The Indians off-season has been fairly compelling so far. I say that knowing full-well that there is some anger out there in the Tribeville regarding the front office’s decisions to date. For reasons I’ve discussed before, re-signing Grady for one year seems to me to be an efficient use of $5 million. Derek Lowe comes almost free. The additions of Aaron Cunningham, Jose Lopez, and Felix Pie are not game-changers, but they certainly don’t make the team appreciably worse.
As the child of billionaire once said, “What’s not to like [about being the child of a billionaire and signing players to minor league contracts and gambling on low-risk, high-reward reclamation projects]?”
On top of that, we’re going to get a full year of Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis and Ubaldo Jimenez in 2012—three players who figure to be improvements over the likes of their predecessors. It would be nearly impossible for Shin-Soo Choo to play worse than he did last season. Carlos Santana is only going to get better. In a weak division, the team looks poised to contend. And for someone who writes about this team, that’s something I haven’t been able to say for several years. This feels good.
So why all the angst out there? Well, I’m pretty sure I know where it comes from. For one, we have a gaping-sized hole at first base. For another, left field doesn’t look so hot either.* For (c), ownership told us that when the team was ready to contend, they’d spend to add talent, and this off-season doesn’t feel like the sort of spending we were promised.
*It should be noted that those two holes represent the two biggest pieces of the CC Sabathia trade, Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley. While I still hold out some hope that Brantley will get on base enough not to stink entirely, I think it’s pretty clear this trade has become a bust. I generally try to give these things a few years to play out. It’s been a few years, and I’m afraid it might have played out.
But you know that the team is spending, right? I’ve written about this before, but it’s likely that the service time raises due to Shin-Soo Choo, Chris Perez, Justin Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera will add about $10 million to the 2012 payroll. It might not be the sort of spending some were hoping for, but it’s exactly the sort of spending that’s necessary: I can’t imagine letting any of those players go right now, and retaining them requires a financial investment.
Throw in the contracts for Grady and Lowe, Fausto’s exercised option, and the arbitration raises to Joe Smith, Raffy Perez and Jack Hannahan, and all of a sudden the Indians could be spending close to $20 million more in 2012 than they did in 2011. That’s real money, and for the most part, I’m glad the club is choosing to spend it.
Even still, the team hasn’t done what a majority of the fanbase has been pining for: make an investment in a free agent bat to shore up the offense. There have been players on the market who would seem to fit this bill. Michael Cuddyer and Josh Willingham both appeared to be within the reach of mid-market teams. Cuddyer ended up signing with the Rockies for $31.5 million over three years; Willingham went the Twins for three years and $21 million. We know the Indians were interested in both players, but in the end decided they weren’t worth the three-year investment. It’s looking more and more likely that Shelley Duncan could be our opening day first baseman.
This is, admittedly, frustrating to those people who are not my wife or who are not named Shelley Duncan. Not the Dunc-a-dunc logic, exactly (though I proposed this idea way back in August and have more hope for it than some others), but the not-spending-idea. On the other hand, I can see the logic here. When you have limited resources, you have to choose where to spend the money. Mark Shapiro has made it clear that the front office believes the most effective use of resources is to invest in the young players the team is trying to build around, rather than overspending on complementary pieces.
And I think I agree with this. This team will go as far as Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez and Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall and Shin-Soo Choo will take them. If those players don’t perform, we have no shot—Michael Cuddyer or no. If they do, then we’ll have a real chance at winning in our mediocre division. To spend $10 million a year on a free agent who might be worth 1 to 2 additional wins over the guys we have on board? I guess I can see the point of building from within. Those are the guys I really want around anyway.
Further, if there’s one place I’ve always advocated for high-spending, it’s on youth. One of the reasons I got bent out of shape enough to write a five part opus on the stupid new CBA is that it hamstrung our ability to OVER-spend in the Rule 4 draft, which is what we’ve been doing the last several years. This philosophy of investing in youth and eschewing older players seems to me the only way to win a game that gets more and more unfair with each passing year. For the first six years of a player’s career, you can get his services for something approaching free. And those six years often include the best seasons of any player’s career: you can look it up.
But perhaps this is getting too esoteric. If so, I’ll remind you of the last time we signed a player for more than three years and more than $20 million. His name was Travis, and we’re still paying for that sin, Pronkville and all. This isn’t to say that Travis Hafner is everything that’s wrong with the Indians (though his contract was a major turning point in the franchise’s history that still gets less attention than it should). Rather, it’s just a reminder that the mistakes of a front office aren’t always those of inaction. Sometimes signing a big contract is the worst thing that can happen to a team, and part of me is happy to have avoided what could have been a three-year noose with a player on the wrong side of 30.
On the other hand, 2012 will be the last year of the Hafner contract, and part of me wonders if this rebuild didn’t happen a year before the front office expected it. It gets me thinking about long-term plans, and what the team might do with the additional money that’ll come off the books then. So many options start to open up down the road that my head starts spinning.
But for once, I’m happy I don’t have to think about seasons down the road. This is a team that can win the division, warts and all. I’m going to enjoy that thought rather than drown it out in free agent lamentations. At least until we sign Prince Fielder.