The Diff: Indians offseason, 2014 salary and contention windows

The Diff

The Diff is your weekly WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. This is my 41st edition of The Diff. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week, I injected some stats into a Cavs rotation projection. This week, I’m writing about 2014 Indians salary issues.

The Diff

For many, talking about baseball salaries is a tiring and depressing issue. These fans will point to the unfair system that allows teams like New York, Los Angeles and Boston to spend their way into the playoffs each year while teams like Tampa Bay, Oakland and Cleveland wilt away at the bottom. But this idea ignores a clear truth: Teams like the Rays (four straight 90-win seasons) and Athletics (seven playoffs in 14 years) still have managed to win baseball games consistently. Their small-budget success makes one wonder how the Cleveland Indians could be even more efficient in the future. That continues with this current offseason.

According to the ever-powerful Cot’s Baseball Contracts database, the Indians paid out about $78 million in salaries during the 2013 season. That total ranked 23rd-highest in baseball, more than three other playoff teams, the Pittsburgh Pirates ($67 million), Oakland Athletics ($62 million) and Tampa Bay Rays ($62 million). As of now, I will continue to work under the assumption that Cleveland’s short-to-mid-term annual salary will still hover around the $75-80 million range. That appears to be the franchise’s new normal, after such highs of 2001 ($94 million) and 2009 ($86 million).

That’s as far as I’ll go into overall baseball economics for today. We could argue all day long about the fairness of this situation (eh), the concept of a salary cap (not happening) and the reason for still-increasing baseball salaries (up 9% in last two years; thanks LA!). But, for the standpoint of actually analyzing what Mark Shapiro, Chris Antonetti and Terry Francona might be up to over the next three-plus months, I’m going to just stand by that $75-80 million standard assumption.

Current Status

Through much of the 2013 season, the Cleveland Indians carried 13 pitchers and 12 position players on their 25-man roster. When looking for an initial estimate of where the Indians find themselves salary-wise, my goal was to look at that base composition and all of the existing salaries known. Here’s where I ended up and I’ll explain how I got there after the initial salary chart.

indians salary 2014 chart

As of now, this chart shows the 2014 salary as a very fluid near $77 million already. This might be significantly higher than you might have expected at first. But, as I wrote first in mid-July, the Indians faced a huge slate of over $18 million in scheduled increases for this coming season for Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Asdrubal Cabrera, Mike Aviles and Carlos Santana. So while they cut ties with a variety of high-priced players in Brett Myers, Mark Reynolds and Chris Perez, the team is already in that target $75-80 million range.

Seeing that as a likely reality by early in the offseason, I wrote more about the Indians future outlook in The Diff in August. I expressed concern about the team’s ability to add significant talent this offseason. But more importantly, I was already nervous about how the team would handle future contract situations with Justin Masterson (free agent after 2014), Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis. I was just uncertain about what the Indians’ peak contention window might be.

With all those concerns already on the table, I’ll now explain a bit more about how I got to this initial $77 million valuation.

Absolving Free Agents

My colleague TD wrote yesterday about the situations revolving around starters Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir. He piggybacked off my Kazmir qualifying offer consideration article from over the weekend. As of now, it’s mostly clear that the Indians will be unable to retain Jimenez; he’ll likely decline the $14.1 million qualifying offer and sign a deal in the 4-year, $50-plus million range with another team. Cleveland didn’t extend that same offer to Kazmir, so unless they can surprisingly reach some multi-year deal, he’s likely also gone as well. That would leave the team with just four proven starters. More on this later.

The other notable free agent losses for the Indians would be veteran relievers Joe Smith, Matt Albers and Rich Hill. Smith made $3.15 million and Albers made $1.75 million this past year as final arbitration year middle relievers. Hill made just $1 million as a free agent; he’s not expected to return. Smith is by far more likely to possibly return, but would still likely cost the team $4 million annually in free agency, probably for multiple years. I’ll cover offseason areas of need later on and clearly a veteran reliever (or two) would be a huge boost. For now, however, both are off the chart.

History of This Chart

To provide some necessary background, my colleague Jon first created this chart on Oct. 7. It was definitely worthy of a FASCINATING tag. At the time, he had 24 players on his chart, including 14 pitchers. Note that I purposefully edited the chart to eventually include 25 players and 13 pitchers.

Also, as Jon prefaced in tweets earlier that day, he was assuming the team would 1) Not retain Jason Giambi (which they did) and 2) sign Joe Smith (uncertain). Those aren’t that crazy of assumptions. Most importantly for the salary math, however, Jon also predicted that the Indians would 3) dump Asdrubal Cabrera’s $10 million (we’ll see) and 4) non-tender Drew Stubbs’ assumed $3.8 million (uncertain). Those final two predictions are the ones I’ll get to now in more detail.

