No matter how attractive the name value, the Indians would have never been in on Sandoval or Ramirez. With a projected $12 million to spend (after arbitration and filling in some gaps), the Tribe won’t be pursuing a big name, either to hit or pitch. Best-case scenario? Find a couple of reclamation projects for pitching coach Mickey Callaway to work with (much like with Scott Kazmir a couple of years ago) and a bat that could fill multiple positions on the diamond. Does this make Indians fans overly giddy? No, probably not, but it should.

Signing a big name free agent has not, since 2009, paid off in terms of securing a World Series ring. The last six World Series champions? The Giants, Red Sox, Giants, Cardinals, Giants, and Yankees. The last six runners up? The Royals, Cardinals, Tigers, Rangers (twice), and Phillies. The Giants did not sign a single top-tier free agent before the 2014 season, nor did they before the 2010 or 2012 season. The Red Sox? Well, sure, they signed guys like Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli, but both those guys were far from the big names Indians fans want. The 2011 Cardinals had signed Lance Berkman and Jake Westbrook, and while both played a pivotal role in securing a World Series championship for St. Louis, they both came on the cheap.

The runners up? The Royals were ranked 18th in team payroll last season, while the 2013 Cardinals didn’t make any additions to a team two years removed from a title. The Phillies, coming off a world championship of its own did very little outside of signing Raul Ibanez. The Tigers were a big spender, signing Prince Fielder to a huge contract that lead to an American League Championship in 2012, only to see Fielder traded to Texas two years later. And about those Rangers? In 2010, the team was lead by the rebuilt roster that started with the trade of Marx Teixeira three years earlier. In 2011, the team added Adrian Beltre, making them the second team to have a big signing and make it to the biggest stage in baseball.

The 2009 Yankees stand as the only team in recent memory to sign big names, then win it all. The prize acquisitions? Pitchers C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, along with Teixeira. Since then, the team has made the playoffs all but once, losing the American League Championship twice, though none of those additions are still going strong for the Bronx Bombers.

The Cleveland Indians are never going to spend big, and for that matter, shouldn’t. Teams that sign big free agents don’t necessarily find sustained success, let alone actual championships to put in the team trophy case. Though some bemoan the lack of a salary cap and competitive balance, fans should rest assured that they have a competent front office with an ownership that does the best it can within the parameters set by MLB and the financial responsibilities a lack of fans in the seats produces. General manager Chris Antonetti has hit far more than he has missed, in the trade market especially, while free agent signings, when they have occurred, have for the most part fizzled.

We live in an era where satisfaction in sports is tied to immediacy; if you don’t win now, then you never will. The facts remain that in baseball, parity does exist. Since 2009, 21 different teams have made the playoffs at least once. While fans clamor for their team to do something when the Hot Stove season heats up, it still falls to those same fans to give ownership a reason to want to spend money. The Tribe, barring some unforseen circumstance, could be a playoff team next year; no big name free agent addition will, well, guarantee that any more than letting the front office do what it’s been doing.

It’s come time for the narrative of cheap ownership to come to an end and take a long, hard look in the mirror and question our own expectations as fans and just where you think that big money could actually help this team win what we’ve all been dying to win: a championship.