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Charlie Finley’s wild free agency idea would have made for an interesting Indians offseason

What if players could only sign one-year contracts forever?

Charlie Finley

Charlie Finley had a lot of ideas. Being a total baseball outsider — an insurance salesman who just liked and knew a lot about baseball, so he made himself general manager in addition to owner of the Oakland Athletics — Finley wasn’t caught up in the orthodoxy of the game, of How It’s Supposed To Be Done.

So he did interesting, novel things with his team, like trying to use neon baseballs, making the A’s mascot a mule named “Charlie O”, or installing a mechanical rabbit named Harvey that would pop up behind home plate and deliver new balls to the umpire.

He also had the final dynasty of the Reserve Clause Era with those early ‘70s A’s, and saw free agency tear a mighty squad apart. This drove Finley to one of his most wild ideas, one that, if enacted, would have changed the shape of baseball, maybe sports. He wanted every player to never sign more than one-year contracts. It’s wild and crazy, and probably terrible, but after dealing with this death march of an off-season for the Indians, I couldn’t help but wonder what that would look like. If only for the novelty.

If the Indians had to start from zero players on their 25-man roster (I’m going to ignore minors and 40-man lists because that’s just too much thinking) what would they honestly do? The most money they’ve spent on a player was Edwin Encarnacion, who earned about $18 million in his last season in Cleveland, though the last year of that contract was just over $21 million. The Indians being what they are, they dumped that money on someone else.

In a free-for-all, they’re walking in handicapped right off the bat. It’s less than unlikely that they’d even get to keep Francisco Lindor, or even Shane Bieber or Mike Clevinger, or really any top flight players like them. One thought might be to dump a ton of money on a couple stars and fill in around them with mediocrity, but we saw how that works out when the White Sox tried in the Sale/Quintana/Abreu years. At first blush, it would be a mess.

The assumption would simply be that the big clubs would drop money bombs, right? But to what end? Of course any team would want a Betts-Trout-Yelich outfield, or a rotation with Cole, Scherzer, deGrom, Strasburg and Morton. Thing is, if this whole one-year thing was going, the bidding would be insane for the absolute top flight guys. Trout is probably worth $60 million a year, and in a naked, unrestrained free market royal rumble he’d probably get it. The Yankees and Dodgers have a lot of money, the Yankees tops right now at $217 million and the Dodgers tickling the $200 million mark on their 25-man. Nine teams have a payroll over $150 million. There’s money to spend. Once Trout takes $50 or $60 million of that though, what’s the next step? Just dump $600 million for a solid shot at the title? They do all leave the next year, you know. It’ll make jersey sales a toilet, and revenues would be a mess.

That’s why, really, this whole model could actually benefit the Indians in some bizarre way. No, they probably couldn’t afford a big name or anything, unless they could somehow convince a player to give up a year in Miami or New York for a summer in Cleveland while also taking a discount. Baseball is so often won by those pretty good players though, the Whit Merrifields and Nick Ahmeds and Jean Seguras of the world. Good players to have around, but rarely the guy on the marquee.

The dream would be, big clubs would spend the early days of the feeding frenzy negotiating with the superstars while the Indians snipe the middle of the road players and number two and three starters with the promise of playing time and a face on the marquee. Kind of like how small colleges snake highly rated recruits. Along with that, the value of those platoon types and the mediocre ones that stick around for a while, their salaries would tank because people would blow their budget on the big names and just not be able to afford them. So that’s part of the scheme, I guess. It might not work at all — it’s not as if Brian Cashman is some brain dead money gun targeting only big fish men. He is a good baseball mind, they all are. Still, for one year at least, maybe the Indians would scrape together a playoff run.

The other saving grace is, there’s just not enough great players to really go around. In 2019 only 25 position players amassed more than 4.5 WAR, and only eleven crested the 6.0 WAR mark. Pitching was even more stark (in part because throwing 180 innings is the new 200) with just fifteen picking up 4.5 WAR, and just a half-dozen topping 6.0 WAR. That’s just 17 unabashed superstars and 36 players that are more than a great role player. The scarcity at the top makes it so difficult for the Indians to find any room to get one of these stars, but it also makes it surprisingly hard for teams to pile on the superstars, while still eating up their budget. If it’s not their focus to begin with, that could give them a leg up to get a team of merely alright players and be good in the aggregate.

It’s ironic, but the Tribe might have to go with what it’s done before, and find guys who have under-performed the last year or so or else players coming off injury. So it would be a lot of the same. At least the offseason would be fun because there’d be names to talk about, and maybe, just maybe, they’d occasionally save up a bunch of money for some kind of star to go along with all the scrubs and ding-and-dent players and contend for a real title. You know, just like today.

Realistically, this would probably just be the death of baseball in Cleveland. Their ability to underpay good players, develop young players for cheap in the minors, all that money saving stuff that’s looked at as good business, if all that’s out the window the profit margins shrink pretty quickly. It’s like the game before the 1900s. Teams kind of cropped up everywhere for a few years, made a couple bucks, then the owner decided he didn’t want to do it anymore and skipped town. It happened in Cleveland, both with the Spiders and like three teams named the Forest Citys back in the 1870s and ‘80s. The whole team control thing props these small market, cry poor teams up like nothing else, and suppresses wages nearly as much as an insane, one year-only rule would.

Really, I just wanted some action this winter. A mad dash for players would just be fun. I do the fantasy draft on MLB The Show now and then, and it’s fun to assemble a horror show of a squad. The Indians would never be able to do that, since there’s no draft and part of it would be selling the experience of spending a year in Cleveland over, any other city in the league. Just think of all the wondering and considering you could do with a team made up of maybes, middle-of-the-roads, and mediocrity. You could totally convince yourself that it would turn into something great. And if it doesn’t? Who cares? As so many have said around this time, there’s always next year.