The Cleveland Indians have not been involved in many rumors so far these Winter Meetings. What little news has found its way to MLB insiders mostly revolves around the Tribe front office sticking firmly to one-year deals for players such as Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Mike Napoli, Mitch Moreland, and Michael Saunders. There are some interesting reports that they are working on a deal for Edwin Encarnacion, but even that is not likely to be the three or four year deal that he wants.
So what gives? Why are the Indians so reluctant to give players more than a year? Even Mike Napoli, who would have already signed with the Tribe if they offered a measly two years (according to Ken Rosenthal), is not making the Indians blink. The answer can be boiled down to one word: Arbitrationisreallyexpensivewhenyourcontrolledplayersaregoodandenteringthelateryearsoftheprocess.
The Indians have a young core, which rightfully receives a lot of praise. But having a young core also presents the false narrative that every player is cheap and under team control. Actual team control only lasts three seasons before arbitration sets in. And when it does, things get pricey fast.
Some star players, like Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, signed early deals with the Tribe to avoid the whole arbitration process, but even they are not free. The former is owed $7.5 million next season, while the latter is owed $6.5 million. Tremendous deals for both players considering what they would make on the open market, but it all adds up to a roster will most likely eclipse $100 million in 2017, even before potential free agents are added in. According to Baseball Reference’s estimates, the Indians would have a payroll of $103.4 million in 2017 when the dust settles on arbitration.
And it only gets worse following the 2017 season. Lonnie Chisenhall, Zach McAllister, Cody Allen, and Brandon Guyer will all enter arbitration three, while Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer will be entering their third year in 2018. Team options for Josh Tomlin and Michael Brantley will also come into play in 2018, while Carlos Santana will hit the free agent market.
If the Indians dedicate $20 million a season to Edwin Encarnacion, they are going to rely almost entirely on prospects to pan out in the next year or two. Locking that much money into a first baseman / designated hitter will most certainly keep them out of the free agent market until his money is off the books. The same things comes into play for Mike Napoli, or any other player who could be signed to a two- or three-year deal, just on a much smaller scale.
No matter what the Indians want to do this offseason, if it involves multi-year deals it is going to impact their ability to hold onto core players. While the Indians are in their window to win right now, obviously, they could undo a lot of past smart moves with one kneejerk transaction.