Tuesday afternoon, Jesse Spector of Sporting News authored a well thought-out, realistic post urging the Cleveland Indians to "spend like a big-league team" and go sign outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. While I -- and probably a large majority of Indians fans -- agree with Spector that the Indians should start spending real money on their team, I disagree that Yoenis Cespedes is the answer.
I say the answer, because if the Indians do sign someone like Cespedes, he is going to have to be the only answer for as long as he is under contract. Spector has a rough estimate of a five-year, $125 million deal to get Cespedes in Cleveland, with most of the cash being frontloaded, as well as an opt-out clause after two years. Assuming the Indians would pay Cespedes $30 million over the next two years, that would put the Indians payroll at around $112 million in 2016 and 2017. That would be the highest payroll in team history before adjusting for inflation.
Unless signing Cespedes is a signal that the Indians front office is ready to consistently spend tens of millions more dollars than they have in recent years, they will most likely be locked out of free agency, as well as the ability to go into arbitration with their stars in the coming seasons if Cespedes does not execute his theoretical opt-out clause after 2017. Michael Brantley’s $11 million option comes up in 2018 while Cody Allen, Danny Salazar, and Trevor Bauer all enter the higher levels of arbitration and will likely become overpriced for the Indians as their payroll eclipses $100 million before even getting into arbitration discussions.
Getting past the money issue, one has to wonder if Cespedes is even a solid fit in Cleveland. He brings power (and a LOT of it), but that is mostly all he brings. He has a bad approach at the plate and he gets on base at only a .328 clip. Last season was a career year for Cespedes when he slashed .291/.328/.542 for the Detroit Tigers and New York Mets and shined defensively in left field. However, he has not been consistently a 135 wRC+ hitter as he was in 2015. He had an even better offensive year in his "rookie" 2012 campaign when he slashed .292/.356/.505 with 23 home runs (136 wRC+), but the next two years he was just above an average hitter and only because of his power numbers. He slashed .240/.294/.442 with 26 home runs in 2013 (102 wRC+) in 2013 and .260/.301/.450 with 22 home runs in 2014 (109 wRC+).
Betting that Cespedes will hit closer to his better 130+ wRC+ years is not a huge gamble for most teams; there is a good chance he will do it. But, for the Indians, paying Cespedes $125 million dollars over five years to be a barely-average hitter would be disastrous, and the possibility of that happening may be enough to make it a gamble not worth taking.
As I have written before, the Indians are not a team built to fire for one big season and hope for the best. They have a solid core locked up for the better part of five years and prospects that could potentially keep their playoff window open nearly a decade. The core of the team is not a group of players over 30 that are about to rapidly decline. Instead, the majority of them are just approaching 30 in the next two or three years. Time is on the Indians side, and if they want to rush their playoff window, locking everything into a power-hitting outfielder who could potentially be barely above average could bring all that crumbling down.
The Indians front office absolutely should be spending more money on the team, but they have a good enough core that money could be spent one big one- or two-year contracts that carry a much smaller risk than a five-year monster deal for someone like Cespedes.
If the Indians really are done signing free agents they could sit back and wait for the outfield free agent market to shake out. Once that happens, a team (or several teams) could be looking at outfielders they are more willing to deal for a prospect in the Indians deep farm system. And it just so happens that the Miami Marlins could be in the Cespedes sweepstakes and they could be looking to deal Marcell Ozuna in order to make room for him.