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Just how low can Cleveland’s payroll go?

A payroll? In this economy?

Wild Card Round - New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians - Game One Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

With Carlos Santana taking his talents to BBQ Beach, another chunk of money Cleveland was not going to spend anyway has been accounted for. Santana inked a two-year deal with the Royals for $17 million, which is great for Carlos and that’s all I say about his contract. I hope he enjoys the jazz in KC.

Since the Indians had declined his option and has Franmil Reyes, Bobby Bradley, and Jake Bauers in the system, it was always likely that ‘Los would be donning new colors come spring. Unless you’ve been in a coma, you know he’s unlikely to be the only fan favorite to depart this winter. I’d share some links, but you could randomly pick an article and have a good chance of finding speculation on where Francisco Lindor might play in 2021. The idea of trading Carlos Carrasco has also been shared and, in his ZiPS projections, Dan Szymborski made too much sense when he suggested it’s only a matter of time (if the other parts are gone) that José Ramírez’s owner-friendly contract would be moved as well.

With all this slash-and-burn management, fellow LGT writer Blake Ruane brought up the idea of a negative payroll in our Slack chat. It’s a ridiculous, preposterous, anti-fan and anti-competitive idea.

So, naturally I had to figure out how Cleveland could do it.

Per Roster Resource, Cleveland is estimated to have a $69 million payroll for 2021. However, $40.9 million is tied up in Carrasco, Lindor, and Ramírez (with $19.5 estimated for Lindor through arbitration), so by cutting everything as far as possible, a more reasonable estimate would be $28.1 million. The lowest final 2020 payroll was Pittsburgh’s $62 million, which the Indians will almost certainly be under whether they trade Carrasco and Ramírez or not.

But things could get even lower, even uglier, even more miserly.

To cut to the bone, Roberto Pérez’s $5.5 million guaranteed is surplus given Austin Hedges has been retained for $3.05 million, so Berto’s gone for some prospects or MLB minimum players. At that point, Hedges’ salary is the largest guaranteed money on the books. Nick Wittgren and Phil Maton are also guaranteed $2.65 million combined, and if we assume the non-arbitration players will make the major league minimum, $570,500 (which almost certainly won’t be exactly that for everyone, but is fine to base our estimate on), we can fill out the other 23 roster spots at a cost of $13,121,500.

Including guaranteed salaries and minimums, the Cleveland payroll then comes to $18,821,500. A payroll of less than $19 million would be the lowest since the team had a $34 million opening day payroll in 2004 (per Cot’s Contracts, which only dates to 2000). It would also likely result in a (rightful!) grievance from the MLB Player’s Association. However, based on FanGraphs’ estimates of the team’s television deal, it would allow the team to run a profit (even after paying front office salaries, I’d wager) on the $47 million coming in from the garbage contract they signed with FOX Sports. And, as we know, Southwest Airlines customer Paul Dolan really wants to run a profit from his baseball club.

But that desperately ugly salary is not negative.

The players with guaranteed contracts are not the only ones with trade value. In fact, the most valuable player on the team is only guaranteed to make the minimum next year, which makes his value to the ownership enormous. That player, of course, is Shane Bieber, who was ranked 10th on FanGraphs’ trade value list before he won the Cy Young Award; with four more seasons of artificially suppressed costs guaranteed under the CBA, he’s almost certainly more valuable as a trading chip for the front office than he was before this season.

If Bieber is only guaranteed the minimum this year, however, you can’t really deduct any more from the bottom line by trading him — not by typical baseball methods, anyway. So, if the front office’s mandate to slash the budget superseded precedent, instead of seeking assets in the form of players they should get cash money from another club in exchange for Bieber.

FanGraphs projects Bieber to be worth 20 fWAR over the next five years and Craig Edwards projected the cost of a win in free agency to be about $8 million heading into last season. The pandemic wrecked that, but even if we estimate a cost per win of $6.8 million using 2019 numbers, Bieber’s value could be equivalent to $138 million over the next five years. If the team could even get half that, $69 million would make the Cleveland obligations for 2021 a cool NEGATIVE $50 million. And there you have it, our negative payroll.

With those hot savings, the Dolan family could pocket the money, sell the team for it’s valued $1.15 billion (barely changed despite the pandemic) and walk away with $877 million in profits after buying the team for $323 million in 2000.

I mention this last part to remind every reader just how ridiculous this whole exercise has been. Not only is it icky to think about the players as assets and by their value to the team, but it’s not even important given the wealth of the owners and the value the team still has. Everyone hurt during this pandemic, but some hurt more than others — and it ain’t MLB owners who are going to feel the hurt for years to come, even after life is back to whatever normal is.

So, Carlos Santana is getting paid and we fans have to watch as almost no one else beloved in Cleveland gets similar treatment. If there’s a silver lining, I suppose it’s that, unless the team really likes the blueprint I laid out above, the 2021 Cleveland baseball club won’t be the darkest timeline.