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How the Indians Can Rise Above a Painful, Cost-Cutting Offseason

2016 Indians World Series sign
Amanda Rabinowitz
Despite their low-end payroll, the Indians reached the World Series more recently (2016) than the league's top-payroll team, The New York Yankees (2010).

The Cleveland Indians are facing a tough offseason after another early exit from the playoffs and steep financial losses because of the pandemic. But a closer look at one of the teams in the World Series underway this week may offer fans some hope. WKSU’s sports commentator Terry Pluto says it's going to be a painful offseason, but there is some hope the team can rise above.

Huge losses
After the shortened regular season, which was played in empty stadiums because of the pandemic, team president Chris Antonetti gave what Pluto described as "the bleakest postseason postmortem."

"They've lost tens of millions of dollars, and [Antonetti] mentioned they even borrowed at one point. He said it would take years to fully recover from this," Pluto said.

The Indians had their highest payrolls in 2017 and 2018, when now-Royals owner John Sherman was brought in as a minority investor. Sherman bought what's believed to be a 20% stake in the team. With a team valuation of $1 billion, $200 million is likely in an escrow fund right now. Pluto says ownership will likely be looking for another investor or will have to purchase it.

Saying goodbye to fan favorites
A budget deficit for the Indians means saying goodbye to some fan favorites. Pluto says All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor will be traded this winter. He's under contract through 2021, but has turned down offers from the Indians. "He's way too expensive and they've tried to trade him a couple times, but they couldn't get the full value. They will now."

Other players likely to be gone include first baseman Carlos Santana who has a $17 million team option, and closer Brad Hand, who has a $10 million team option.

Pluto says the list will likely make fans angry.

"You think, 'It's over. They're going down.' The team that's had the best record in the American League regular season the last eight years and a team that's been to the playoffs five times in the last eight years," Pluto said.

"To line up the payrolls for baseball and [say] the Indians have no chance, you're not looking at how baseball is right now."

Small market teams provide a blueprint
The Indians are near the bottom in payroll, ranked 25th out of 30 teams at around $92 million without proration, according to Baseball Prospectus. Even lower is the Tampa Bay Rays at 28th with around $69 million. They're currently in the World Series against the powerhouse L.A. Dodgers, who rank third with a $212 million payroll.

Five of the eight lowest payroll teams made the postseason this year: Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Oakland ($96 million), Miami ($70 million) and Milwaukee ($98 million). Miami, Oakland, and Tampa Bay all advanced at least one round.

Pluto says it shows that in baseball, big budgets don't guarantee titles. For example, The Dodgers, despite their huge payroll, last won the World Series in 1988. The Yankees last made the World Series in 2010.

Trusting the front office
The Indians have made the playoffs five out of the last eight seasons and have had eight straight winning seasons.

"Sometimes it's frustrating because let's face it, they have flopped in the playoffs the last few years. The question is, can the Indians re-group through all of this?" Pluto said.

Pluto says the answer is in the formula teams like Tampa, Oakland and Cleveland have developed over the years. They have front offices with experience in investing in young prospects rather than chasing the high-paid stars who may not be worth the money.

"For example, Carlos Santana. Over the last four years, he's been really good, but he wasn't really good this past season. And he's going to be 35 [years old] next year. In baseball, you don't want to pay a player for what he did, but what he will do," Pluto said.

Beating the odds
And Pluto says the Indians do have something all teams want: young, affordable, starting pitching. The problem is, they lack players who can hit and score runs. "When they trade Francisco Lindor, they're going to have to find ways to find some young hitters," Pluto said.

Pluto says the bottom line is, the Indians can still find ways to win despite the budget crunch. "To line up the payrolls for baseball and [say] the Indians have no chance, you're not looking at how baseball is right now."

Expertise: Audio storytelling, journalism and production
Sean Fitzgerald is an announcer/board operator at Ideastream Public Media.