MINNEAPOLIS: There’s a perception that small- and middle-market teams run the most cost-efficient operations, that their approach to doing business — the business of stocking their rosters — is the way to get the most bang for the buck.
The reality is that many of these teams just spend less money, which doesn’t necessarily translate into cost efficiency.
The Indians are one of these franchises, along with the Kansas City Royals, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Minnesota Twins, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Toronto Blue Jays, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Baltimore Orioles, most clubs in the major leagues.
Truly big players are scarce: No team can match the New York Yankees when it comes to generating income, but the Boston Red Sox can give them a run for their money and to a lesser extent the Philadelphia Phillies and now the Los Angeles Angels and Dodgers, because of new or impending local television deals that heretofore were unprecedented in those markets.
So it’s the majority vs. the minority, and the minority usually wins.
But not always. The Twins, at a low point now, competed with larger-market clubs for two decades. The reason usually cited, actually a gross oversimplification, is that the people who ran their draft were smarter than most. The Cardinals have been players in the National League for decades, even though St. Louis is virtually the same size market as Cleveland.
What separates these teams from the Tribe? In contrast to the Twins, whose executives have made consistently wise decisions in the draft, this part of the game has been deficient in Cleveland. What else? The Indians have become one of the biggest penny-pinchers in baseball.
The conventional wisdom is that clubs in lesser-sized television markets — the one thing that separates big from small — have no choice. Their owners do not have deep pockets, and with no salary cap to temper the spending habits of large-market teams, the objective of the little guy is to survive rather than compete. But without the ability or the desire to spend at least the league average, these clubs have little or no chance.
Not only are they unwilling or unable to spend to buy or keep talented players, but also franchises such as the Indians take nearly all the risk.
One example: The Tribe drafted CC Sabathia with the 20th pick in the first round of the 1998 draft. He was considered a pitcher with a big upside, but some teams steered clear of him because of fear that his weight would be a handicap as he got older.
By 2001, Sabathia reached the majors. In 7½ seasons with the Indians, he won 106 games and lost 71, winning a Cy Young award in 2007, when he was 19-7. Due to become a free agent after the 2008 season, the Tribe traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers midway through that season.
Sabathia earned about $36 million in his years in Cleveland. After signing with the Yankees in 2009, he will have made $86 million through this season and his contract guarantees him another $94 million through 2016. He also has a vesting option for 2017 at $25 million.
In addition to the money it cost the Indians to pay Sabathia, the club gave him a signing bonus when he was drafted and was responsible for player development expenses during the three years he was in the minors.
I don’t know what it costs to bring one player through the farm system to the big leagues, but it ain’t cheap. Keep in mind that each franchise fields at least six minor-league teams filled with players that have little or no chance of reaching the big leagues just so a handful of talented players has somewhere to develop.
The Tribe took all the risk in developing Sabathia. The club’s deep thinkers didn’t know for certain that he would make it to Cleveland, let alone become a star, though they were betting that he was destined to be an impact starter.
When Sabathia joined the Indians’ rotation, it took him five years to polish his skills and understand the nuances of becoming a front-of-the-rotation starter. Sure, he won a lot of games along the way, but he was a far more skilled competitor in 2008, when the Tribe let him go than he was as he rode the learning curve.
Just when he was becoming the best pitcher he could be, when he was entering the prime of his career at age 28, he was gone. In his place were Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley, two of the Brewers’ brightest prospects. Sabathia went on to sign with the Yankees the next season.
Meanwhile, the Tribe had to begin developing two more young players, hoping they would become bona fide big leaguers, hopefully stars. The Indians missed on LaPorta; Brantley has become a solid everyday contributor, but he does not rank among the best players in baseball, as does Sabathia.
The Indians took all the risk in these transactions. They spent tens of millions of dollars to develop and pay Sabathia, and the Yankees reaped the benefit. The only risk the Bronx Bombers took was that of injury, and all teams share that risk equally. General Manager Brian Cashman knew exactly what he was getting. Consequently, Sabathia has helped his team compete for championships year after year, and has played a part in bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
That is not to say the Tribe could have kept Sabathia. Neither the Indians nor any other team was about to outbid the Yankees. Every circumstance was aligned for him to go to New York. The Yankees were in the midst of dropping more than $80 million in salary, they needed a starter badly, and they were moving into a new, cash-cow of a stadium.
But Sabathia is the exception. Even teams that aren’t among the top tier in cash flow can’t compete season after season by depending solely on their farm systems or by trading stars for prospects. Every team misses on draft choices, even the Twins, who unlike like the Tribe kept some of their best players headed for free agency: Joe Mauer, Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau.
And the Indians? Jettisoned were Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Victor Martinez and Cliff Lee, as well as Sabathia. Shin-Soo Choo and maybe Chris Perez probably will be next.
Is this cost efficient? Check the standings and the empty seats at Progressive Field.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.