Here’s a little something for you: Cleveland’s MLB team’s payroll for 2021 is currently set at $35 million. Only three teams had a lower one…in 2001. One of them was the Expos, who no longer exist. One was the Twins, whom the league tried to contract because they wouldn’t spend anything, while claiming they couldn’t. The other was the A’s, who are still basically that today, living out their days in their overrun sewer of a park.
At the moment, Cleveland’s payroll trails the Dodgers’ by $154 million. That gap itself is bigger than all but three MLB teams’ payrolls.
The funny thing, or the sad thing, or the maddening thing, is that Cleveland’s ownership will tell you that even with that big disparity in payroll, Cleveland tied for the second-best record in the American League last year. Which is true. And they did that after punting their second-best pitcher midseason because he was due to be paid in two years time, as well as losing another starter for some time because he couldn’t stay in the hotel (which was also the cover story on trading Mike Clevinger, but we know the real scoop). They did that with the now-departed Francisco Lindor having something of a down year offensively. That was Cleveland’s fourth playoff berth in five years. See how efficient we are, they’ll say. We don’t need to spend money.
What’s even more impressive is that they’ve been able to have that run without an outfield. Even before Michael Brantley took his brittle bones to Houston, Cleveland has needed major upgrades in the outfield to support Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Carlos Santana in the lineup. Oh, they let Santana walk this winter too because $8 million a year was just too much.
Coming off that narrow World Series loss in 2016, when the team was as loved by the city as at any time in recent memory, they added Edwin Encarnacion to replace Mike Napoli and Jay Bruce to do … whatever it was Jay Bruce did. That team was arguably better than the 2016 version, winning 102 games and losing a heartbreaker of a division series to the Yankees, blowing a 2-0 lead.
Still, that was a team poised for another run or two at it, especially considering the rest of the AL Central was doing nothing at that point. And that’s exactly what Cleveland counted on, because the next year they added…nothing. Santana was sent for his weird sabbatical to Philadelphia, Yonder Alonso brought in to replace him to wait around to be walked, while Melky Cabrera stood in right field for a bit looking confused. In the past four seasons, the only outfielders to provide more than 1-fWAR other than Brantley have been Jordan Luplow, Tyler Naquin, and Oscar Mercado. I could tell you a Luplow-Naquin is something Elon Musk was trying to grift some major city into building and you’d probably believe me.
And that’s been their MO. Slowly bleed talent off one of the best cores in the AL, watch the pitching save them, and hope they can float to the top. Why would anyone get attached?
Lawrence Dolan, who owns the team, would tell you that they can’t splash on the team because even before the pandemic, they were a small-market team with little attendance. Perhaps the urge would be to ask Dolan just what urge any fan would have to attend a game when they know whatever players they have worth watching will be gone in no more than five years. They got five-and-a-half from Lindor, who should have gone down as the best to ever play for the organization. Now he’s yet another cautionary tale for anyone near the Cuyahoga about what can happen if you get attached to the team. That’s becoming an awfully long list.
Of course, that ignores a couple things. One, Dolan bought the team for $323 million, and it is now worth between $800M-$1B, depending on your estimate. And while the team has one of the lower TV deals in the majors, some estimates still have them pulling in $50 million a year because of it, plus whatever their stake in Sports Time Ohio still provides. So this year, they’ll turn a profit from just their TV deal vs. their payroll overall. Don’t even have to show up!
In that 2017 season, the one following their push to Game 7 of the World Series, the team drew 2.3 million fans, the most they had through the gates in 10 years. That dwindled the next two years, as the team didn’t do a whole lot to suggest things would get better than they did the previous years. Fans will show when the team is worth it, they’ve proven that in Cleveland.
But thanks to their TV deal, and the other streams such as revenue sharing and national TV deals, Cleveland can turn a profit and increase franchise value by simply fielding a team of contest winners and the truly wayard. Which is clearly what they’re doing.
It’s no coincidence that the two prospects they got for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco have like four professional ABs between them. The longer off they are, the more they can sell “hope.” Same strategy the Cubs used when they collected four guys from various AP history classes for Yu Darvish. It pushes off any judgement past any point where anyone might care, and you can keep telling people about what’s coming, even if it’s more likely to never get there.
This is the kind of thing a real commissioner would have stopped, but baseball gave up on having one of those decades ago, ushered in by the era of Bud Selig and his T-Rex arms.
Any Cleveland fan, if there’s any left after today, knows that no matter how big of a batch of players the team can bring through to the majors will only have about three years to do anything before they’re parceled off. That window used to be a decade long for teams. It still could be. But as long as people like Dolan are calling the shots, this is what you get. And as long as people treat the team as they should, i.e. not investing the time or money to go, he can claim this is how it has to be, all the while raking in the TV money.