Very few teams get the “excuse” of trimming payroll during a contention cycle, but for the Cleveland Indians, they at least had a passable reason. For one, attendance continues to rank near the bottom of the league, despite exhibiting a 20-25% jump after their World Series appearance. They also have a notoriously poor TV contract, which will pay out $400 million over the next decade.
They had also spent, for their market, a decent chunk of change during their height putting themselves in payroll company closer to $150 million, nearly double their normal amount. They dished out money for the likes of Edwin Encarnacion, Jason Kipnis, Cody Allen, and Andrew Miller to the tune of a collective third of their payroll to just those players alone.
Their response wasn’t to get creative in the ways, say, the Rays have done, picking up the Indians’ own Yandy Diaz or Austin Meadows/Tyler Glasnow in a way that would be more payroll-neutral or only slightly negative. No, instead, the priority was payroll and payroll alone, and they succeeded on that front. The end result was essentially swapping Encarnacion for Carlos Santana, shedding approximately $15 million otherwise by ridding themselves of Yan Gomes, Michael Brantley, Melky Cabrera, and Miller, and then doing absolutely nothing else.
Yes, the Indians thought merely to rest on their laurels of a weak AL Central and decided to acquire: Santana, Kevin Plawecki, AJ Cole, Jake Bauers, Jordan Luplow, and a few others. The result; well, it can be explained by a graph, and a tweet:
Cleveland's playoff odds (70.4%) are the lowest they've been, per FanGraphs, since... June 2016.— Emma Baccellieri (@emmabaccellieri) May 10, 2019
The Indians, a nearly 90% favorite to win the division, now just have a one-in-three shot of it as of May 10th. The reason? Well, one of that is a freak of nature, which I will get to why that’s even more indicative of an issue in a second.
Corey Kluber, for one, could miss most of the season after suffering a forearm fracture caused by a line drive. Another is Mike Clevinger missing time with a back issue, or Francisco Lindor just recently making his debut due to a left ankle sprain, or Jose Ramirez getting off to a rough start.
That stuff.. you just largely can’t control that. The result has been, despite their 20-16 record to start the season, a mad panic about how that sets them up for playoff contention considering the surging Twins, and the razor-thin margins they’re now working with. In FanGraphs on Thursday, Dan Szymborski of ZiPS outlines why they’re the underdog now, mainly that “...the combination of injuries and underperformance has cost the Indians about eight wins from the pre-2019 assumptions, at least in the eyes of ZiPS.”
This didn’t have to be so. As Szymborski wisely points out, another example of how that could have been avoided was in New York, where the Yankees lost basically their entire starting lineup but supplanted them with DJ LeMahieu, Mike Tauchman, and Gio Urshela, a cast of nobodies that would have been nearly negligible in cost to even a team in penny-pincher mode.
Which leads me to the point, in that it was not nearly negligible. Every penny actually did matter, which is why—case in point—they did nothing to improve or even give them some depth heading into a critical year of their contention cycle. I also always refer to this, but this isn’t “smart” in the way that owners would like us to believe. Pinching a penny here while still making the postseason and profiting, while sounding like a great strategy, will likely blow up in their faces if they don’t in fact win the division. Here’s what Vince Gennaro says:
“The revenue from new found season ticket commitments are just one means of monetizing October baseball. Next year’s advance ticket sales of single game tickets see a boost. Ticket price increases for playoff teams... are about double the increases for non-playoff teams. Luxury suite demand surges, as companies acknowledge the greater value a postseason team provides for entertaining customers or rewarding employees.... Broadcast ratings rise, some of which the team may be able to monetize, based on their broadcast arrangement and contracts. Finally, the playoff games themselves can generate some additional revenue... When you combine all of these incremental revenues... a team can generate from $25 million to say, $70 million, over a 5-year period, from reaching the playoffs just one time.”
This basically agrees with the previously mentioned data on their attendance jumping 20-25% after their World Series run, meaning that they cashed in on millions in those postseasons, and it generated a longer lasting buzz that was partially depressed by their existing market challenges.
So while this strategy won’t penalize them as much as if they were not in a big market like New York or Los Angeles, the effects could be wide-reaching if they don’t make the postseason this year, causing a rippling effect that will cause them to collapse the contention cycle even more, and even more quickly sell off the remaining players they do have.
This is why they should remain active participants in the trade deadline, keeping this in mind. Is the ripple effect of the $25-70 million over the next five years worth it, or the $5 million you possibly save on acquisitions in 2019? If you’re a fan of Cleveland, then you’re depressed that you already know the answer.