Like it or not, the Indians keep a smaller payroll than the average MLB team. It might be fun to see them trot out a $150-million team next season, but that's not going to happen. Like pretty much every American professional sports team owner, Larry Dolan and the other members of the Tribe's ownership group are looking to turn a profit, and for a team in the Cleveland market and with Progressive Field's attendance, that means purse strings are going to be a bit tighter than they are in New York, Los Angeles, or Boston.
The Indians' Opening Day payroll in 2014 was $84.4 million, which is the highest it's been since 2001, which was the final season of the team's great run that began in 1994. That 2014 figure represented a modest increase from 2013's paroll, which was $80.6 million. A similar boost would take next season's payroll to ~$88 million, and I don't think things will go any higher than that.
The 2015 Opening Day payroll is likely to be somewhere from $82-88 million.
Officially speaking, the Indians have ten players under contract for 2015: Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Carlos Santana, David Murphy, Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Mike Aviles, Ryan Raburn, Yan Gomes, and Scott Atchison. Per Cot's Baseball Contracts, those guys are owed a total of $58.7 million for 2015.
Next there are five players they're likely to offer arbitration to. Here they are, along with a projected salary from MLB Trade Rumors, which does pretty well with this sort of thing:
- Lonnie Chisenhall: $2.2 million
- Marc Rzepczynski: $1.9 million
- Josh Tomlin: $1.7 million
- Bryan Shaw: $1.5 million
- Carlos Carrasco: $1.4 million
Those five salaries add up to $8.7 million. That leaves ten roster spots for players who are either not yet eligible for arbitration, or are on minor league deals. Each of those players will earn ~$500,000 in 2015, for a combined cost (for ten roster spots) of ~$5 million.
Adding up those three pools of players, you have $72.4 million already committed for 2015, meaning there should be $10-15 million available to add new players. (Note that trades could free up more available payroll, or cut into it.) That's not enough for someone like Max Scherzer or Jon Lester, but it is enough for a second tier free agent, maybe even enough to bring back Victor Martinez (who had one of the most remarkable seasons by a player his age in MLB history).
Yes, there ought to be plenty of money to work with for the 2015 payroll... The trouble is there isn't much to work with for 2016.
Of the ten players currently under contract for 2015, six are guaranteed more than a buyout for 2016, while Mike Aviles is headed for free agency, and David Murphy, Ryan Raburn, and Scott Atchison are each under a team option. (I doubt Murphy or Raburn will have their 2016 option picked up, while Atchison's option is for just $1 million.) Most of those six players have a raise coming though, so if they exercise Atchison's option, buy out Murphy and Raburn, and let Aviles walk, they'll be paying 7 players a total of $55.2 million.
If the five players the Indians will probably offer arbitration to this offseason repeat their 2014 production in 2014, Josh Tomlin probably gets non-tendered, while each of the others receive a, probably of 50-60% for Shaw and Rzepczynski, and 90-120% for Carrasco and Chisenhall. That would bring the combined cost for those four players to ~$12.5 million.
Additionally, a few players will reach arbitration eligibility for the first time in 2016, most notably Corey Kluber and Cody Allen. Chris Perez got $4.5 million in his first year. Factor in inflation and Allen hypothetically having a stronger resume than Perez did, and it seems reasonable to think he could earn $5.5 million for 2016. Two years ago David Price got $10.1 million in his first year of arbitration eligibility. He was coming off a Cy Young winning season, and had also finished 2nd two years before that. It's too early to know if Kluber will have that strong a resume, but even if you project him to split the difference between his last two seasons in 2015, he's probably looking at something like $8 million* for 2015.
Add in another dozen players at the league minimum for a combined total of $6 million...
Add those numbers all up and you're looking at $87.2 million basically committed already for 2016, without a single player who isn't already on the roster. Even if you think the payroll climbs a bit for 2015 and climbs a bit more for 2016, you shouldn't expect it to rise much over $90 million, which means there isn't room to add more than $3-5 million in new players for 2016. (I'm aware of the possibility that the team would be willing to go well above their preferred payroll for one year, knowing it would drop back down the following season, it's just not a possibility I view as very likely.)
For that reason, unless they can get creative with trades or how they structure additional salaries, I don't expect the Indians to sign anyone to more than a one-year deal this offseason, unless it's a very minor player.
*One way to save some money for 2016 would be to sign Corey Kluber to an extension, with a fairly low salary for 2016, and a big raise for 2017 (when Bourn and Swisher's contracts will likely be off the books.)