CLEVELAND: As a free-agent destination, the Indians rose dramatically on Oct. 8, 2012, the day they hired Terry Francona as manager.
Making their first playoff appearance since 2007 with a 92-win season in 2013 has improved that status.
Francona changed the culture that came from losing 93 or more games three of the previous four years. He molded what Jason Giambi deemed “an eclectic group of players” into a fun-loving bunch that went 21-6 in September before losing the American League wild-card game to the Tampa Bay Rays. Looking forward, the Tribe has a bevy of young arms, even if free-agent starting pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir sign elsewhere.
Francona will be the carrot General Manager Chris Antonetti continues to dangle as he upgrades the team, especially as he searches for a power hitter. But even with the Indians’ improving reputation around the league, enviable chemistry and a 24-game turnaround, the carrot knows what counts most.
“I think money speaks,” Francona said.
As Francona and Antonetti spent an hour wrapping up the season Monday in the Indians’ clubhouse, Antonetti said he didn’t know his budget for 2014. The Indians’ payroll of $73,724,300 this year ranked 23rd in the major leagues, according to ESPN.
Antonetti confirmed he’d heard team revenue was up 20 percent over last season. He wouldn’t say whether he’d be hamstrung by an attendance total that ranked 29th out of 30 teams, besting only the Rays.
“I’m confident we’ll have the resources to building a contending team for next year,” Antonetti said. “I think we’ll be aggressive.”
He must find the big-bopper he thought he had in Mark Reynolds, who hit .301 with eight home runs in April and managed only seven more homers before he was released on Aug. 12. Francona used seven different players as his cleanup hitter and none seemed comfortable. Such a signing might require a convincing pitch to owner Paul Dolan. But with their abrupt dismissal in the wild-card game, the Indians learned the negatives of the two wild-card format. They must build to win the division and that means spending for a slugger.
Francona didn’t want to box in his boss with demands in that regard, but he dropped a tiny hint.
“We saw at the beginning of the year when Mark Reynolds was hot, that was a big plus for us. After he went cold and ultimately left, we really didn’t have that very often,” Francona said. “We knew our margin for error was smaller. That doesn’t mean we can’t win.”
Such a signing would force Antonetti to creatively maneuver as players are added and subtracted. There could be plenty of movement. Gone could be Jimenez, Kazmir, relievers Chris Perez and Joe Smith and outfielder Drew Stubbs. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera could be traded, which seems logical, especially with Mike Aviles ready to take over until top prospect Francisco Lindor is ready.
Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Carlos Santana will receive salary bumps, but the Indians still should have the money to be a player in free agency.
In a perfect world, Antonetti would be fine with what he has when it comes to position players.
“Other than Giambi, [Jason] Kubel and [Kelly] Shoppach, we have the opportunity to bring back the entire group that was fourth in the American League in runs scored, fifth in all of baseball. That’s a good foundation,” Antonetti said. “With the exception of Yan Gomes and Ryan Raburn, there weren’t that many guys who dramatically outperformed expectations.”
As the season ended, Indians players hoped their success would be a springboard.
“It can get people excited about coming here, that’s the biggest thing,” pitcher Justin Masterson said. “The guys here are already excited. We’ve seen what we can do. There’s a lot of room for us to be even better.”
Ex-Yankee Swisher said he wouldn’t have signed as a free agent if not for the presence of Francona. He hopes more follow his lead.
“Right now with what we have here, the contracts, the guys who are going to be here for a while, hopefully this is the start of something,” Swisher said last week. “[Francona] is so excited every day, always has a positive outlook. It’s easy to fall in love with that.”
Unless there’s an ownership change, the Indians might never rank in the top 10 on the major-league salary list, especially while teams like the Dodgers ($220 million) and Yankees ($203 million) continue to test the stratosphere. But when it comes to being an attractive place to play, the Indians’ stock is rising.
As Monday’s wrap-up concluded, Francona went in search of a container to take home carrots left on the vegetable snack tray. It was an act more likely born by his recent late-night ice cream and gummy bear binges than of frugality.
For the Indians, the days of frugality should be over. The Indians have assets, especially with Francona. It is time to use them.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.