The lopsided results of a Twitter poll indicate that Cleveland Indians fans wouldn’t be upset if the team committed to spending some money to win.
We recently shared a Twitter poll asking fans their thoughts on the best way for the Cleveland Indians to approach roster construction. The question was framed around the way the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox have operated recently compared to the way the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s have historically gone about their business.
The consensus seems to lean heavily in favor of taking on some financial risk. Most of the voters preferred the first method, which actually requires a franchise to spend money at opportune times.
Poll time. Which team building approach would you rather see the Indians commit to long-term?
1. Spending mid-tier money like Twins, White Sox
2. Being better at Rays/A’s style of Moneyball
— Away Back Gone (@AwayBackGoneFS) February 6, 2020
With only 65 total votes, I’m not going to argue that this poll reflects the pulse of Tribe Town across the board. But there is a community-wide animosity being directed at Indians ownership of late in response to what can be fairly categorized as an outright refusal to strengthen the roster if the monetary cost is anything higher than absolutely minimal. Even with a much larger sample size of voters, I’m willing to bet this sentiment would remain.
The reasoning behind this poll is that I don’t believe the Indians are definitively employing either philosophy to any measurable extent, and I wanted to see which path the fan base would prefer if the team were to pick one and commit to it. With that, let’s talk about where the Indians actually stand.
For starters, if the Indians were inclined to at least be active participants in the mid-tier free agent market, they could have someone like Nicholas Castellanos or Mike Moustakas anchoring the middle of their lineup in 2020 and beyond. The Cincinnati Reds made relatively lofty commitments to both players, but that’s what a team with an interest in winning does every now and again.
On the contrary, the last time the Indians played at that poker table, it resulted in the forgettable and short-lived tenures of Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher. The Indians locked up Bourn and Swisher prior to the 2013 season for a combined total of eight years and $104 million. Neither panned out, and both were traded to the Atlanta Braves in the summer of 2015.
With the smoke from that backfire still rising in the rear view, Cleveland’s hesitance to commit to mid-range free agents isn’t without merit. The issue is that mid-range free agents are the best ones the Indians can commit to. Cleveland isn’t getting the Anthony Rendons or Gerrit Coles of the world. At some point, you have to be willing to take some chances on players in the next tier down if you want to supplement a roster that already includes stars like Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor.
As far as Moneyball is concerned, the Indians have least one advantage at their disposal the A’s and Rays do not. The Indians play in a beautiful, conveniently located stadium that they don’t have to share with another team in the city of Cleveland. Neither Oakland nor Tampa Bay can say the same.
Tropicana Field looks like the dimly lit basement of a fraternity house (in sunny Florida of all places), and fans aren’t exactly eager to spend an afternoon or evening there regardless of the team’s level of competitiveness.
This doesn’t exonerate the fan base for failing to show up, but it is an affront to the sport that a quality baseball team in one of the country’s most pleasant geographical locations has to play its home games in that trash compactor of a building, which is evidently a nightmare just to drive to.
The A’s are engaged in a seemingly endless war of attrition with their own city as they attempt to relocate away from Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, an arena that has doubled as the home of the Oakland Raiders for decades, until now (with the Raiders leaving the state of California altogether).
With such issues in mind, it’s easy to understand why Oakland and Tampa Bay would be at the forefront of the Moneyball movement. Not only are they ill-equipped from a market-size standpoint to compete at the same financial levels as the Bostons, New Yorks, and L.A.s in their own divisions; they’re also trapped in stadiums long overdue for upgrades with no escape in sight.
Cleveland has its organizational disadvantages, sure, but these are not apples-to-apples comparisons.
What’s important to note about Moneyball’s two most successful pioneers is that neither Oakland nor Tampa Bay deviate from the process very often, if at all. The A’s traded Josh Donaldson several years before he was set to reach free agency because he was about to get expensive in arbitration. The move backfired on Oakland and then some; an inherent risk to avoiding high price tags at any cost (no pun intended).
Tampa Bay has executed some puzzling moves as recently as this offseason: trading away outfielder Tommy Pham and then later in the winter, closer Emilio Pagan, both to the San Diego Padres. Pham and Pagan were integral in the Rays’ 96-win 2019 campaign, and neither would have absorbed a large portion of the team’s 2020 payroll (especially Pagan, who isn’t even eligible for arbitration until after this upcoming season).
It’s worth wondering exactly why the Rays would voluntarily part with these players. It’s also worth giving their front office the benefit of the doubt. This is the same team that managed to swindle the Pittsburgh Pirates into trading Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows for Chris Archer not very long ago. In other words, Tampa Bay appears to know what it is doing, and the Pham or Pagan deals may not be so puzzling in hindsight.
Because Tampa Bay and Oakland have long demonstrated to the league, to their players, and to their respective fan bases that this is how they have to operate, there is a level of transparency that allows those affected to buy in. It’s not ideal to have to conduct business the way they do, but they’re honest about it and they’ve established that they can have success with it.
If the Indians are trying to transition toward a Moneyball mindset, it has not been accompanied by any level of transparency or honesty. While the A’s and Rays are in a perpetual state of wheeling and dealing in a constant effort to unearth hidden value and improve their teams in the most cost-effective ways possible, the Indians’ brand of the same strategy appears to be built around simply not doing anything.
And that is what is so dangerous about how Cleveland has operated over the last two offseasons: the Indians are not committing to one direction or another. Ownership has prioritized shedding payroll wherever possible instead of building around a championship-caliber core with a fleeting window, and that’s about the extent to which their intentions are clear.
If, say, the Corey Kluber trade had been coupled with a handful of low-cost acquisitions to address, say, the Tribe’s glaring outfield void(s), then at least we could connect the dots. But we haven’t even been afforded that luxury. The team appears to be trying to save money just for the sake of saving money, which is decidedly not the motivation behind what the A’s and Rays do.
The Indians aren’t spending, and they’re not committing fully to a course that allows them to win without spending. They’re just floating somewhere in between, which is really the worst place to be.