Can Cleveland Afford Francisco Lindor?

I think it’s fair to say that the city of Cleveland has an image problem. I don’t know how far back this issue goes, but they’ve been late-night joke fodder for as long as I can remember. I suppose flyover country plus rust belt plus the depiction of the city and baseball team in the movie Major League adds up to a less-than-stellar perception of the city. That attitude often transfers over to the baseball club, particularly in terms of what the team can and cannot do when it comes to spending. This perception is central to the debate about whether the Cleveland baseball club can afford a massive contract extension for Francisco Lindor. However, perception isn’t always reality.

There are two principal arguments against Cleveland offering a big contract to Lindor. The first is that Cleveland is too small of a market with meager revenues, and signing Lindor would push payroll too high. The second is an offshoot of the first: If Cleveland were to sign Lindor to a huge contract, they would have their ability to compete constrained because Lindor would cost too much to keep payroll in line with typical levels. Both arguments are worth exploring.

Last season, Forbes ranked Cleveland 25th among franchises for valuation purposes at $1.15 billion. Twenty-fifth place feels pretty close to 30th, and it’s true that Cleveland’s valuation by Forbes was just $150 million higher than the last-place Marlins. It’s also true that Cleveland is closer to 18th-ranked Arizona Diamondbacks than they are to Miami. Cleveland’s market certainly isn’t the biggest in baseball, but it has close to the same number of households as Denver and is significantly ahead of places like St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, San Diego, Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Milwaukee. It’s not just market size and valuation where Cleveland is closer to a middle-of-the-pack team than a cellar-dweller.

When it comes to attendance, Cleveland has been in the bottom third for the past three years, but again, they are closer to the middle of the pack than the bottom. For the 2018 season, Forbes estimated Cleveland’s revenues amounted to $282 million, ranking 17th in the sport. The club’s local television contract isn’t one of the richest, coming in at between $40-50 million under a deal set to expire at the end of 2022, but it isn’t among the worst, either. Plus the team received more than $200 million when they sold the television network in 2012 (when the current television contract was created). Over the last decade, Cleveland has received television money in total that resembles something more like a mid-tier-to-nearly-upper-tier market. Cleveland might “feel” like a small-market team, and their success on the field over the past few decades with mostly homegrown stars and a smartly run front office probably contributes to that feeling, but they aren’t the A’s or Rays or Marlins. They have touted their own growth to the middle and have more in common with the Rockies, Diamondbacks, Padres, and Tigers than they do to the handful of teams with significantly lower revenues.

Even leaving aside the argument that of course Cleveland can afford to sign Lindor because the owner of the club is a billionaire, there’s still the matter of Cleveland’s precedent for spending and the framework necessary to devote a significant amount of payroll to a single player. It’s certainly helpful to understand Cleveland’s revenues and profits. According to Forbes, every team receives about $90 million from MLB. Add in close to $50 million for their local television contract, and Cleveland covers last year’s payroll with $10 million to spare before they even sell a single ticket. In 2018, Forbes estimated a $16 million profit for Cleveland even after a $150 million payroll. After a lackluster offseason a winter ago, the team lost around 190,000 fans in attendance for 2019. While that probably cost the team around $10 million, the team dropped payroll by $20 million.

Cleveland has dropped another $25 million off the payroll this offseason, but even if they lose another 200,000 fans, they’ll still end up with an extra $15 million or so at the end of the season. In summary, with a $150 million payroll and around 1.9 million fans, the team earns profits of around $15 million. Cutting payroll by $50 million and losing 400,000 fans leads to an extra $25 million in profits. It’s easy to see why this might be appealing to ownership and how this is one of the bigger problems facing the sport at the moment.

In terms of fitting a Lindor salary above $30 million right now, Cleveland’s payroll would still be around $15 million less than what it was a year ago and $35 million under their 2017 and 2018 totals. In the near term, Cleveland has just $24 million committed to 2021, $14 million to 2022, and just $3 million to 2023. The team is likely to pick up reasonable options on players like Jose Ramirez and Carlos Carrasco while other players will see increases in salary through arbitration, but the club has no long-term encumbrances on future payroll.

There’s also the idea of a Francisco Lindor contract taking up too much payroll. We can throw different percentages around in terms of what might be too much, but keep in mind that payrolls tend to escalate over time. For argument’s sake, let’s say Lindor signed a 12-year, $375 million contract today that paid him $20 million this year, $25 million next year, and $33 million over the 10 years after that. Let’s also conservatively assume that Cleveland will be running a $130 million payroll in 2022 when the free agent years of Lindor begin. In 2022, Lindor’s contract will take up 25% of payroll, which is a large number. As payroll increases though, that percentage drops. In 2009 and 2019, Cleveland was in the low-20s in terms of payroll ranks, but payroll increased by 67% over that time. While we can’t assume the exact same growth, Lindor’s contract moves from 25% of the payroll to 20% at the midway point to 15% by the contract’s end.

