indians time running out
The gap between the rebuilding White Sox and the perennial division favorite Indians remains as wide as a pothole, but there’s reason to believe it won’t be that way for long.
Indians Chairman Paul Dolan doesn’t seem all that interested in lengthening the team’s window to win, as evidenced by his spring training comment about the chances of keeping superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor on a long-term deal.
“Enjoy him,” Dolan told The Athletic. “We control him for three more years. Enjoy him and then we’ll see what happens.”
Those aren’t exactly encouraging words to a fan base that inherited the “longest-suffering” moniker from Cubs fans after the 2016 World Series. But it could be good news for the Sox, who should have most of their top prospects on board by 2021.
The Indians once again are the default favorite in the American League Central, in which three teams _ the Sox, Tigers and Royals _ are rebuilding. The only realistic competition figures to come from the Twins, a team that seems forever stuck in the middle between rebuilding and trying to contend.
The Indians went into cost-cutting mode in the offseason, paring around $15 million off their $134.8 million payroll with a series of moves that included dealing Edwin Encarnacion, Yonder Alonso and Yan Gomes and letting Michael Brantley, Josh Donaldson and Andrew Miller leave as free agents.
Corey Kluber’s name also was brought up in trade conversations over the winter, but the Indians kept their ace, at least for now.
They still have a stellar rotation headed by Kluber and Trevor Bauer and should win the division with ease. But the once-dominant bullpen has holes and the lineup is pedestrian outside of slugger Jose Ramirez and Lindor, who is on the injured list with a sprained left ankle.
Manager Terry Francona, a future Hall of Famer, will have his hands full trying to put together a lineup that can give his rotation some breathing room.
In losing two of three in their opening series against the Twins, the Indians scored a total of five runs and struck out in 39 of 90 at-bats, a stunning 43 percent of the time. It may be a small sample size, but the lineup isn’t imposing, especially with Lindor out.
The Chief Wahoo logo finally is gone this season after years of controversy, and the once-hardcore fan base seems to be diminishing as well. Despite a trip to the World Series in 2016 and a 102-win season in 2017, the Indians ranked 21st in overall attendance last year, by far the worst of any division winner.
It makes little sense. Sure, the Indians have the longest championship drought of any major-league team, having last won a World Series in 1948, but they sold out their home ballpark for 455 consecutive games from 1995 to 2001.
So why doesn’t Cleveland support a winning team like they used to?
“It’s just the population size is so small,” Indians President Chris Antonetti said. “When you think about not only just the overall size of the population _ I think we’re the smallest city to have three big sports in the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball. The demographics may not be optimal for attracting people to the ballpark.
“But I think what we’ve found is we have a very high level of engagement among our fans,” he said. “If you look at our TV ratings and the percentage of population that’s engaged with the Indians, it’s really high. It’s just a very different environment in Cleveland today than it was 20 years ago, and certainly than it was 40 years ago.”
The season ticket base is only around 13,000, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which likely is the reason for the payroll cut.
Antonetti said it isn’t fair to compare the Indians’ support with the era of the sellout streak, noting Jacobs Field as it was known at the time was a new ballpark and the team was just starting to win in the mid-’90s for the first time in two-plus decades.
“The Browns weren’t in Cleveland,” he added. “The Cavs played in the suburbs. And the rest of the baseball environment was going through a strike (in ’94 and early ’95). So the rest of baseball was down and we were kind of peaking, which allowed us to have a top payroll. There were a bunch of Fortune 500 companies in Cleveland.
“Now, over time, a lot of those conditions have changed. LeBron (James arrived on the scene). The Browns are back. The Cavs are downtown. The economy in Cleveland has really taken a hit. The population continues to decline. The factors present in the mid-’90s are different than where we are today.”
That doesn’t bode well for the future of the Indians. Kluber is signed through this season with affordable club options in 2020 ($13.5 million) and ’21 ($14 million). Bauer claimed the Indians were guilty of “character assassination” during his arbitration hearing in February, and likely will command a megadeal when he’s a free agent after 2020.
If they can’t afford to keep Lindor, Kluber and Bauer, the Indians could eventually deal them for prospects and start their own rebuild.
In other words, hang on, Sox fans.
The future may be closer than it appears.