Cleveland Indians: Projecting the 2020 payroll

The Cleveland Indians are looking to cut payroll more in 2020, but they should be spenders this offseason after cutting costs in 2019.

To prepare for the MLB offseason the Cleveland Indians will be targeting a number from ownership that they will permit for player spending in 2020. Projecting the payroll can be a sign of ownership’s true investment in the 2020 Indians, but not representative of projected wins.

Like all team fanbases, seeing the offseason spending by your favorite team will directly increase or decrease excitement for the Indians 2020 season. Indians fans are accustomed to passing on the biggest of free agents like Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg, and Gerrit Cole. However, they still follow secondary level players who carry big names and ‘win now’ messages from ownership.

Last offseason was a bit frustrating for fans looking to get over the hump. The Indians slashed payroll, and remade the roster with trades that added youth to the roster. This was the approach in contrast of taking a free agent approach to re-sign Michael Brantley, Andrew Miller, or add new veterans through free agency. The results were surprising, and actually included an increase in wins.

Here are the last several years of Indians payroll, and their final results, according to Spotrac:

2016: $105 million – 94-67 – World Series Runner-Up

2017: $131 million – 102-60 – AL Division Series

2018: $142 million – 91-71 – AL Division Series

2019: $121 million – 93-69 – 2nd place AL Central

2020: $65 million* – based on current contracts

For ownership, their best results came with the least amount of investment. The Indians shocked the baseball world in 2016, and were one run away from the ring. The natural response was increased spending to find that one run, but they couldn’t get out of the Division Series in the next two seasons.

Operating at the top end of ownership’s payroll, the decision was made to slash money. The reduction of money in 2019 actually increased the regular season win total, but didn’t include the playoffs.

Without a significant drop-off in performance, management will not be inclined to raise payroll. Rather, I’d project the Indians will enter the 2020 season with around $110 million in payroll. While $110 million would be a decline from 2019, the Indians are in a very different position entering this season.

Last year the Indians were ‘over’ their ideal payroll. Moves revolved around slashing big money contracts and removing established contributors. It was frustrating to see the Indians not sign players who could help, instead creative trading was how the Indians revamped the roster.

This season they’re going to enter free agency around $85-90 million in payroll, after expected arbitration and tenders given to players like Francisco Lindor and Mike Clevinger.

That would leave the Indians if they wanted to start the season at $110 million, about $20 million in current year salaries to dish out. This would effectively remove them from the running of re-signing Yasiel Puig, but he was a long shot anyway.

$20 million will be plenty to sign a mix of bullpen arms and a few veterans at key positions to ease pressure on the current youth movement. The Indians don’t spend big money on the bullpen, so another offseason of random player signings would be fitting. This leaves options to sign positional veterans with playoff experience like Mike Moustakas, Didi Gregorius, Adam Jones, Adam Eaton, or Brian Dozier.

Next: Final player grades for the 2019 season

The other advantage for the payroll to enter the season around $110 million is that there will be flexibility to add during the season. Entering the final years of the Lindor and Brad Hand contracts, it wouldn’t be shocking to see a big move for one more deep playoff run with Lindor as the central roster piece.

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