Offseason Journal: Prelude to the Winter Meetings

Teams have already made some major moves, but as yet the Indians haven’t been one of them. The only move made in the run-up to the Winter Meetings that will affect the Opening Day roster was the Non-Tender Day swap of backup catchers.

Link to live file (OneDrive)

Let’s back up a bit and take the various sets of roster moves one by one.

Rule 5 Roster Day (November 20th)

This was the final day that clubs could protect minor-league players from the Rule 5 Draft by adding them to the 40-man roster. The Indians came into the day with two open spots (38) and wanted to protect three players, so they needed to drop one.

Designated RHP Nick Goody for Assignment

Goody was fantastic in 2017, but missed a large portion of 2018 and wasn’t quite the same this past season. He did land on his feet, though, as the Texas Rangers claimed him off waivers 6 days later.

Purchased the contracts of LHP Scott Moss and OF Daniel Johnson from Columbus (AAA)

Purchased the contract of Triston McKenzie from Lynchburg (A+)

Johnson was acquired from Washington last winter (Yan Gomes), while Moss was one of the players received in the three-team Trevor Bauer trade last July. Both players will at some point contribute to the club next year, and Johnson has a decent shot at making the Opening Day roster, depending on what the Indians do this winter.

McKenzie, who at one time was among the best prospects in the system, has slipped in recent years due to injury and struggles on the field, but still has the upside to be in a major-league rotation. And given how starting pitching is valued, there’s no way the Indians could have gotten away with leaving him unprotected. If everything breaks right he would be in the mix for a late-season call up, but it’s more likely that he contributes in 2021 (or would be traded).

Traded 2B Mark Mathias (AAA) to the Milwaukee Brewers for C Andres Melendez

Mathias was eligible, and the Indians were not going to protect him, so the Brewers, rather than wait to select him in the Rule 5 Draft and deal with the restrictions that comes with it, traded for him and added him to their 40-man roster. That means the Brewers can option him to the minors. If they had selected him in the Rule 5 Draft, they would have had to keep him on their active roster (or Injured List) all season.

Non-Tender Day (December 2)

This is the day by which clubs must offer any player on their 40-man roster not already signed to a contract a contract tender. If they don’t tender a contract, the player immediately becomes a free agent and can sign with any team. Usually players that are non-tendered are in the last few years of arbitration (service times of 4-5 years), with their projected salaries not matching their projected production. The Indians had already released most of the players they were going to non-tender (Danny Salazar, for example), so expectations going into this day was that they would be quiet.

However, that didn’t happen.

Traded RHP Adenys Bautista (R-) to the Boston Red Sox for C Sandy Leon

Designated RHP James Hoyt for Assignment

Leon is a catcher that has a good reputations on defense and with pitching staffs, but has done almost nothing on offense since 2016. He has 5+ years of service time, and was projected to make $2.8M in arbitration (according to MLB Trade Rumors). Meanwhile the Indians’ backup catcher, Kevin Plawecki, was projected to make around $1.4M. The Indians obviously liked Leon’s skill set better than Plawecki’s but not $1.4M better, as we’ll see shortly. Bautista is not much of a prospect, a

Hoyt was not arbitration-eligible, but was designated just because he was #40 on the Tribe’s value board. He would be re-signed a couple days later, though.

Signed 2020 contract with C Sandy Leon ($2M), avoiding arbitration

That made the difference between Leon and Plawecki $500-600k.

Non-tendered RHP James Hoyt and C Kevin Plawecki

Hoyt had been designated for assignment earlier in the day, and this made him a free agent before he passed through waivers. It’s obvious in retrospect that the Indians and Hoyt had already talked, as he’d be re-signed to a major-league contract. As for Plawecki, the writing for him was on the wall when the Indians acquired Leon. He was out options, and the Indians weren’t going to be carrying three catchers on the active roster, even with a 26th spot available this year.

Signed free agent RHP James Hoyt to a major-league contract

Thus bringing the 40-man roster back up to 40. If the Indians want to make a selection in Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft, they’ll need to clear a spot, but I don’t see that happening, especially they will eventually need to clear at least a couple spots for acquisitions (2B/3B and OF).

Offseason Journal: The Arithmetic

As this off-season gets going in earnest, the Indians would seem to be in a better position than they were at this time last year. I used the word “seem” because I am assuming that the Indians will start the season with a payroll around $120-124M, the same range as last year.

Link to live file (OneDrive)

In addition to the cost-cutting moves (or non-moves in the case of Michael Brantley) made last winter, the Indians saved about $18M for the 2020 season by trading Trevor Bauer last July. They also saved another $19M net by declining the options of or releasing Jason Kipnis, Dan Otero, and Danny Salazar. By my calculations, the Indians should have $18M to spend between now and the end of July if their budget remains the same, and that’s with them picking up Corey Kluber’s $17.5M option.

In other words, the Indians aren’t going to be dangling Kluber or Francisco Lindor on the trade market because they need to cut payroll. I don’t think the Indians will end up trading either player for any reason, though: Lindor, because it’s going to be downright impossible to get a team to give them the type of value a player of Lindor’s caliber/contract demands, and Kluber because I don’t think teams will give up that much for a pitcher coming off an injury-marred season, even with his pedigree.

