Dolan continues to balance reload, contention

March 14th, 2019

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Phillies owner John Middleton flew his private jet back and forth from Las Vegas as part of discussions that resulted in a $330 million pact with Bryce Harper.

Indians owner Paul Dolan flew to Spring Training on Southwest Airlines.

And he was in the "C" group.

If you want to draw a distinction between the way the big-market-but-playoff-starved Phillies aggressively attacked this offseason and the way the mid-market, three-time defending American League Central champion Indians pursued a more economical outlay, the sight of Dolan squeezing into a middle seat does a good job of it.

“Different worlds,” Dolan said. “Our experience is different than theirs. It’s OK. Philadelphia is a bigger market, and they have bigger resources. We know that.”

As a function of market reality, the Dolan ownership era in Cleveland, which is entering its 20th season in 2019, has long been about trying to travel to the ultimate destination -- a World Series title -- in what is effectively the coach class.

The Indians have not had a top-10 payroll in MLB since 2002, so the goal is outperforming payroll. By any objective measure, they’ve been successful at it. Going back to that initial drop to the lower third of the payroll rankings in '03, Cleveland has the fourth-most wins in the AL. And the Terry Francona era, which stretches back to '13, features 58 more wins than any other AL club.

The only period that even remotely resembles the model of basement-dwelling in the name of Draft-pick accumulation is 2009-12, which netted three top-10 picks in four years. But the Indians went into '09 expecting to contend before injuries and poor performance resulted in an in-season selloff. And Cleveland hasn't drafted higher than fifth since 1992.

This history is important in understanding the present and what the Indians are trying to accomplish with their roster. To simultaneously reload and contend is a tough trick, and only time will tell if Cleveland has pulled it off in 2019 (though the forgiving nature of their division gives it a far greater percentage chance of succeeding in the effort).

To Dolan, maintaining the franchise-record payroll levels of 2017 and '18 -- levels Dolan said were supplemented by the infusion of equity each MLB owner received from BAMTech’s 2018 sale to Disney, as well as an investment from minority owner John Sherman -- was not an option.

“The reality is, we lose money almost every year, and we’ve lost a lot the last few years,” Dolan said. “It’s the nature of our business. We’ve owned the team for 20 years and never taken a penny out of it. On the rare times when we make money, we reinvest it in the team.”

The Indians’ home attendance has gone north of 2 million just once since 2008, and that was on the heels of the 2016 run to the World Series.

“It’s a larger community issue about population growth and economics,” Dolan said. “Our fans are just as passionate as fans elsewhere; there just aren’t as many of them. It’s the reality of what’s happened to this community over the last 20 years.”

An increasingly star-laden NFL Cleveland Browns team, which can market Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr. to a city that has always rated as football-crazed (even in the worst of seasons) makes it even harder for the Indians to command attention.

“We’ve lived with LeBron James next door,” Dolan said with a shrug. “I’m happy for the Browns and the Haslams [who own the team], particularly. It looks like they’re poised for success.”

With a sober assessment of the bottom line, preserving the 2018 payroll was deemed unaffordable. But blowing the whole thing up was considered inconceivable.

“If the term rebuild is being used around us right now,” said Dolan, “that’s a real mistake.”

The Indians pared payroll by dealing Yan Gomes and Yonder Alonso. They turned the one remaining year of the Edwin Encarnacion contract into two years of Carlos Santana (at a lower average annual value), and they maintained their all-world rotation while extending Carlos Carrasco. They also added several young pieces -- Jake Bauers, Daniel Johnson and Jefry Rodriguez -- who have contributed to a different energy in Spring Training.

Per Cot’s Contracts, the Opening Day tally for the 25-man rosters in 2017 and '18 were $124.1 million and $134.9 million, respectively. Had Cleveland re-signed its free agents (a group that included Josh Donaldson, Michael Brantley and Andrew Miller) at the price tags they commanded in the open market, the payroll would have gone north of $200 million. Had the Indians let those players walk and kept what they had, the payroll would have remained at a similar level to ’18 because of in-house raises and arbitration cases.

The Tribe’s projected Opening Day payroll for 2019 is $116.7 million, per Cot’s, though the team expects to have some limited financial flexibility at the Trade Deadline.

The Indians have been criticized in some corners for scaling back, rather than amplifying, at a time when they have a championship-caliber club. Dolan’s contention is that the team already did that on the heels of 2016’s run to the World Series.

“We are still in the midst of a competitive cycle,” Dolan said. “We have a team that can compete for a World Series title. We’ve been in that position for a while, and we have been investing in the team to try to accomplish that. At some point, it becomes unsustainable. Frankly, what we were doing last year was unsustainable. We needed to pull back some, which we did. And the team was getting a little older, so we had the opportunity and the responsibility to not only look at the season in front of us, but also the seasons ahead.”

The weak state of the AL Central allowed the Indians to take this approach. But Dolan has been in baseball long enough to know that winning even the worst division in baseball is not an opportunity to be taken lightly.

“Put me in October with the best starting rotation in baseball and two MVP candidates [Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez],” he said, “and let’s go.”

 Dolan doesn’t care if he has to cram into a coach seat to get there. He just wants to get there.