Breaking down the Tribe’s payroll
The Indians enter this offseason in a familiar position. Much of Cleveland’s core group is under contract and the payroll projects to be in the same range as recent years. That means little monetary wiggle room.
Chris Antonetti, the Indians president of baseball operations, has been upfront that the Tribe’s top priority this winter is upgrading the position-player side of the roster. To do so, under the usual restraints, it looks like the trade market is the most realistic route for the Indians to follow.
If the Indians had money to spare, maybe they would’ve picked up Ryan Raburn’s $3-million team option on Wednesday. He was one of baseball’s top hitters vs. lefty pitching last year (Raburn’s 1.004 OPS ranked behind only Nelson Cruz, Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson in the American League) and his deal was affordable.
Instead, the Tribe declined Raburn’s option, will pay him a $100,000 buyout and Antonetti offered this reasoning: “In the end, a lot of this comes down to timing. With where we are in the offseason, we just felt that we were best served by not committing the $3 million at this point to that spot on our roster. That’s really what it came down to.”
That familiar word — “flexibility” — was quickly in a subsequent quote. So, just how much flexibility does Cleveland have this winter? Perhaps not as much as people might have thought when the team dealt Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. It’s important to remember that that trade, which brought Chris Johnson and his contract to Cleveland, was more about loosening up the roster than the purse strings.
Let’s take a walk through the Indians’ current payroll situation.
GUARANTEED CONTRACTS FOR 2016
Carlos Santana, $8.25 million
Chris Johnson, $7.5 million
Michael Brantley, $7.38 million
Jason Kipnis, $6.17 million
Corey Kluber, $4.7 million
Carlos Carrasco, $4.5 million
Yan Gomes, $2.5 million
That group of seven players are slated to earn approximately $41 million for the upcoming season.
According to the educated guess work of MLBTradeRumors.com, that group could net $14.7 million through arbitration. Obviously, that’s not a firm number. So, for now, we have to assume that the arbitration cases, if everyone is retained, will account for roughly $13-15 million. That brings us to around $56 million on the high end.
While I don’t know Trevor Bauer’s specific salary for 2016 at the moment, it will be north of $1.5 million, in accordance with the Major League contract he signed at the time he was drafted. We’re currently at 15 roster spots. So, at this point we can put the other 10 spots in the range of $5.5 million. That’s around $7 million (and I’m probably a little short here) for the pre-arbitration section of the roster. Now, we’re at $63 million.
Now that we know the decision on Raburn’s deal, we know that we’re not adding $3 million to that total. But, assuming I was a little short on the pre-arb class, and accounting for Raburn’s buyout, we can say the payroll is around $63-64 million. This is where it gets a little tricky. We have to account for the cash sent to Atlanta as part of the trade that shipped Swisher and Bourn to the Braves. The Indians haven’t said the specific amount, only that they picked up “a majority” of the difference between Johnson’s contract and the Swisher/Bourn contracts. That money was deferred over the life of Johnson’s deal, which is guaranteed through 2017 ($7.5 million in ’16 and $9 million in ’17, plus a $1-million buyout if his $10-million option isn’t picked up for ’18). Again, I haven’t received specific details, but I have been told that projecting a current payroll status of $70-75 million puts me “in the ballpark” of where Cleveland is at the moment. That means, if the Indians are sticking to the $85-million neighborhood for its payroll, we can guesstimate that the team has $10-15 million worth of flexibility to play with this winter. So, don’t expect any major free-agent additions, but rather Cleveland targeting younger, controllable players through trades. And, obviously, trading away a contract or two from the current roster would alter the situation, too.
Antonetti reiterated on Wednesday that the team plans on focusing more on its offense than its pitching, though I’d wager that we’ll see some depth adds on the pitching front. Cleveland could stand to shore up its lefty-relief situation and, let’s be honest, the rotation gets a little thing behind the Tribe’s talented front four. Offensively, the Indians could target right field, the corner infield spots and designated hitter as areas to use in an effort to add some offense. Cleveland’s preference is to keep Michael Brantley in left field, too. That probably means the Indians will look for alternatives for center field, potentially moving Abraham Almonte into a fourth-outfielder role. The Tribe likes Lonnie Chisenhall in right field, but he might be in a platoon-esque scenario.