The Cleveland Indians and the “Promotional Player”

Originally posted to iSportsTimes.com.

When an MLB game, or really any sporting event for that matter, is promoted on a national network like ESPN, the promotion usually takes the form of “Player A and Team X travel to take on Player B and Team Y”. So typically you get something like “Mike Trout and the LA Angels travel cross country to take on Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees!” or “Andrew McCutcheon and the Pirates pay a visit to their cross-state rivals when they take on Chase Utley and the Philadelphia Phillies!”

As you can see in the above examples, the players that get mentioned in the promo can take different forms. Guys like Trout and McCutcheon are young, transcendent talents. The length of time they’ve been on their respective clubs is secondary to that transcendency. Guys like Jeter and Utley may have been transcendent talents earlier in their careers, but have now each become somewhat of a team ambassador. They are mentioned in these promos not because of their abilities at this point in time, but because of their recognizability to more casual fans, aka the group that the promo is aimed at, aka people that don’t typically read articles such as this one.

All of which leads to this next question: Who is the “promotional player” for the Cleveland Indians?

Going back to 2007, the team was flush with candidates for this role. CC Sabathia was cementing his place as one of the best pitchers in baseball. Travis Hafner was struggling a bit after a three year run as one of the top power hitters in the game, but he was still having a season most players would kill for. Victor Martinez was still doing Victor Martinez things, spraying line drives all over the diamond and generally being a fan favorite.

Yet none of those players held the national appeal of a young Grady Sizemore. Sizemore’s combination of fantastic numbers, breathtaking plays, and by all accounts dashing good looks (yes, in this discussion that matters) made him the odds on favorite to become the Indians “promotional player”.

But more to the point, this was a time when the Indians had a core group of players that not only had the ability to get the fans excited, but had the ability to breach the national conversation in a way the Indians hadn’t been able to do since the glory days of the 90’s. For a small market team, the affability of the team’s stars could potentially have a huge effect on the team’s popularity, to say nothing of the team’s actual ability to win baseball games.

Needless to say, that core never replicated the heights they achieved in 2007, at least while wearing Indians uniforms. Hafner never rebounded to his pre-2007 levels and at age 36 looks done as an MLB player (though he says he wants to keep playing). Sabathia and Martinez were both eventually traded after it became clear the team wouldn’t be able to retain them. The real shame was Sizemore, who couldn’t stay healthy after the 2008 season yet now looks poised to haunt Tribe fans’ dreams as the center fielder for the Red Sox. The team also saw Cliff Lee emerge into an full-fledged ace just a season after being one of the worst pitchers in baseball in 2007, and they ultimately dealt him when it become they wouldn’t be able to afford his services.

To be fair to the team, they did make efforts to keep the core somewhat intact, even prior to the 2007 season. They extended Sabathia in 2005 to a two year, $17.75 million contract that delayed his free agency by two years. They also agreed to contracts that bought out arbitration and a year of free agency for Martinez, Lee, and Sizemore. They essential cast their lot with Hafner for the long haul, signing him to a four year, $57 million extension in the middle of the 2007 season; a move that all but assured the team wouldn’t be able to keep Martinez beyond 2009. They signed Jake Westbrook, a good but not great pitcher at the time, to a three year, $33 million dollar extension at the beginning of the 2007 season.

But at the same time, let’s be clear what those contracts represent. While the Martinez, Lee, and Sizemore contracts were nice in that they bought out a year of free agency, those guys would have been under team control for most of those years even without those contracts, and the Sabathia contract only delayed free agency for two years. Only the Hafner and Westbrook deals kept the player away from free agency for an extended period. *

*It should be noted that I was about 14 years old when all of this was happening, and at the time I didn’t have much of an appreciation for arbitration, team control, etc. I have done the best I can to piece it together based on MLB service time and the few articles I could scrounge up on the web, so if I made a mistake in the preceding two paragraphs please let me know.

More importantly for the purposes of this conversation, none of those deals did enough to curb the idea among fans that the Indians are reluctant to extend their players. Even now, in this interview with GM Chris Antonetti, beat writer Jordan Bastian asks, “Is it wrong for fans to think this is CC Sabathia or Cliff Lee all over again?”

Is that fair to the team? No way. As someone who reads blogs such as this one, you, dear reader, understand that it isn’t realistic for the Indians to keep all their exciting young players once they hit free agency.

But public perception is rarely fair. Everyone who is a fan of the team, and even those that work for the team, have probably wondered at some point why more fans don’t show up to the ballpark. And I certainly wouldn’t suggest that I, sitting at my laptop typing this column, have all or even any of the answers about how to solve that problem.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t speculate, so here’s my best guess: I think casual fans, the fans that make up the vast majority of the ticket buying public, are reluctant to invest both financially and emotionally in the Indians because they are still under the impression that their favorite players will be wearing different uniforms sooner than later. Even if that’s not actually true, even if the Indians have done everything within their power to retain their own players, it hasn’t changed the idea among casual fans that they are rooting for laundry.

Once again, the Indians have an exciting core of players, all of who are at different points in their respective contracts. Justin Masterson is the first member of that core to near free agency, and it doesn’t appear as though the team will be able to retain him.

I would never suggest the Indians enter into a contract such as the one the Rockies gave Todd Helton way back in 2001 or the extension the Twins gave Joe Mauer in 2010. For teams with limited budgets, guaranteeing a quarter of the payroll to one player makes little baseball sense (I was going to include the Miguel Cabrera extension here, but there are some extenuating circumstances surrounding that monstrosity).

By that same token, it remains to be seen whether or not any one player from this current core can become the Tribe’s “promotional player” (Jason Kipnis is the best bet to do so). In the meantime, don’t expect fans suddenly start piling into Progressive Field every night.

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About PapaBearJere

Jeremy Klein is an unabashed Cleveland Sports fan who only wants to see a Cleveland team win a title. You can follow him on twitter @PapaBearJere or email him at thenarrativeblog@gmail.com.

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