(David Richard-USA TODAY Sports)
About a week ago, the Kansas City Royals designated utility man Emilio Bonifacio for assignment (he has since signed with the Cubs). This move in itself is innocuous enough. Losing a guy with a career .662 OPS in all likelihood won’t cost the Royals a shot at the World Series.
But in a larger context, this transaction is alarming for Royals fans. By designating and then releasing Bonifacio, merely two weeks after avoiding arbitration no less, the Royals were able to re-sign starting pitcher Bruce Chen while keeping their payroll around $90 million with no imminent plans to add anyone else of note to a roster that won 86 games in 2013.
The Cleveland Indians won 92 games in 2013, good enough for a spot in the Wild Card play-in game. Despite that success, the Indians were pretty quiet through the winter, only adding David Murphy and John Axford on major league contracts, keeping their payroll somewhere around $84 million after everything is said and done.
The Indians were quiet this offseason despite having a gaping hole in their starting rotation. "Gaping hole" is the best way to describe losing 340.2 quality innings from your rotation and adding no one to replace those innings outside of washed up veterans like Shaun Marcum and Aaron Harang.
It’s not as if the Tribe lacked options. They (justifiably) let Ubaldo Jimenez walk away to Baltimore for a four-year contract worth $48 million, but there were other opportunities. Scott Kazmir, the other pitcher responsible for some of those 340.2 innings, signed with Oakland for two years and $22 million. The man he replaced, Bartolo Colon, went to the Mets for two years and $20 million. Matt Garza (4 years, $50 million with a vesting option), Tim Hudson (2/$23m), Bronson Arroyo (2/$23.5m with a $11m club option and $4.5m buyout), Ricky Nolasco (4/$49m with an option), Jason Vargas (4/$32m), Dan Haren (1/$10m with a vesting option), Phil Hughes (3/$24m), Scott Feldman (3/$30m), and Josh Johnson (1/$8m) were just some of the other free agents that could have helped fill that gaping hole. Even today, Ervin Santana is still sitting out there, with his number of potential suitors dwindling.
Now, it’s not clear if the Indians could have signed some of those guys; they have to convince them to play in Cleveland after all. It’s also not clear if the Indians would have even wanted some of those guys. Yet here we are on February 18, and the Indians still have that gaping hole in the rotation.
The 2013 season was a fantastic ride (or as fantastic as a one-and-done playoff exit can be) that started with a rare free agent splash and ended with a rare postseason appearance. But the Indians stand at a crossroad entering the 2014 season. The proverbial "window of contention" is beginning to close. Asdrubal Cabrera will be gone after this season, with Justin Masterson likely to follow. The team has their exciting core of young players signed to bargain contracts, and their free agent acquisitions from last year are at an age where a precipitous decline can start at any time (and may already have). In other words, now is the time to push the chips to the middle of the table and go for that elusive World Series title.
We can argue all day about whether or not the Indians could have "afforded" to bring back Jimenez or Kazmir, or add one of the other starters listed above. I’m of the opinion, based on what I know about the finances of MLB teams, that the Indians could have squeezed one of those guys into their payroll without operating at a significant loss in 2014, and that the risk of them operating at a loss is mitigated by the chance this team can go to the World Series and make all of this a moot point. I’m also of the opinion that MLB teams are generally not as poor as they claim to be.
But whether or not the Indians could have "afforded" to sign another starting pitcher is almost beside the point. The Tribe’s front office has done a fantastic job of getting the team to the outskirts of contention. They’ve developed some exciting young talent, supplemented that talent with well-timed free agent strikes, and brought in a world-class manager to put those players in a position to succeed. And they’ve extended their payroll commensurately to make it all possible.
But to decide now that enough is enough, that the team has reached its payroll ceiling, that this is the squad they’re going to war with in 2014, is just plain ludicrous.
Rooting for a small market MLB team can be frustrating at best and downright infuriating at worst. But the situation the Indians so precariously sit in right now is a new kind of frustrating. Almost like a great date gone wrong, the team has done juuuuuust enough to reach the precipice of greatness, only to then decide they could go no further.
It could still all work out for the better. The Indians could conceivably sign Ervin Santana (although it’s probably not happening). They can still get a full season of greatness from Danny Salazar (he’s never thrown more than 145 innings in a season). They still have Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco, both of whom have immense natural ability and were highly rated prospects not too long ago. It’s possible Zach McAllister takes another step forward and becomes a real boon for this rotation.
But as a team that fancies itself a contender, those what-ifs aren’t good enough. Not when they had ample opportunities to improve the rotation. Not when the "window of contention" is closing.
The Indians have done the invariably difficult work of transforming this team from also-ran to fringe contender. To stop now is a new type of cruel this fanbase hasn’t experienced. I’m still hoping they won’t have to.