Indians owner Paul Dolan has a message for the team’s fans regarding superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor: Don’t get too attached. That’s the major takeaway from an interview with The Athletic’s Zack Meisel published on Monday, where Cleveland’s head honcho discussed the franchise’s payroll and odds of keeping its homegrown All-Star—both of which are decidedly low.
So, does owner Paul Dolan envision himself ever signing a player to, say, a 10-year, $300 million deal?
“No, but I never foresaw us doing a deal like we did with Encarnacion,” Dolan said in his spring-training office during a recent sit-down interview with The Athletic. “You don’t know. Probably the day when we do a deal like that is when somebody else is doing $1 billion deals with somebody else.”
What, then, would he advise to fans who are already growing unsettled about Lindor’s future in Cleveland?
“Enjoy him,” Dolan said. “We control him for three more years. Enjoy him and then we’ll see what happens.”
If you’re an Indians fan, that’s not exactly the message you’re seeking regarding Lindor, who’s fresh off a season in which he [inhales] hit .277/.352/.519 with 38 homers, 25 steals, a 131 OPS+, 7.9 bWAR, some of the best defense in baseball, an All-Star nod, and a sixth-place finish in the AL MVP voting—all at age 24. That’s the kind of player you try to keep forever, yet the way Dolan puts it, Cleveland will likely bid goodbye to its Puerto Rican face of the franchise once he hits free agency after the 2021 season.
That may feel far away, but three years in baseball can end quickly—especially when the team is in a position to contend. That means just three more chances for the Indians to end a 70-year title drought with Lindor at the helm. What’s more, he won’t be the only key member of this roster who may not be around much longer. Two-time AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber can hit free agency this winter if Cleveland doesn’t pick up a $17.5 million option after the season. Cy Young-in-his-mind Trevor Bauer has two seasons left of team control before he tests free agency (something he’s already said he’s going to do). And Lindor’s partner in mayhem in the infield, Jose Ramirez, could also depart after 2021 if the Indians decline an $11 million option on his contract (a relatively small amount of money, but consider Dolan’s comments today).
The Indians’ window for World Series contention, then, might not stay open much longer. Looking back at their offseason, there wasn’t much urgency. Few if any teams did less this winter than Cleveland, which didn’t sit on its hands so much as it sold them to the highest bidder. The front office’s lone major league free-agent signing was 37-year-old lefty specialist Oliver Perez, inked to a one-year, $2.5 million deal. Instead, Cleveland stripped its roster of some useful parts, dealing away Yan Gomes, Yonder Alonso and Edwin Encarnacion in exchange for … well, not a whole lot. Spinning Encarnacion in a three-way deal with Seattle and Tampa brought back Carlos Santana, coming off one of the worst years of his career in Philadelphia, as well as first baseman Jake Bauers from the Rays. Neither Gomes nor Alonso returned anyone who’ll help this year’s major league roster. The team also said goodbye to a plethora of helpful players in free agency, letting Andrew Miller, Josh Donaldson, Michael Brantley and Cody Allen all walk, and spent months dangling Kluber and Bauer in trade talks.
The result is a lineup so thin you can almost see through it. The starting outfield ahead of Opening Day is Leonys Martin, Bauers and Tyler Naquin. Second base currently belongs to busted Mariners prospect Brad Miller, now on his fourth team in four years in place of the perpetually injured and declining Jason Kipnis. Santana is plugged in at first base despite coming off the worst season of his career. Designated hitter may be the saddest spot, though, where the Indians unearthed Hanley Ramirez, who was released last May by Boston. They’ll field this lineup while Lindor and Jose Ramirez likely miss Opening Day with injuries.
The rotation is strong and deep—led by Kluber and backed up by Bauer, Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger—but the bullpen is a mess beyond closer Brad Hand and righty specialist Adam Cimber. Nothing about this team suggests a juggernaut in the making.