I looked for similar situations to Lindor where one player on a small-market team received a contract with a value exceeding $250 million (translated to 2020 values), and there just aren’t very many examples.

Big Contracts for Smaller Markets
Player Year Years Total Value ($/M) 2020 Adjustment ($/M) AAV 2020 ADJ ($/M)
Giancarlo Stanton 2015 13 325 395 30.4
Ken Griffey Jr. 2000 9 116.5 332 36.9
Prince Fielder 2012 9 214 322 35.8
Joey Votto 2014 10 225 293 29.3
Joe Mauer 2011 8 184 291 36.3
Todd Helton 2003 9 141.5 279 31.0
Nolan Arenado 2019 8 260 268 33.5
Miguel Cabrera 2016 8 248 260 32.5
Miguel Cabrera 2008 8 152.3 251 31.3

If the player needs to take up a signficant percentage of payroll, the list drops down further. Miguel Cabrera received two huge extensions and Prince Fielder also signed a big deal, but Detroit was running payrolls so large during that time, the individual contracts were closer to 15% of payroll. Giancarlo Stanton’s extension sort of fits, but given the Marlins had little problem dumping nearly all of Stanton’s contract on the Yankees despite him exercising his no-trade clause along with the Marlins’ ultra-frugal history, it doesn’t make for a great comparison. Nolan Arenado’s contract situation is difficult to assess because the opt-out hurts his trade value and simultaneously provides incentive for Colorado to trade him. In any event, Arenado’s AAV still comes in at under 20% of Colorado’s total payroll. If the Rockies aren’t successful, it’s because they bungled many other contracts and not because of Arenado’s.

Even Joey Votto’s huge deal has only amounted to 19% of Cincinnati’s payrolls over the last half-dozen years, and that percentage is going to go down over the next few as well. The real comparisons are Ken Griffey Jr., Joe Mauer, and Todd Helton. Griffey actually took up 26% of Cincinnati’s payroll over the course of his contract, starting at over 30% before working his way down a little bit over time. In order for a Lindor contract worth $33 million per year to have a similar effect, Cleveland would need to average a $130 million payroll all the way through 2031. Helton put up 29 WAR over the course of his deal, and while Mauer wasn’t as good with Minnesota after having to switch from catcher to first base and designated hitter, he still put up close to 20 WAR over those eight seasons.

There’s an argument to be made for taking those three good comps and pointing out that their teams weren’t very good. Those three players’ clubs put up a .468 winning percentage over the course of those three contracts, a 76-win pace. Of course, during that same time period, the bottom 10 teams in Forbes’ valuations put up a .483 winning percentage, a 78-win pace. While those three players didn’t end up on a lot of winning teams, their teams did about the same as other similarly situated teams who didn’t invest as much in a single player.

There doesn’t appear to be a significant disadvantage for small-market teams to invest big money in a single player. For an organization as successful as Cleveland in other aspects of the game, they seem well equipped to make an exception for Lindor and continue to build around him. This is a franchise that spent several years giving Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher 30% of their payroll. Spreading money around isn’t always the answer.

Arguing that Cleveland isn’t as small of a market and revenue-driver as one might think, as well as pointing out the lack of evidence that handing a big contract to Lindor would cause irreparable harm, might not make for a slam dunk case for a massive contract extension. But it is important to properly frame the issue. Cleveland isn’t Tampa Bay. It’s not even Cincinnati or Kansas City. Their club’s decent television deal and middle-of-the-pack ticket prices coupled with slightly below-average attendance puts the club pretty close to the middle in terms of revenue and generally profitable with a payroll around $150 million. That they are cutting payroll and essentially losing attendance on purpose to drive more profits is worth mentioning in any conversation regarding Lindor’s contract status. It’s not about whether Cleveland can afford Lindor. Of course they can. It’s about whether a $350 million or more contract for Lindor fits into their traditional payroll framework taking into account future salary obligations. And the answer to that question is yes, Lindor absolutely fits.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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2 years ago

The Indians have routinely been among the top teams in local TV ratings as well. So with a new deal on the horizon they should be seeing an upswing in income from that. KC just got a $50M/year deal with a smaller market, and lesser ratings.

2 years ago
Reply to  hirsch49

teams are still getting these redic tv deals even with the boom of streaming? thought that may pull back by quite a bit in the coming years..