Back to the Present

Just a little break from the countdown.

I’m going to expound a little more on why the Indians are doing what they’re doing this year.

In a past post, I criticized the Tigers for giving Fernando Vina a two year contract, because:

a) He’s not worth $3M/year

b) He’s not going to be around on the next good Tiger team

c) He costs the Tigers financial flexibility

I’m going to concentrate on (c), because that is the main reason why the Indians signed who they signed this off-season. If you will assume the Indians’ projected year for competing for a championship (not the division) is 2005, then why should they sign players to multi-year deals this year? All that would do is to hamstring the Indians when they actually have a chance of winning. So they went out and signed “stopgaps”, or players who will be adequate players for a year and then disposed of. Ron Belliard, Jose Jiminez, Jeff D’Amico, and Jason Bere are all examples of this. These players were signed mainly because they needed certainty at their position. Belliard was signed because Brandon Phillips needs more seasoning, the starters were signed because of the inexperience of the young starters, and Jiminez was signed to provide depth to the bullpen.

Now why the one-year deals? This is where financial flexibility comes in. Let’s crunch some numbers.

Here’s who has guaranteed money coming in 2005:

$4.5M CC Sabathia

$6M Matt Lawton

That’s only $10.5M, which is amazing if you assume the Indians will have a payroll anywhere between $50-60M in 2005. They’ll use some of the money for increases in salary for arbitration-eligible players, but that shouldn’t be that big of an issue yet . We’ll assume $20M will be spent on re-signing the Indians’ arbitration-eligible players, as well as the players with 0-2 years of experience.

This leaves approximately $20M-$30M for the Indians to play with. This gives them tremendous flexibility to make any move they see fit to improve the team. After 2004, the Indians will have a much better idea as to where they’ll need help. If Brandon Phillips rebounds and has a good year, there’s no need to sign a second baseman (or shortstop). If Jhonny Peralta really takes off at short or third, that removes a need. If Jeremy Guthrie comes to Cleveland and pitches well, there’s another need removed.

The more needs are satisfied by your minor-leaguers (who are inherently cheaper than the equivalent free agent) the more money you’ll be able to spend on the needs that are left. This is why having a pipeline of young talent is so crucial, and the main reason why the Indians had to rebuild in the first place. If you have to spend money to fill holes via free agency, you really take up a lot of money. Now, if your team resides in New York or Boston, this isn’t really a big issue. But the Indians reside in a middling market, so they have to choose wisely who to spend on.

Now why spend in 2005 rather than 2004? Because the core really hasn’t shown it’s ready to win yet. There’s a lot of promise, but no objective observer is going to pencil in the Indians for 90 wins. But most agree that the talent is there; all that remains is for that talent to translate to wins. By next year, a lot of bad contracts are going to go away, which, coinciding with the maturation of the players who got their first taste of the majors last year, should make for the perfect opportunity to quickly become a contender.

Another reason why you don’t spend is that you don’t have that good an idea of whom to spend it on. Like I said previously, if Brandon Phillips rebounds, there’s no reason to sign a Luis Castillo. But if you signed him to a four-year deal, you have to pay him regardless. If the Indians signed a third baseman this offseason to a long-term contract and Corey Smith turns into Mike Schmidt next year, what do you do then? You’re stuck with a bunch of guaranteed contracts that really aren’t that useful to you, and in this day and age, you aren’t going to get rid of them very easily.

Now is this plan foolproof? No; projecting minor-league talent to major-league results is not exact, to say the least. But the Indians have stockpiled enough young talent to allow for some attrition. If more prospects go bust, then they’ll have that many more players to go get next off-season.

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