While the Brewers showed a disappointing inclination to cut costs this winter in a division that’s ripe for dominating, they didn’t disappoint when it came to their franchise player, Christian Yelich. Some of the team’s secondary talent, names like Eric Thames, Gio González, and Travis Shaw, were left to find richer pastures, but the Brewers made sure to lock up the services of the player who was truly indispensable. Yelich didn’t get Bryce Harper or Gerrit Cole money, but that was never in the cards with free agency years away, him hitting the market in his 30s, and coming off a significant injury. My colleague Jay Jaffe has smithed up many additional words on Yelich which you should go read now.
When seeing the Brewers close a long-term pact with their superstar, it’s not hard to contrast it with the behavior of the Cleveland Indians. A team with a larger market but worse attendance, the Indians were very close to the Brewers in revenue in the most recent Forbes estimates, with $282 million in revenue compared to $288 million for the Brew Crew. There’s some give and take in these numbers with baseball’s books not being open for all to peruse, but the figures probably aren’t that far off the mark. After all, compared to companies in other industries with similar revenues, baseball teams are relatively simple corporations. The big-ticket revenues and costs are in fact quite well-known, so there’s only so far these numbers can miss.
My fellow FanGraphier Craig Edwards convincingly argued last week that the question of the Indians being able to afford to extend Francisco Lindor a new contract is more a question of willingness than ability.
It’s always useful to know what kinds of numbers we’re talking about, so let’s whip up a projection and ballpark what Lindor’s future looks like. It seems a waste to have a projection system just hanging around and then not use it!
Yup, that Francisco Lindor dude is pretty good at baseballing. He won’t hit free agency as young as Harper or Manny Machado, but with two years remaining until he’s eligible, he will hit it in time for his age-28 season. Assuming $7.5 million per ZiPS win (this figure still tracks as the best predictor of salaries with this winter’s contracts included) and a discounted rate for his final year of arbitration, ZiPS projects a 10-year extension starting in 2021 as costing $373 million at 5% salary growth and $340 million at 3% salary growth.
This projection does not strike me as wholly unreasonable given what we saw this winter. Lindor’s better and younger than Anthony Rendon, who will earn $35 million a year over seven years. Cole is in a similar tier to Lindor in value, and he will make $36 million per year over nine years. Lindor making $34-$37 million isn’t odd.
And as Craig said, the Indians could absolutely do this if they wanted to. Paying Lindor $35 million a year doesn’t add $35 million to payroll; he’s making $17.5 million plus benefits already and the team’s estimated payroll is under $110 million. The old “but Dan, how can they afford the rest of the team if they’re paying Lindor?” argument doesn’t quite work here because by and large, the Indians aren’t paying the rest of the team anyway, even with Lindor making $17.5 million. Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber are gone. The outfield, putting up less than half the wins of the Twins outfield, only entered 2019 with a single player making over $600,000 (Leonys Martin).
Remember, the income the Indians receive from shared revenue sources, before even counting their own revenues they just get to keep to themselves, is in the $200-million range every year. Baseball is awash in veritable waterfalls of cash. The Marlins could easily afford to put the home run feature back up and modify it so that the animatronic marlins shoot $100 bills in the direction of their lone fan in attendance.
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that that the Indians cannot actually afford Lindor. All the revenue is going towards fixing up Paul Dolan’s grandma’s leaky root cellar, paying minor leaguers like actual employed human adults, and an older, stronger boy held team ownership upside down until $100 million fell out of their pockets.
Surely the Indians would be willing to extend Lindor an offer for $150 million, an offer he would surely decline the second he or his representation saw the figure. Given that currency can be used for other things and winning is an investment more than a cost, why haven’t the Indians used that money for other needs, moves that would help the team win during the two seasons for which they still have the services of Francisco Lindor? An extra $150 million gets you almost to four years of Yasmani Grandal and Josh Donaldson. It gets you Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas and with enough loose change left over for Edwin Encarnación and two years of Tanner Roark. This is not an organization that has capitalization issues; the owner is a billionaire and the Forbes estimated team value has increased by $100 million per year over the last five years, while the debt on the team is under 10% of the team’s value.
Yes, the team has remained competitive under these financial constraints. The team also sat at home last October, literally missing the playoffs by the number of wins Michael Brantley created for the Houston Astros. Brantley, as you may remember, was the team’s most valuable outfielder by nearly three wins in 2018 and the Indians were so terrified that he might accept a one-year, $18 million qualifying offer that they let him walk for nothing.
The Indians will likely be a contender in 2020, but it’s a team with serious holes that have not been addressed. At least in our depth chart projections, the Indians are below average at second base, left field, center field, right field, the bullpen, and below the AL average at designated hitter, while spending less than $10 million in free agency. Now that they’ve lost Mike Clevinger for six-to-eight weeks, their depth chart projections have sagged enough to pull the White Sox within three wins.
By inaction and team ownership unwilling to invest in the franchise, the Indians are watching their chances of winning the American League slowly evaporate. The probability of them taking the crown in the bush league, on the other hand, has been soaring. If the team won’t keep their Cal Ripken, they might as well just dynamite the whole thing and start over.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.