Ryan Lewis: Indians have come close but not pushed their way to the top
The Indians have come painfully close to their summit but have fallen short each time in a contention window that has already lost many of the key members from its inception.
Barring a character reversal the likes of which would leave even Ebenezer Scrooge impressed — in this case, the equivalent of Scrooge deciding to bring Christmas cheer would be the Indians’ decision to open the checkbook enough to keep Francisco Lindor in Cleveland for most or all of the upcoming decade — the Indians have two seasons left with their star shortstop. And one of those seasons has already been shortened to 60 games.
Barring a sudden extension, the Indians have a maximum of two Octobers remaining with Lindor on the roster to try to win the World Series title that has eluded the franchise since 1948.
It was by the smallest of margins that the Indians lost in 1997. It was the smallest of margins by which the Indians lost in 2016. If not for Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and the Braves rotation in 1995. If not for Willie Mays’ heroics in center field in 1954. Possibly if not for the strike in 1994.
The Indians have seven consecutive winning seasons dating back to 2013. Five of those seasons produced at least 91 wins, including the last four in a row. They have found success and consistency with Lindor and Co., but not the top prize. In their climb to the summit, they haven’t been able to get past baseball’s equivalent of the Khumbu Icefall, one of the most dangerous stretches of Mount Everest, and instead have been sent back down the mountain to try another day.
The way things are headed — especially after Lindor held court at TribeFest and said it’s not about the money, but also that he knows the money is out there and players get what they deserve — Lindor will be gone after the 2021 season, barring a significant breakthrough in negations or a trade before that time (the deadline this year was moved back to Aug. 31).
Baseball, especially for a smaller market team, is cyclical. The Indians will at some point in the future be stationed at base camp for quite some time before they ever try to climb to the summit again, gathering supplies and catching their breath for a few seasons.
Lindor’s possible departure won’t necessarily denote the end of the Indians’ ability to contend, particularly if he’s traded for a truckload of controllable assets as they hope to contend in 2022, 2023 and beyond. But Lindor and others have represented one of the best collections of talent in franchise history, and to date only the last win in October (or November) has eluded them.
But they have had and continue to have a shot at the summit right now. Still, they have chosen — via the payroll the front office has been allowed to work with — to not acquire an extra air canister in the form of depth or an upgrade at a roster spot or two. The Indians have a talented enough roster to be a legitimate World Series contender if healthy, but it is one that has been left exposed should a few things go awry. That issue is especially pronounced in a shortened, 60-game season in which every game carries more weight.
There are two thoughts that can both be held at the same time regarding the Indians’ payroll when looking at the past few years and the next several seasons.
The first is that owner Paul Dolan might never get the amount of credit he deserves for the way the Indians spent money between the 2016 and 2018 seasons. For those three years — which largely started with the Andrew Miller trade in July 2016 — the Indians’ payroll soared past their old records, albeit ones that weren’t too difficult to top. They set new payroll highs. They handed out the largest contract in franchise history (to Edwin Encarnacion, though he was eventually traded). The Indians ended up in the middle of the pack among baseball’s payrolls, which in one way shows they were spending above their means, at least compared to other teams of similar market sizes.
An important measuring stick can be seen in 2015, thanks to Forbes’ valuations. Entering 2015, if one measured the rate between how much money came in through baseball means and how much of it was converted to player payroll, the Indians had nearly the identical rate of the New York Yankees. Of course, the Yankees were bringing in and spending much more, and their counting totals were much higher, but the most similar team to the Indians in terms of that conversation rate was the Yankees. And that was before the Indians’ spending hike.
But here’s the second thought: It’s understandable that eventually the Indians were going to need to bottom out their payroll for a rebuild, but last winter was not the time to do so, when Encarnacion, Yan Gomes and Yonder Alonso were all traded. That was before Trevor Bauer was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds and before Corey Kluber was sent to the Texas Rangers.
The COVID-19 outbreak and the shutdown that followed has only hurled the Lindor situation onto even shakier ground, with MLB simply hoping the season and postseason can be played. Losing a year of club control and a potential contention year with Lindor on the roster at the same time would be the Indians’ doomsday scenario.
There are higher revenues in the game of baseball now than ever before, regardless of what the owners wanted fans to think during the recent negotiations. And yet, the Indians were headed toward an Opening Day payroll below $100 million, well down from their starting totals the past three seasons, even before the COVID-19 shutdown. Minority owner John Sherman left and bought the Kansas City Royals, and the Indians’ payroll has been sinking.
The Indians enter 2020 as legitimate contenders in the American League, perhaps aided by an easier schedule because of the COVID-19-related shutdown, but they have once again left themselves with little depth or room for error, which is what ultimately sent them home early in 2019.
Last year’s payroll decrease resulted in Hanley Ramirez, Carlos Gonzalez and Brad Miller being in the lineup early in the season. The first two were affordable busts in an effort to address the outfield or extend the lineup, and none of the three made it to June 1 with the Indians.
Meanwhile, Lindor opened the year on the injured list, Jose Ramirez started ice cold and the starting rotation was decimated with injuries and Carlos Carrasco’s battle with leukemia. The Indians finished strong and at one point even passed the Minnesota Twins, but it ultimately caught up with them. Several in-house pitchers stepped up — Aaron Civale, Zach Plesac, Adam Plutko, Jefry Rodriguez — but the 40-man roster was left with too many holes and not enough resources to respond to a rash of injuries.
Could the Indians rotation in 2020 retain its standing as one of the best with Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger and Carrasco leading the way? Could the lineup be improved with full seasons (comparatively, at least) from Oscar Mercado and Franmil Reyes? Could a healthy Lindor and a more consistent Ramirez again carry the offense, when needed, enough? All of those things are certainly possible. They won 93 games in 2019 with almost everything going wrong and much of their answers coming from within the organization.
But the cost-cutting Indians haven’t given themselves the type of life preservers other franchises have available to them, either. The bigger issue there isn’t the number at which the Indians’ payroll ends up on Opening Day, it’s the timing. The Indians might have the internal answers to deal with whatever pops up, but that is largely all they have been afforded because of a shrinking payroll during a contention window.
Indians fans know base camp all too well. In fact, they’re too familiar with it. This collection of talent already assembled by the Indians front office — even within their payroll restrictions — could have what it takes to finally reach the summit and look down on the top of the baseball world in what figures to be an odd season. But having to do it while lowering the payroll at the same time has made that excursion all the more treacherous.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about the Indians at www.beaconjournal.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.