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Manny Ramirez CC Sabathia Cliff Lee Jim Thome Albert Belle Carlos Baerga

If you want an actual sob story, look away from the Cubs and look at the Cleveland Indians. That list is just the 90s and only players that spent the majority of their time with Cleveland. If you dig deeper you find more all stars that were acquired later in their careers but were still forced to give them up after stellar seasons due to cap restraints.

Now that we have a recent history overview of Cleveland Indians, let’s look at their current cap and most importantly, how long they have for their window to close before the stars inevitably get picked over by teams like the Cubs.

Looking ahead to 2018: We have some big contracts coming off the books. To start there is Carlos Santana and I would have to assume that they will not be resigning him because this is the only way to make sense out of the gradual increases of their star players’ salaries. The salary increases of 2018 account for a little over $24M and with Carlos Santana ($12M) coming off the books plus Chris Johnson payments decreasing by $8M from 2017 that would free up $20M  plus an additional $1.5M if they don’t give it to Austin Jackson –  this total would only put us $2.5M over budget which isn’t terrible when looking at all the increases made.

Now this is the part that scares me. Arbitration. In 2018, the Indians will have 8 players salaries fluctuating with arbitration and those players include: Cody Allen – RP Danny Salazar – SP/RP Trever Bauer – SP

With those fluctuating salaries, it is a little hard to tell how much the Indians will be paying for these players since it is decided by a third party. Arbitration Salary increases will be determined by the players performance so the Indians will be getting their money’s worth at lower than face value since the players are still in the early stages of their career. I will point out that even with these friendly contracts, I look at the Indians Ownership and have a hard time seeing them them wanting to spend so much money based off their history and the historical moves under the owner Dolan’s administration.

To give an example of what arbitration has looked like on the Indians own roster – we look at Cody Allen, who had just made a $3.2M increase going into the 2017 season. But just to low ball the numbers for this case, lets assume for the 8 players their additional arbitration salary results  in a $8M increase (which I believe is very low) so that would force Dolan to give out $10.5M more than what he was spending in 2017. The other big question about this year surrounds Bryan Shaw who will be up for a contract renewal after 2017 as well (would be owed more than $4.6M), and if he agreed to sign for a multi year deal at $6M/year that would land us at $16.5M overall the total payroll of 2017.

On the plus side, the Indians did pay big money for Edwin Encarnacion this offseason, but my question is if that was a result of ownership wanting to spend more money or them giving a last ditch effort to capitalize on this talented lineup while they still can?

Looking Ahead to 2019: It is hard to see the direction that ownership is going with holding onto their current talent pool. But what makes 2019 a year of decisions for this ownership is the additional money that will be owed to their players in the gradual increases that were negotiated. This works great for motivation purposes but as we have seen in recent years with the Yankees, these contracts can come back to bite you in the last leg of those contracts.

But to dive into 2019, the Indians no longer owe Chris Johnson anything and have an extra $1M freed up from 2018. But subtracting that $1M that will be owed to players’ gradually increasing contracts, the Indians will be spending a $7.55M excess from the year before. And no that does not include arbitration….

There will be 4 additional players eligible for arbitration structuring of their salaries which the Indians will most likely take advantage of, especially with one of those players being added to the arbitration list is Francisco Lindor. Now to add these additional four players to the players still up for arbitration on Cleveland’s payroll that would total to 8 players in this structure, and for argument’s sake let’s give that same low estimate of $8M in additional pay for these players based off of their performances (and lets be honest with Lindor now joining this arbitration camp, that number is going to be significantly higher!). But add that $8M to the $7.55M owed to players in fixed contracts, that will bring us up to $15.55M. But one player that I am doubting they will re-sign is Michael Brantley ($12M made in 2018), and if that is the case, that would bring our increase in payroll down to $3.55M.

This wouldn’t be a bad increase for big markets teams, and let’s just say that this isn’t considered a bad increase for Dolan either and he is comfortable with paying for this amount, but not a penny more. Here are the players whose contracts are up:

Andrew Miller – RP (due more than $9M) Cody Allen – RP (an arb. RP but lets say he will be owed $10M based off past increases) Boone Logan – RP (would be due more than $7M) Josh Tomlin – SP (due more than $3M) Lonnie Chisenhall – OF (with unknown arb. from 2018 due estimated $5M+) Zach McAllister – RP (with unkown arb. from 2018 due estimated $2.5M+)

This would be a huge hit for the Bullpen which has been an instrumental part of the Cleveland Indians success. But this would be decision time for upper management in Cleveland and regardless of who they may decide to sign, in 2018 and 2019 seasons, they could lose Miller, Allen, Logan, and Shaw! I believe that the Indians would at the very least keep two of them, but with these losses, I think this would shorten the Cleveland Indians window for making a run for the World Series.

Options Going Forward: One of the amazing advantages and flexibility of the Indians is how many players on their roster are accepted for arbitration filings. These are great contracts because you are paying lower than face value for the players whose pay is purely based off their performance. This could be good trade bate for teams out there, but the reality is, good contracts don’t hold as much weight as they do in the NBA or other sports. The Yankees will pay whatever it takes and have no problem paying a “Steinbrenner tax” if need be.

Conclusions and Silver-Lining: With all the rain clouds I listed above, I believe that we might be entering a new era for Cleveland Indians baseball. In any other era in Cleveland, I believe the writing is on the wall, but I do have a feeling about Cleveland ownership this time around.

I think with Dolan spending money on Logan and Encarnacion is not a result of ownership stacking the lineup for one final go at it. One reason I say that is because Encarnacion is not a rental, they have him locked up until 2020. And assuming that Dolan knows whats coming with these arbitration contracts, I don’t believe he would have made that deal for Edwin Encarnacion which in return would forfeit these amazing performance based contracts. I think the Indians are ready to spend money based off of all the players on arbitration and with the big deals made as of late, they are looking to make a final run, not this year but all the way to 2021.

But a word of caution for Indians fans, this all pends on what Cleveland is willing to pay for the players they have now in obligatory extensions. With the fluctuating contracts of all the players on an arbitration system, the Indians are faced with a sad paradox when you blend it with cheap ownership:

The best chance of winning is for the young players on arbitration to do well (paying low dollar for great talent), but if they do too well, ownership may be forced to give them up –  in turn decreasing their chances of success the following year.

With all that said, I am very excited to see how the Indians payroll unfolds in the next 5 years. We have some interesting payment structures going out to a lot of talent and the closer we get to 2020, we will see if Indians ownership gets cold feet and reverts back to the old philosophy of paying players, or recognizing this as a unique opportunity and joining the Cavs in the new Cleveland tradition.

– Joey Almars

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