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A new path in free agency could benefit the Indians

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This is all theoretical, but the way the off-season is going could reveal a new way of paying players, and it would benefit Cleveland.

MLB: NL Wildcard-Colorado Rockies at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It seems clear this quiet offseason is the result, in part at least, of a long period of poor choices by MLB franchises. As nice as it is to see players get the money coming to them in the form of long, nine-figure contracts, it’s well-established how much of an albatross these things become, some swifter than others. Front offices are taking notice, and it comes at the expense of some legitimately good — but definitely not great — players getting paid. This could actually work in the Indians‘ favor.

The biggest thing that can cripple Cleveland, payroll wise, is a big contract that sits on the books for years and years. Even moderately sized contracts like those of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn hamstrung their flexibility and power on the market for a few years, and those weren’t even that long. But this is why we never hear the Tribe’s name mentioned in the pursuit of guys like J.D. Martinez or Lorenzo Cain. The cash outlay for that many years is simply budget breaking.

Luckily for the Indians, every indication is those contracts are largely dying off. Manny Machado and Bryce Harper types of guys are going to get contracts that rival the GDP of smaller nations, but they’re young and simply incredible. The exception rather than the rule. The players approaching or past 30 who are just real good may find themselves having to be content with shorter deals, which doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot less money. The key to this all is average annual value( AAV), which until recently hasn’t really entered the MLB lexicon. This where older free agents can still get their money. This is where the Indians can bolster the short term without harming the future.

The hope in signing a free agent to a larger deal is that they pay for themselves. In part through production, of course, but also through increases in ticket sales, jersey sales, and all the other small revenue spikes that come when a team makes a splash and starts winning. It’s not as though the Indians can suddenly look at Martinez and say “we can get him on a one year bridge deal for $10 million,” just because he hasn’t signed yet. That’s silly. He’s worth more than that, and deserves more than that. But spending a heap on him in the short term could be offset by that revenue increase, and they could get out from under it before it goes sideways. It’s seems like an easier conversation with a tight-fisted owner than getting them to commit for years and years.

The other tough part of it is these players wanting lasting financial security, which is going to happen less and less with long-term deals. But a bigger lump sum type deal? That could seem acceptable. Give Martinez a deal that truly captures his WAR per year output for a year or two, and then delay payments over a series of years afterward. That would work to something like $35 million on a one-year deal. There is no discount there, but isn’t that better than, say, paying Albert Pujols $240 million over 10 years? It’s less per year, but he’s earned 12.9 WAR for the Angels so far and received $126 million, a cost of $9.76 million per win. Already over the average rate of $8-ish million per win, and half that WAR total came in the first two years. Teams don’t want that mess on their books for the next decade. Players must know that, but this is the way its always been since free agent money got big.

That’s part of why this winter is so slow. A big, short outlay, though, that’s easier to swallow for both player and contending teams even with a miserly owner. You pay for the work you get that year alone and maybe one more season, you pay market value for it, and you go your separate ways. A small bonus there — that frees the player up to do it again and again, effectively being a mercenary traveling the land. They can still produce in their early ‘30s, and teams know that. It’s the late ‘30s that kill budgets. The players’ contracts will shrink as they age, but especially on the front end he’d get a lot more than otherwise. It does depend on the player betting big on themselves time and again of course. But if trends continue,unless they’re a baseball god it may be the only way to a massive nest egg.

Obviously, the Indians are going to hunt discounts wherever they can find them. Paying straight market rate for a player is the opposite of that, in a sense at least. This idea isn’t also saddled with a long term problem, though, and you’d think fan excitement and the added winning could more than offset the cost of the player. If they do this in conjunction with drafting and developing as well as they have, producing excellent players that perform cheaply, it wouldn’t cause any real payroll issues. They’re going to have to pay more and more as the years go on anyway, this is just a path to get better players without getting stuck holding the bag.

The fix for this problem players face and bring back the big-time contracts they want is to do something about the rookie wage/arbitration start to players’ careers. Or overhaul it, at least. Let the players be free agents before their prime hits, take full advantage of their abilities sooner, which harms the Indians. They and other small market teams’ entire system of building contenders is predicated around this taking advantage of talent before it gets expensive. If players are becoming free agents earlier and earlier, the Indians, Pirates, Royals, Rays, and all the other less affluent teams will either have to spend money or be permanently terrible. But any change like that isn’t likely to come until the current Collective Bargaining Agreement is up in 2021. More teams spending more money on players rather than profit is a good thing. It will be hard to do, is all.

In the meantime, the Indians could actually take advantage of some super short but big AAV contracts for players that would get them over the hump to a championship. If the mid-90s are any indication — Dick Jacobs went from losing money in the early 90s to selling the team for $320 million. Forbes valued the Indians at $920 million last year, a $120 million increase over 2016. It’s likely a billion dollar franchise now, and a title would likely only increase that. Especially if the Browns continue to struggle and the worst happens with the Cavaliers. Fans always complain about the team spending money, maybe this could galvanize them to come to games more consistently. Which, again, more money.

It probably won’t happen, and there’s a small window before the possible strike for this to be a realistic tactic. If early career rules hold true though we may see this more and more. What that will do the union — powered as it is by the sway of older players, hence the damage the CBA does to amateurs and international players — is a story for another day entirely. If Martinez is still “fed up” with the Red Sox, maybe he could accept a deal like this, be a traveling bat around the league, laying waste to pitching everywhere. Or Yu Darvish signs for $50 million for one year and pitches like 275 innings. Unlikely? Oh yeah. But a tactic the Tribe, at least, could use to their benefit.