The Cleveland Indians and Pragmatism

Originally posted to iSportsTimes.com.

Why did the Indians sign Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn as free agents?

That’s a pretty silly question right? They signed those two players to make the team better. Obviously.

But think about it a little more deeply. The Indians aren’t exactly major players in free agency. While Swisher and Bourn are nice players, they are at stages in their careers when it can be reasonably expected that their skills begin to decline. Beyond that, these two players are pretty expensive relative to the Indians’ budget; Swisher makes an AAV of $14 million over his four year deal and Bourn makes an AAV of $12 million over his four year deal (both contracts are backloaded). It doesn’t really make a ton of sense for the Indians to hand out hefty contracts to players likely to experience significant skills degradation over the length of their respective deals.

At the same time, there were good reasons to add these two contracts to the payroll. Swisher and Bourn were both victims of the dreaded qualifying offer, which has an uncanny ability to restrict the market for mid-tier free agents. The Indians, however, had a pick inside the top ten in the 2013 amateur draft, meaning they only had to surrender second and third round picks to add Swisher and Bourn, putting them at a distinct advantage over teams picking outside the top ten. These two free agents also meshed pretty well with the Tribe’s needs. Bourn shored up an outfield that had nothing in the way of MLB talent coming up through the high minors. He also functions as a true leadoff hitter for a team that didn’t previously have one. Swisher added a consistent power bat to a lineup that didn’t have a lot of first base/corner outfield/designated hitter types to choose from. Combine all that with the incoming influx of television cash, the recent sale of Sports Time Ohio to Fox, and other revenue streams, and the Swisher and Bourn contracts begin to look like reasonably pragmatic moves.

This offseason the Indians seized the opportunity to sign Michael Brantley to a contract that buys out his three arbitration seasons, a year of free agency, and possibly a second year of free agency through a team option. Why did the Indians do this? Cost certainty. Lack of potential everyday outfielders coming up through the system. The slight upside of having Brantley at a discount in 2017 and potentially 2018 versus what he would receive as a free agent. In other words, it was another pragmatic move.

Aside from the Brantley extension, the Indians were rather quiet this offseason. Coming off a fantastic 2013 season that was undoubtedly the product of some tough-to-repeat good fortune, the team decided to only operate around the edges of the roster. They added a platoon outfielder coming off a season in which he slashed .220/.282/.374. They added a reliever who, despite all the talk of tipping pitches, is coming off a two year stretch where he couldn’t crack the 4.00 ERA mark. Despite losing 340.2 quality innings of starting pitching, the team decided not to re-sign either of their incumbent free agent starters, nor did they add any other starters of note in free agency.

Now, the logic behind each one of those decisions is pretty sound. David Murphy and John Axford are strong bounce-back candidates whose deflated prices in free agency were the driving force behind the Tribe’s ability to sign them. Not re-signing Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir makes sense because Jimenez stunk the prior two seasons and Kazmir didn’t even pitch the prior two seasons. Not signing a free agent starter is defensible for multiple reasons; the outsized price tags, the loss of a draft pick and the assigned slot value money for signing a guy attached to a qualifying offer, the volatile nature of pitchers in general, and the fact that it’s not all that certain that a free agent starter would be much of an upgrade over what the team has internally. Again, all reasonably pragmatic decisions.

Now there is the Justin Masterson contract negotiation. Masterson reportedly approached the team about a two or three year extension with an AAV of around $17 million, a proposal widely viewed as a fair asking price from a player about to enter free agency (although maybe not quite the huge discount it’s made out to be). The Indians declined to make that type of financial commitment, and again, it’s hard to argue with their logic. $17 million, or almost 20% of the team’s payroll, is a lot to pay for a pitcher with a career ERA+ of 100 who has shown severe platoon splits against lefties throughout his career. Throw in the generally risky nature of expensive contracts for pitchers and other impending financial commitments via arbitration for their young players, and the decision not to extend Masterson begins to look like another pragmatic decision.

This is how we want our front office to operate, right? We want them to recognize market inefficiencies. We want them to find value wherever they can and use their scarce resources to leverage that value. We want them to be economical, to never extend themselves beyond their means to the point that the team is unable to compete. We want them to act pragmatically.

But let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. Upon the conclusion of the 2013 season, the Indians had a roster with league-average or above players at left field, center field, shortstop, second base, first base, catcher, and DH/catcher/first base/third base/whatever position you consider Carlos Santana to play. That’s 7/9 of the lineup occupied by quality players. They had a solid bullpen that only lost a good but replaceable righty and a closer that people couldn’t wait to get rid of. The starting rotation, while filled with a reliable name at the top and upside through the middle, lacked depth due to losing two major contributors. All in all, it was a good but not great roster. It was certainly a roster that could benefit from the addition of a couple of wins either by re-signing outgoing free agents or bringing in free agents from outside the organization.

This may just be the fan in me talking, but entering the 2014 season with almost the exact same payroll level as 2013 doesn’t seem to make much sense. I would think the next logical move would be to significantly supplement a roster that was somewhat fortunate to win 92 games rather than try to work around the edges.

But like I said, it’s tough to argue with the pragmatic approach the team took this offseason.

Then there’s Justin Masterson. This is why the Indians were so pragmatic in free agency. They can take those saved dollars and use them to lock up a guy they’re familiar with at a position that projects to be thin for them in the coming years. They can lock in an exciting core of players that will be able to compete for a championship, not just the playoffs but a championship, over the next three years. This is where all those buzzy terms like payroll flexibility and cost certainty and fiscal discipline all amalgamate into a legitimate championship contender.

Except it didn’t. The Indians in all likelihood will lose Masterson after the 2014 season. Their 2015 rotation will look something like Kluber, McAllister, Salazar, maybe Trevor Bauer, and a washed up veteran or two that couldn’t land guaranteed contracts. Unless Salazar becomes Pedro Martinez 2.0, or even if he does, that doesn’t look like an especially promising rotation. And forget adding a free agent starter. If the team won’t enter into a short-term market level extension with Masterson, there’s no chance they add outside help of any significance.

Pragmatism is an excellent approach to constructing an MLB roster. It got the Indians to the playoffs last season, and it has them in prime position to continue having success. But the goal of an MLB franchise should be to win the World Series, not make as many pragmatic decisions as possible. Pragmatism for pragmatism’s sake isn’t really pragmatism at all.

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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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