But the Indians do need to fill some holes, as the projected 2020 lineup indicates. With Naquin’s injury, I think they have to acquire at least one corner outfielder, perhaps even bringing back Yasiel Puig if the market doesn’t take an interest (MLB Trade Rumors projects him getting 1/$8M, which I think would be a bargain). As for the infield, I see the Indians grabbing a short-term solution at second or third (most likely second), with the idea that one of their crop of youngish infielders (Arroyo, Chang, Clement) would be ready to take over in 2021. They will also poke around for a reliever or two, though it would be out of character for them to pay market value.

The Indians could also fill one of the holes mentioned above by trading a starting pitcher. Adam Plutko is out of options and not likely to make the Opening Day starting rotation, so now might be the best time to see what you can get for him on a market that seems devoid of much starting pitching help. And maybe a team loses out on the big free agent prizes (Cole, Strasburg, Wheeler) and gets desperate enough to bowl the Indians with their offer for Corey Kluber.

Transactions

The period following the end of the World Series is scripted such that all contract options and 40-man rosters are settled before the offseason moves can begin in earnest. This is done so that all teams are an equal footing as far as 40-man roster spots are concerned. For instance, when the season ended the Indians had 7 players on the 60-day Injured/Disabled List, therefore they had 47 players on the between the 40-man roster and the Injured Lists.

October 31, 2019 (day after the World Series)

Exercised the 2020 option of RHP Corey Kluber ($17.5M)

Declined the 2020 options of 2B Jason Kipnis ($16.5M/$2.5M) and RHP Dan Otero ($1.5M/$.1M)

(indians.com story)

3B Ryan Flaherty, RF Yasiel Puig, RHP Tyler Clippard, 2B Jason Kipnis, and RHP Dan Otero declared free agency

November 4, 2019

RHP Corey Kluber, OF Tyler Naquin, IF Christian Arroyo, RHP Danny Salazar, RHP Cody Anderson, LHP Tyler Olson, and RHP AJ Cole activated from the 60-day Injured List

RHP Danny Salazar, RHP Cody Anderson, LHP Tyler Olson, and RHP AJ Cole outrighted to AAA Columbus – all declared free agency

(indians.com story)

On Francisco Lindor, Success Cycles, and Rumor Laundering

Before diving in to the offseason, I want to re-expound on something that most people, especially on the national level, continue to not understand about how the Indians are making decisions.

The “success cycle” is the current paradigm for team building. At the start of the cycle, a team strips down their roster almost completely, trading off all their veteran players, and fielding a team that has no chance of winning for several years, with the side benefit of having an extremely low payroll. Then, assuming the front office made astute drafting and prospect evaluation decisions, the team begins to spend some money again, bringing in a couple key free agents. Then, when the young core is ready to compete for a championship, the wallet is opened wide and the minor-league system becomes only a vehicle for acquiring veteran players. Once the core gets old/expensive, the roster gets torn completely down and the cycle begins anew.

It is my belief that the Indians do not want to follow this cycle, having institutional memories about previous rebuilding eras. The 2002-2004 rebuild, short and necessary though it was, turned half the fanbase against the team, with attendance never recovering. The 2009-2012 rebuild wasn’t quite as devastating to attendance or fan perception, but nevertheless was not a fun period. In addition, the causes of those fallow periods haven’t been lost on the current front office, some of whom were there for them. Poor drafting, poor free agent decisions, and trading away prospects for short-term fixes were what sunk the team into the last two rebuilds, and many of the decisions since then have been made to avoid those previous mistakes.

With that in mind, consider the last year of decisions made by the Tribe front office. A typical team in the Indians’ place would have gorged itself in the free agent market, or at least traded some prospects to fill a hole. The Indians did neither, in fact they let go Michael Brantley via free agency, and suffered for it the following season. They traded Yan Gomes, their starting catcher, and shed payroll in several other moves. Yet they didn’t tear the roster apart, keeping the starting rotation together (at least to start the season) and the rest of the starting lineup. In other words, they didn’t commit to one path or the other that the success cycle demands of a team once the roster reached maturity. They did trade Trevor Bauer, but in return received a short-term rental (Yasiel Puig) and a medium-term solution (Franmil Reyes) in addition to some prospects.

So when the rumors about the Dodgers looking to trade for Francisco Lindor broke, I shook my head. The reporting by Jon Paul Morosi, as usual, is vague enough to be correct even if nothing happens:

 
Sources say the Dodgers are expected to pursue a trade for Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor as one possible addition to an offense that managed only a .303 on-base percentage during this month’s National League Division Series loss to the Nationals.

(snip)

The Indians have made no apparent progress on a long-term extension for Lindor, and many in the industry believe there is a good chance he will be dealt before next Opening Day.