Upcoming Decisions

Compared to Joe Smith, the decisions on Cabrera and Stubbs are a bit more interesting. Neither are free agents able to negotiate any deal with any other team. Cleveland owns the clear rights to both. But their status could clear out huge dollars to enable the Indians to at all consider major offseason upgrades.

Asdrubal Cabrera

The Indians agreed to a contract extension with the soon-to-be 28-year-old back in April 2012. The deal locked in Cabrera’s final arbitration-eligible season of 2013 at $6.5 million and bought out his first free agency season of 2014 at $10 million. Jon wrote about Cabrera’s impending contract situation in January 2012 and then the day after the deal in April. It’s pretty darn interesting to read those old words today.

So yes, Cleveland is currently locked into that $10 million for Cabrera. Jon has written twice about the concept of trading Cabrera (here and here). I also shared some of the rumors about St. Louis’ possible interest. My clear preference would be for the Indians to find a way to dump Cabrera. The Cardinals continue to be a logical fit because of their need for a shortstop and their young pitching depth.

One comparison I made earlier this week with the Cabrera situation was to Shin-Soo Choo’s. Obviously, the Indians organization is in a far different situation than 12 months ago and Cabrera clearly has less market value. But at the time, Choo was a similarly enigmatic entity due $7-8 million in a final uncertain arbitration year before hitting the open market. The Indians managed to swindle that deal for a top pitching prospect (Trevor Bauer), two solid relievers (Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw) and an OK starting outfielder (the next player below). So there is some semblance of hope for a decent trade offer.

Drew Stubbs

MLB Trade Rumors estimated that the now-29-year-old Stubbs will earn about $3.8 million in his first arbitration-eligible season in 2014. As they smartly theorized, Stubbs is a possible candidate for a non-tender situation where the Indians simply decline to offer him the chosen arbitration number, enabling him to be an MLB free agent.

For Cleveland, keeping Stubbs comes down to a matter of comfort in the outfield. They’d still have Michael Bourn in center, Michael Brantley in left plus versatile options Nick Swisher and Ryan Raburn for right field. Is the team then comfortable carrying no additional outfielder? Or perhaps a guy like Tim Fedroff or Matt Carson? As of now, the likely outcome is that the Indians pass on the luxury of Stubbs.

Offseason Upgrades?

Removing Cabrera and Stubbs from the chart above and the Indians’ 2014 salary shrinks down to just about $63 million. That’s a huge difference from what the chart first looked like in terms of the organization’s wiggle room to make any upgrades to an imperfect 92-win team. Here are the likely priority areas for improvement in the hopeful situation of this opening for extra salary. For this section, I consulted Jeff Passan’s epic free-agent tracker at Yahoo! Sports.

Starter (or two)

Without Jimenez or Kazmir, here are all of possible starting pitcher options available on hand: Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin and T.J. House. That’s clearly not enough to repeat the team’s 2013 pitching success or to likely compete for the playoffs yet again.

Potential buy-low options on the market in the Indians price range could include: Bartolo Colon, Phil Hughes, Tim Hudson (already rumored!), Josh Johnson, Dan Haren, Jason Vargas, Scott Baker or Colby Lewis. Perhaps this odd collection of available talent increases the push for the team to actually sign Kazmir to a reasonable multi-year deal. But I’d expect another reclamation signing or two to occur regardless.

Reliever (or two)

The Indians currently have no reliever with closer experience, outside of beleaguered Vinnie Pestano. While many (including myself) might argue against the need for a bonafide closer, the Indians will need bullpen help of some kind to supplement the existing young talent on roster. Some additional Triple-A options exist like C.C. Lee, Scott Barnes, Preston Guilmet and Bryan Price. But that’s likely not sufficient again.

There are a decent number of free agent options that fit the model of a typical reliever signing: Joaquin Benoit, Fernando Rodney, Grant Balfour, Brian Wilson, Jesse Crain, Edward Mujica (former Indian!), J.P. Howell, etc. All obviously carry a variety of risk. But that’s the life of relievers; the Indians just need more experienced arms who could come in and compete.

Another bat

As soon as Mark Reynolds’ fleeting power surge ended, Indians fans were clamoring for another consistent power bat to join the fold. That might be a false hope; the team still did rank above the American League average in every slugging category and there really aren’t that many true power hitters anymore. The Indians are not expected to be leading contenders for the top bats on the market, such as Robinson Cano, Mike Napoli or Carlos Beltran. All three received the standard qualifying offers that carry a cost of a first-round draft pick.

Thus, backup options could be players like Justin Morneau, Carlos Ruiz, Nelson Cruz, Corey Hart, Lance Berkman or Raul Ibanez. All carry as much risk (or more) than a Mark Reynolds. If the Indians are actually able to clear away the money owed to Cabrera and Stubbs, then one of these players becomes a likely priority. If not, it’s uncertain how much more they’ll be able to invest in position players.

