SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Indians' payroll had never topped the $100 million mark prior to 2016, but the past two seasons have seen the Tribe bust past that nine-figure barrier -- and the results followed.Cleveland won 94 games in 2016, making a memorable postseason run that ended with a Game
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Indians' payroll had never topped the $100 million mark prior to 2016, but the past two seasons have seen the Tribe bust past that nine-figure barrier -- and the results followed.
Cleveland won 94 games in 2016, making a memorable postseason run that ended with a Game 7 loss to the Cubs in an instant World Series classic. The Indians, who pushed the 40-man payroll from $117 million to $151 million by the end of 2017, followed that up with a 102-win season, though they lost a heartbreaking American League Division Series to the Yankees in five games.
The Indians are considered to be the favorites to three-peat in the AL Central, entering the season with a payroll of roughly $130 million. But next winter should be a different story, as a number of players -- Michael Brantley, Andrew Miller, Cody Allen and Lonnie Chisenhall among them -- are slated to become free agents after the season, leaving the Indians with about $73 million of salary guarantees committed to eight players.
That figure will increase as a result of arbitration raises and potential option years, but significant money will be coming off the books one way or another. Could the Indians find themselves in position to make a big splash in next year's star-laden free-agent market?
A look at the team's commitments beyond 2019 suggests that could happen, but Chris Antonetti, the Indians' president of baseball operations, doesn't foresee such a scenario.
"That's not the reality of our team-building," Antonetti said. "We are one of the smallest markets in professional baseball; I think we're the only team that [plays in a city] in the bottom three [in the United States] in poverty, unemployment and income, so there are some real challenges in Cleveland.
"We've had incredible support from our ownership in which we've spent well beyond our revenues as we've gone through this competitive period. But we can't build teams through free agency. Our success model is we need to draft and acquire players that are younger and help provide the right environment for them to grow and develop because that's going to be the nucleus of our team. We'll use free agency to complement that group, but not to build that group."
The Indians have done a masterful job of building that core, then signing players such as Corey Kluber, Jason Kipnis, Brantley and Yan Gomes to extensions that keep them in Cleveland for several years. They managed to keep Carlos Santana in an Indians uniform for eight years before he landed a three-year, $60 million deal with the Phillies this winter, and that came a year after the Indians swooped in to sign Edwin Encarnacion to a similar deal.
"Sometimes we're not going to be that team to give the guy their next contract," manager Terry Francona said after Santana signed with Philadelphia. "We've got to find the guys and maybe give them their first one, not the second one."
That next group of guys could include catcher Francisco Mejia (No. 11 on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 prospects list), right-hander Triston McKenzie (No. 24) and first baseman Bobby Bradley (No. 3 on the Indians' Top 30 list).
Jose Ramirez and Roberto Perez are the only players under contract for 2020, though Kluber has the first of two option years that season, and barring a major injury, you would have to assume his $17 million option gets exercised. Kluber, along with Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer, are all under club control through at least 2020 via club options or arbitration (in Bauer's case), which means that the core of the rotation will likely remain intact beyond this year and keep them competitive in the AL Central.
Then there's 2021, when Ramirez's $9.4 million contract is the lone guaranteed commitment on the books.
So the Indians will have plenty of money to spend, though they figure to allocate much of that in hopes of signing star shortstop Francisco Lindor to a long-term extension. Given the prospect of losing Miller, Allen, Brantley and Chisenhall after this season, Antonetti knows that 2018 could be the final run for this particular group, though as long as the system continues to produce talented young players, the Indians should be able to find suitable replacements without the need to write large checks to free agents.
So is there a sense of urgency?
"Every year is a big year," Antonetti said. "There are a lot of guys whose contracts are up at the end of this year that have had meaningful impact on our team's success over the past few seasons. We recognize there's an opportunity in front of us and we want to do our best to seize that, then see where that leads us and build our 2019 team."
Not that Antonetti is taking anything for granted this season. Although the Indians have been among the class of the AL the past two years, he knows there are plenty of teams -- not just the Astros, Yankees, Red Sox and Twins -- ready to take their best shot at the postseason in the coming months despite the appearance of a top-heavy league.
"The one thing baseball is great at doing is providing the unexpected," Antonetti said. "As soon as you think you have an idea of what may happen, baseball finds a way to change the script. I would be surprised if there aren't things that happen during the course of the year that we look back on and say, 'Wow, we never saw that coming.'"
Mark Feinsand, an executive reporter, originally joined MLB.com as a reporter in 2001.