Note that this reporting is that the Dodgers will be pursuing Lindor, not that the Indians are either looking to trade him or even listening. Just that some people in the industry (read: other front offices) think the Indians would deal him because they haven’t been able to make progress on a long-term deal. This of course led to this headline from Beyond the Boxscore, an SBN site (sigh):

This is clickbait. Oh sure, the headline/sub-headline is hedging its bets by using “it sure looks like” and “Lindor might be on the move” but ultimately it is using a rather typical Hot Stove League piece of reporting (X team is interested in X player) to give an excuse to wag the finger at the Indians for not ponying up to sign Lindor to a long-term deal:

While the Dodgers trying to make a move happen doesn’t mean that Cleveland will Lindorit’s clear that Cleveland’s ownership has little interest in extending Lindor or retaining him when he reaches free agency after the 2021 season. If Cleveland were to trade Lindor, it would be hard to view it as anything other than a purely cost-cutting move. We saw what their miserly approach following the 2018 season did to an assured division title, so such a move would be an admission that profits are more important than winning. 

Was it disappointing that the Indians let Michael Brantley go last year? Absolutely. But this analysis is ridiculously simplistic. The Indians have been a competitive team for seven straight years now, and are to the point in a typical success cycle where other teams in mid-tier and low-tier markets have thrown in the towel and tore the team completely down. The Royals were competitive for five seasons (2013-2017), then tore their roster completely apart. The Pirates also lasted five seasons (same time frame) before firing practically everyone and presumably starting over. But for all the Indians’ “miserly” ways, they still managed to field a team that until the last series of the season was in contention for a playoff spot. In other words, they have maintained the payroll of a contending team for longer than their peers, and at least will try to be competitive for an eighth year.

The author of the article is applying to the Indians a template that is not applicable. The Indians may eventually trade Lindor because it’s obvious that they aren’t going to give out an 8-year deal at $30M+ average annual value, but I do not think that they will trade him this winter, as Morosi is suggesting, nor would a Lindor trade be driven by cost-cutting for 2020. Lindor even at a projected $16M-18M salary is still a bargain for any team, including the Indians. The Indians want to compete again in 2020, and Lindor is inextricably linked to that goal. He will very likely be playing for someone else by the end of the 2021 season, and almost certainly will be by the start of the 2022 season, but that’s just how mid-market teams fare when it comes to superstars.

If team owner Paul Dolan had wanted to maximize profit, he would have done what the Houston Astros or Chicago Cubs or many other teams since then did: completely tank, a strategy that this author would undoubtedly condemn. In 2013, the Astros had a payroll of $35M despite residing in one of baseball’s largest markets, a payroll that the Indians hadn’t had since 2004. Cleveland ownership’s spending obviously isn’t going be confused with the late Mike Illitch of the Detroit Tigers anytime soon, but the Dolans have now presided over as long a competitive window as the Jacobs Field Era Indians of the mid-to-late 1990s, and are attempting to extend that window into 2020 and beyond. As an Indians fan, it has been a fun seven seasons, and although I’d love for the team to spend more, I can’t complain much about the results on the field.

The author then remarks that (1) MLB revenues are up and (2) references a Ringer article about how top prospects who are traded tend to underperform. Let’s take each argument separately.

That MLB revenues are up but payrolls have not increased at the same rate may be an issue for the MLBPA to key on in the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations (they expire after the 2021 season), but this is not relevant to the Indians re-signing Francisco Lindor. Free agency is a competition between MLB clubs, and the Indians are not going to fare well in this competition because they don’t have the revenue sources that other teams do, as alluded to in this sentence:

 
Forbes’ valuation of each baseball team put Cleveland as the sixth-least valuable team, but as a brand they’re still worth $1.1 billion.

Furthermore, a team’s valuation is not relevant to having more cash to throw around unless the team borrows against it. Or the owners sell the team, I guess, but that’s not helpful either for obvious reasons. Dolan did sell a piece of the club to John Sherman a couple of years ago, but Sherman is going to have to divest that by the time he officially takes over as owner of the Kansas City Royals.

The Indians may be able to deal with the short-term risk of allocating ~20% of their payroll ($30M AAV) to one player, but they simply can’t deal with the risk of allocating a significant portion of their payroll to one player 8-10 years from now, when Lindor would likely be on the downside of his career. Lindor will likely ask for that length of contract on the free agent market, and I don’t blame him for it, given that both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado got those types of deals last winter. Lindor bet on himself by not taking an earlier long-term extension (a la Jose Ramirez), and now he’s well within his rights to collect on that wager.

As for not trading Lindor because prospects don’t tend to work out, that’s not an argument that resonates with Indians fans. Of the high-profile players that the Indians have traded since Bartolo Colon in 2002, almost all those trades eventually worked out. And that’s not counting the many core players that the Indians got in what were considered minor trades (Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, Mike Clevinger, to name but a few). If the organization has been consistently good in one thing, it’s been getting good value when they do trade a core player.

In conclusion, I have no doubt that the Indians will eventually trade Francisco Lindor, but I don’t think it will be this winter, and that they will do so with a similar goal as they had in dealing Trevor Bauer: a return that balances the short-term (Puig) with the medium-term (Reyes) and a bit of the long-term (prospects).