LAS VEGAS — As the Indians lifted themselves from being the Detroit Tigers’ proverbial younger brother five or six years ago to three-time American League Central champions and World Series contenders over the last several seasons, their collective payroll ballooned to new heights.
But it can be difficult to breathe at these altitudes for too long.
During this recent stretch of three trips to the postseason, the Indians increased their payroll above $140 million for the first time in franchise history. It boosted their payroll ranking around the league to the middle of the pack. As the roster has become top-heavy, more expensive and collectively older, a reallocation of resources — rather than simply additions or subtractions — has become one of the club’s driving forces as it aims to address both short- and long-term needs.
The challenge of extending a contention window while also dealing with a higher payroll for a smaller-market team has given the Indians a lengthy to-do list at baseball's winter meetings, being held this week at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. As president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and General Manager Mike Chernoff field hundreds — if not thousands — of phone calls, texts and emails from their hotel suite, they aren’t dealing with any specific number for the club’s payroll moving forward from owner Paul Dolan.
There’s no doubt the franchise wants to become younger and shed some salary to reallocate it elsewhere — the outfield is barren and the bullpen took a major hit. But where the Indians payroll ends up in 2019 could fluctuate like a stack of chips at a blackjack table, depending on what cards the Indians might be dealt in an offer.
“I’ll be honest — we still don’t have exact — there’s no one specific number we’re working toward payroll-wise,” Antonetti said Monday. “As we’ve shared, ownership’s invested incredible resources into our team over the course of the past few seasons to try to help push us to a World Series championship. At some point, you have to make sure you have sustainable finances that work for the long term. And we’re in the process of working through exactly what that will be.”
The Indians already dealt All-Star catcher Yan Gomes this offseason, shedding $7 million in salary. Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, among others, are being heavily discussed in trades. The Indians essentially had a continuous upward climb since the 2016 deadline trade for Andrew Miller, which was then followed by the Edwin Encarnacion signing, the largest in franchise history, the following winter.
But the front office has essentially hit a wall in terms of how the team's needs can be addressed, with a trade involving a highly-valued, higher-priced asset becoming a potential path. Finding the right trade partner is priority No. 1, which means finding the right positional talent that’s also major-league ready and controllable for several years down the road.
This winter meetings — and this offseason if a deal isn’t reached in the next few days — for Antonetti and Chernoff is as much about addressing the roster now while adding to the sustainability beyond this upcoming season as anything. That isn’t exactly anything new in terms of their daily goals, but it has become a balancing act made more difficult by salary raises and other factors.
As they begin one of the most challenging offseason in quite some time, the Indians are trying to fight a battle on two fronts.
“So we’re cognizant of where we are age-wise,” Antonetti said of the roster. “I think oftentimes what happens is a roster gets older, it also comes with less control. So in a sense, one of our goals as I think I’ve shared is to make sure that we have a chance to contend for an AL Central title in 2019, but also position the organization for success beyond that.
“One way to do that is to infuse players with longer-term control into the organization. Typically these players are going to be younger players than older players. So in that scheme of things, I guess indirectly [getting younger is] a goal, but it’s more about the timeframe in which players could be in the organization and about their specific age.”
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.