Spring training invites

And, as always, you’ll see Cleveland look to add on maybe a half dozen final reclamation signings on invitations to spring training. This past season, that included Kazmir, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Matt Capps (returning on invite in 2014). All of these are final add-ons for February after the flurry of signings take place over the next four-to-six weeks.

Future Decisions

So there’s a gigantic primer on the upcoming offseason for the Cleveland Indians. My point through this experiment was to practically show the possibilities for the Indians within their expected salary range of $75-80 million, based on existing contract situations. There is reason to believe this offseason could be nearly as busy as the last, minus the addition of AL Manager of the Year finalist Terry Francona.

Overall in the baseball world, there clearly is potential for small-market teams to thrive and find their specific niches. As Michael Lewis described in “Moneyball” and Jonah Keri described in “The Extra 2%”, the Athletics and Rays innovated to reach long stretches of successful baseball. Notably, the A’s have brought on tons of reclamation projects and the Rays have developed a unique model for bullpen pickups.

The biggest concern against the Indians’ long-term ability to compete with a similar budget to those two teams is their recent inability to develop young talent. You can easily point to the poor drafting in many gruesome ways (here, here and here in long-form). One could also nitpick with the $30-plus million owed to aging outfielders in Swisher and Bourn for the next three years.

But in one final concept, I present what Tribe/Rays writer Steve Kinsella shared last November in a post called “Why The Indians Need To Abolish The Word ‘Rebuild’” at Wahoos on First. I’d encourage you to check it out, especially his link to another Jonah Keri article on the “Moneyball” topic.

I shared my concerns earlier in relation to the Indians salary situation and the team’s peak “contention window.” As of now, I’m pessimistic as the Tribe has yet to compete in back-to-back seasons in many years. This upcoming offseason and the decisions the team makes with an eye toward the future will finally show whether they’ve learned their lesson from past mistakes.

  • nj0

    Wins are wins. Doesn’t matter if you get them through pitching, hitting, or fielding. That’s all I’m saying. One more win through replacing Stubbs is one more win. Yeah, I get it… Getting a good pitcher over Tomlin is probably worth more wins than getting a new player over Stubbs, but adding wins through replacing Stubbs still adds wins. And like you said, at this point each additional win is crucial.

    Not even sure what we’re arguing here.

  • nj0

    I really don’t know what is available at 3B in free agency. I’m sure anything good is out of our price range.

  • Tribe Fan

    maybe a 1 year flyer on youkilis, especially after that disaster of a year with the yankees….theres no way hes getting 13 mil a season after that

  • CB Everett

    Just to be clear, I’m not sold that Chiz is the answer. However, like njo suggested, any 3B out there (it’s slim) are out of our range. So we’ve got to see if Chiz performs. I think realistically, we’re better to land a bat in the form of a 4th OF to platoon/take a flyer or a similar caliber 1B (as I said, personally I think Morneau would be a nice fit).

  • Tribe Fan

    only problem with that is that even with the loss of kubel and probable non tendering of stubbs, we got plenty of outfielders, so there no point in spending money on one. a quality backup 1B/DH perhaps, but definitely not another outfielder

  • Steve

    I don’t think we’re arguing. Two adults having a conversation, each with their own perspective. I know it’s regular message board etiquette to assume someone who sees things differently is the biggest jerk ever who’s trying to stifle just, like, your opinion, man, instead of realizing that your opinion is better thought out if it has to stand up to a little challenging of it. But I think we’re far in the clear towards the latter here.

    And like discussed upthread, Stubbs can be somewhat replaced by Swisher and Raburn. I’m nowhere near as confident in Carrasco and Bauer filling for Tomlin, who when last seen in the rotation, put up a -1.2 WAR, and it’s nearly impossible to have enough rotation depth. I’m going to be very worried if this team tries to get through next year with seven starters, considering six of those guys have combined for just one season of 160 IP.

  • Tribe Fan

    ya, no point in moving him, let him hit free agency and get the 1st round pick

  • mgbode

    we won’t get a comp pick for A-Cab though. we’d have to offer him the QO, which will likely be $15mil next year. A-Cab laughs as he signs that 1year tender (he’s not getting that on the open market unless next year is way better than we have right to believe).

  • Kildawg

    Capps could be that guy, slotted as the closer in the grand effort of pinching pennies. He already has an invite to spring training and closing experience (remember the Twins gave up Wilson Ramos for him a few years ago).

  • Kildawg

    Don’t forget that Pittsburgh would be looking to upgrade at SS as well since Clint Barmes looks like a backup/platoon player. Since the SS market looks pretty bare (Boston gave Stephen Drew a QO), this could make the $10M owed Cabrera look like an acceptable price while also trimming some surplus, like STL has in Craig, Motte, SP, and even Freese.