Tribe’s Talent Retention Troubles

SS Francisco Lindor is as good as gone.

Various sources, including Bob Nightengale of USA Today, have indicated that the Tribe will move Lindor prior to Opening Day. This move has been considered a possibility since Lindor emerged as one of MLB’s brightest stars. Further, a future trade seemed all-but-guaranteed once he turned down the Tribe’s $100 million offer back in 2017. For fans over the last few offseasons, it has been a case of when will he be traded, not if.

However, this is not merely a Francisco Lindor issue.

It points to an overall financial issue for the Tribe. With the glaring exception of the outfield, the Indians have done a great job of drafting and trading for young talent. However, when it has come time to lock down a player longterm, the organization has often been hesitant to sign.

Indians Primary Owner Paul Dolan

The offseason has already seen the Tribe cut payroll by declining the options on 1B Carlos Santana, RP Brad Hand and OF Domingo Santana. However, these appear to be shrewd moves on the part of the front office. What’s discouraging for Indians fans is the belief, borne out by recent history, that the savings will not be used to sign Lindor or any other top-flight talent. Of course, there is nothing wrong with slashing payroll when doing so gets rid of the salaries of players that are not performing. The problem is the Indians consistently dump established stars in order to chase after other players with cheaper salaries. All with the hope that these cheaper players turn into all-stars. However, cynical fans then expect these new all-stars to be traded in order to acquire cheaper players in a never-ending cycle.

For fans of those incredible Tribe teams of the mid-to-late 90s, this is an especially bitter pill to swallow. Owner Dick Jacobs had no problem spending money to build a winner in Cleveland. It should be noted that the Indians allowed OF Albert Belle to walk away after the 1996 season. From 1998-2000 (the year Jacobs sold to the club), the Indians had the sixth, fourth and eighth highest payrolls in baseball. The Dolan family purchased the Tribe for $323 million in 2000. With the exceptions of the 2001 (fourth) and 2002 (ninth) seasons, the Tribe’s payroll has languished in the bottom half of baseball since. Those two seasons saw the Indians still paying for the contracts that Jacobs had signed. See the table below for the Tribe’s payroll rankings from 2003-2020.

Tribe’s Payroll Ranking by Year

year 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Rank 26 27 26 25 23 16 15 24 26 21 21 26 26 24 17 16 19 24

Some will argue that Jacobs was able to spend in that manner because the fans packed the stadium every night. This was the time of the Tribe’s sellout streak than ran from 1995 until the second game of the 2001 season. However, the Indians still ranked fourth in attendance in 2001 and a respectable 12th in 2002. Since then, the team has been in the bottom 10 in terms of attendance. While this gives credence to the attendance argument, one may detect the seeds of fan discontent after the 2000 season. In the offseason, OF Manny Ramirez left for the Boston Red Sox in free agency. To Larry Dolan’s credit, he really did offer Ramirez a huge contract, but it was not enough to keep him in Cleveland. Next, fan-favorite C Sandy Alomar, Jr. signed with the Chicago White Sox. Although he was in the twilight of his career, this was another shot against the new ownership. Alomar Jr. stated publicly that the Tribe “low-balled him.”

After the 2001 season, the team traded Hall-of-Fame 2B Roberto Alomar to the New York Mets in a move to lower payroll. During the 2002 season, the organization traded the team ace, SP Bartolo Colon, to the Montreal Expos. Again, in fairness, this ended up being a great trade for the team, as they were able to obtain SP Cliff Lee, CF Grady Sizemore and 2B Brandon Phillips. However, to the fans, this was another salary dump. To make matters worse, the team watched as 1B Jim Thome signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in the offseason. By the time the 2003 season rolled around, the Tribe was one of the cheapest teams in baseball. One can argue that trust between the fans and ownership was broken and has not been repaired since.

The trades of SP C.C. Sabathia, SP Cliff Lee, SP Trevor Bauer, Sp Mike Clevinger and the soon-to-be-traded Francisco Lindor are just further proof to Indians fans that the Dolans do not want to spend on this team year-in-and-year-out. Apologists for the owners will point to the signings of OF Michael Bourn, OF Nick Swisher and 1B Edwin Encarnacion as evidence that the team is willing to spend. Although those signings did not work, it shows that the owners are willing to take their shots. Unfortunately, the current economics of competitive baseball requires a team to take shots regularly.

It is true that the low attendance numbers hurt the team’s overall finances. How much so is another question. The Tribe is worth $1.15 billion as of this year. Of course, the matter is more complicated than this article has space to explore, but it is hard for fans to sympathize with an owner crying poor when the franchise value has increased three times over the purchase price.

The lackluster attendance number shows that the fans are unwilling to trust the ownership. Therefore, one can argue that the ownership needs to spend money consistently over the next few seasons to earn that trust back. The front office has done a great job in fielding teams that are perennial playoff contenders over the last six or seven years. Winning has not brought back the fans. The Lindor situation shows that the fans continue to expect the team to trade their best assets. Consequently, it appears that fans do not want to make the financial investment to attend games. This is not apathy on the fan’s part, as the local TV ratings show that the fans are tuning in to watch their Tribe.

In this world of COVID-19 restrictions and greater access to more and more types of distractions, it has to be asked whether an increase in the ownership’s spending will change this dynamic.

 

¹ http://www.stevetheump.com/Payrolls.htm#2019_payrolls, accessed on 11/13/20.

² http://www.espn.com/mlb/attendance/_/year/, accessed on 11/13/20.

³ https://www.statista.com/statistics/194608/mlb-franchise-value-of-the-cleveland-indians-since-2006/, accessed on 11/13/20.

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