That’s by design. Cleveland can get away with fielding a roster like this thanks to its position atop the AL Central, baseball’s worst division. The powerful yet flawed Twins are the Indians’ only real competition for first place, while the White Sox, Royals and Tigers all muddle through long and painful rebuilds. With 57 games this season—a third of its schedule—against that terrible trio, Cleveland has an easy stroll toward a division title and a guaranteed playoff spot unless Minnesota surges toward relevance after a disappointing 2018.
The projection systems, meanwhile, have the Indians as heavy favorites in the Central even despite that patchy collection of talent. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA pegs them for 97 wins—second most in the AL, behind only Houston—and a 15-game advantage over the Twins. FanGraphs is a bit more modest at 91 wins but also has them effortlessly dispatching Minnesota. Diving into the numbers, you can see why the computers are so sanguine about Cleveland: The team has the best rotation in baseball, two top-tier stars in Lindor and Ramirez, and a solid if not stellar defense, with PECOTA ranking them No. 1 in the majors in Fielding Runs Above Average.
You can see the logic, too, of building a team that’s merely good enough to win its terrible division. Even if it’s an ugly slog to first place, that still results in a trip to the postseason, where anything can happen, particularly if you have starters as good as Kluber, Bauer, Carrasco and Clevinger. Then again, that same foursome ended up a gnat on the Astros’ windshield last October, as Houston quickly pushed Cleveland aside in a three-game Division Series sweep, pounding the Indians’ vaunted pitching for 21 runs and allowing just six.
The other issue is that the Indians’ stars-and-scrubs approach to roster construction requires the team’s best players to be healthy and productive. Serious injury to key pieces or weaker-than-expected seasons forces you to give lots of at-bats or innings to your worst options. The Indians are already getting a taste of that with Lindor, who’s sidelined through Opening Day and beyond with a calf strain; in his place is Eric Stamets, a 27-year-old career minor leaguer. They dodged an even bigger bullet on Sunday when Jose Ramirez fouled a ball off his left knee in a spring game, causing him to crumple to the ground and be carted off the field. The portly third baseman avoided a fracture, but there’s no timetable yet for his return.
With all that in mind, it’s confusing why Cleveland didn’t add roster depth or proven power to its weak lineup. But then you read Dolan’s comments about how the team “can’t chase the high-end [free agents]” or how the Indians “[aren’t] going to outspend anybody,” and the answer becomes clear: Ownership has tightened the purse strings and knotted them shut.
Throughout his interview with Meisel, Dolan says that the team has lost money “more often than not” (a claim that can’t be verified, as the team’s finances aren’t available to the public), and that last season’s early playoff exit robbed the franchise of extra cash it was counting on to make improvements. The result is a payroll that’s been slashed by roughly $20 million, from $135 million last season down into the $115 million range. Instead of being a player for marquee free agents like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, Cleveland will instead hope that its current core is good enough on its own.
That’s a shame and a disservice to Indians fans who’ve been waiting seven decades to see a championship. This winter has seen plenty of financial retrenchment across the league, but it’s particularly galling in Cleveland’s case, given that the team is a true contender. If you’re not going to spend now, when that roster is ready to win, then what’s the point of owning the team at all? “Nobody wants us to balance our checkbook,” Dolan told The Athletic, but that’s what this winter ended up being: Money took precedence over the on-field product, and the result is an Indians squad that will play in 2019 with one arm tied behind its back. (It’s also nonsensical to hear a member of one of the richest families on earth talk about pinching pennies.)
“We have an opportunity to engage in the community in ways that you can’t get in any other way,” Dolan told Meisel. “It’s enriched all of our lives.” But if Cleveland’s ownership can’t commit to spending what it takes to make the Indians a perennial winner, than that community isn’t getting anything at all out of this arrangement. All they’re being presented with is three more years of Lindor, a painful divorce, and the promise that, the next time a star of his stature comes around, not to get their hopes up that he’ll hang around either.