The Cleveland Indians have a lot of obstacles to clear in order to be a competitive major league franchise. They're in a small market, they have limited funds and they have low attendance. Outside of their glory days early in the last century and their infamous run of success in the 1990s, this has been a problem for many years. Well, despite all that in 2016, the Indians won the American League pennant and came ever so close to capturing the World Series title. Now the team enters 2017 with the goal of winning that final game.
Looking ahead, however, the question the more cynical among us would ask is can they actually do it again and continue to be a World Series contender or was last season all accomplished with smoke and mirrors? Well, some in-depth examination into the organization and how it is run may paint Cleveland's beloved Tribe in a very good light as not only a team that can remain competitive, but also one of the better-run franchises in Major League Baseball.
Here are four indicators as to why...
1. Strong Leadership
It goes without saying that the Indians have one of the best on-field leaders in baseball in Terry Francona and his impact on the organization has been felt from day one and continues to play a significant part in the team's day-to-day operation. Francona's mere presence has made Cleveland an attractive destination for free agents and the young players he has helped bring up to the big leagues and mentored are willing to walk through a brick wall for him. If there's anyone who can bring the Indians their first championship in nearly 70 years, it's this man.
Beyond the Tribe's two-time AL Manager of the Year, however, there's a team of front office staff that the Indians have fostered long before Terry Francona arrived in Cleveland. Under Mark Shapiro, Chris Antonetti and now Mike Chernoff, the Indians have created a front office staff that is the envy of all of baseball, as evidenced by the numerous former Tribe executives such as Ross Atkins, Mike Hazen and Derek Falvey, who are now general managers themselves or are in other prominent positions of leadership elsewhere in the major leagues. Between Antonetti, Chernoff, Carter Hawkins, James Harris and Brad Grant, the organization is in better hands than it's been in years.
2. Player Development
Aside from having a strong leadership unit in place on the field and in the front office, this is where team-building starts for any club who wants to be competitive for the long haul. There are the teams with the large payrolls who can put together a winning roster with their checkbook, but I'd always bet the house on the organizations who consistently draft and develop their talent. In the Chris Antonetti/Mike Chernoff era in Cleveland, a greater emphasis has been placed on player development over the last 5-10 years by improving their scouting and focusing on putting the right people in place at each minor league level to bring these youngsters along.
While the Tribe front office has done a fine job supplementing the roster with outside talent in recent years, the heart and soul of the team still lies with the players developed internally such as Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis and Danny Salazar. Last year's Indians roster had 11 homegrown players and ranked second in the majors in combined WAR at 23.2 behind only the Red Sox. Looking at their current big league roster, Cleveland has 13 homegrown players on their current active roster with the potential of one or two more being added as the opening day squad is finalized, putting their big league roster at as much as 60% homegrown talent.
Not only has their farm system produced World Series-caliber roster, but their current prospect stock still ranks among the best in baseball even after top prospects Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield were flipped to the Bronx for super-reliever Andrew Miller at last year's trade deadline. Both Bleacher Report and SB Nation's Minor League Ball site currently rank the Indians' farm system 10th in baseball with potential to move higher as their minor league assets continue to develop.
Indians Prospects Among MLB.com Top 100 Prospects
- Bradley Zimmer, OF (22nd in MLB.com Top 100)
- Francisco Mejia, C (40th in MLB.com Top 100)
- Triston McKenzie, RHP (57th in MLB.com Top 100)
- Bobby Bradley, 1B (95th in MLB.com Top 100)
With players such as Francisco Mejia, Bradley Zimmer, Bobby Bradley and Triston McKenzie topping the list of Tribe prospects and a healthy scouting and drafting philosophy in place, the Indians don't appear to be running short of talent anytime soon.
3. Asset Retention
With the signing of Jose Ramirez to a 5-year/$26 million contract extension this week, the Indians have continued to execute a crucial part of their business model as far as keeping their key players around long term. Not only has the organization been able to develop talent, but they've also had a great deal of success in retaining it at reasonable salary rates with Michael Brantley, Corey Kluber, Jason Kipnis and Carlos Carrasco among the players who have inked long-term extensions with the Tribe.
Fangraphs recently put out a chart detailing the amount of statistical value (WAR) teams have under multi-year control, more specifically over the next five seasons (2017-2021). With the Ramirez extension, the Indians check in at number three in the majors behind the Cubs and Dodgers and far ahead of their AL Central rivals who are bringing up the rear of the pack.
While that feat is impressive on it's own, add in the fact that there's anywhere between a $40 million to over $100 million discrepancy between the Tribe's 2017 payroll and the rest of the teams in the top five on that list. In fact, even with all their free agent signings and the extension of Ramirez, Cleveland still ranks 16th in overall team payroll at just under $121 million, which is still roughly $10 million below league average. So they're developing talent, maintaining productivity for the long-haul and doing it in a cost-effective manner, the tent poles of any successful business.
4. Committed and Trusting Owners
This was the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place for the Indians. For years, the commitment to winning of the Dolans has been in question among the Tribe fanbase. Whether it was a fair assessment or not, that consensus began to change during the 2012-13 offseason when the Indians went out and signed top free agents Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to contracts worth a combined $104 million. Those deals marked the largest handed out to any free agent by the Indians since they inked All-Star infielder Roberto Alomar to a 4-year/$30 million deal in 1998 and by far the biggest contracts in the Larry/Paul Dolan era, surpassing the ill-fated Kerry Wood signing in 2008 for two years and $20.5 million.
Of course, the Swisher and Bourn deals didn't work out as expected, but another layer of commitment from team ownership was uncovered as Chris Antonetti managed to deal both of them away to the Braves in exchange for another albatross contract in third baseman Chris Johnson, who was later cut and to whom the Indians are still paying $9 million this season and $1 million in 2018. So aside from showing willingness to spend and add top assets to the roster, the Dolans are also willing to absorb the cost of the moves that don't work out and try something else, which they did in the past calendar year by adding Andrew Miller's contract via trade and taking on top free agents Edwin Encarnacion and Boone Logan's lucrative deals in excess of $66 million.
The last and probably the most important facet of the Dolan ownership is how much they trust the people they hire to run the team. Baseball has seen all types of owners over the years from P.K. Wrigley to George Steinbrenner, all with varying degrees involvement in team operations and personnel decisions. In all honesty, though, you probably couldn't ask for better owners than the Dolans in this capacity as they have found the right people to run their organization and also stood back and let them conduct business as they see fit. That bond of trust is the reason why the Andrew Miller deal happened, why Encarnacion and Logan were signed and why the Indians are among the favorites to win the World Series in 2017.
When you consider these factors, there is little conjecture involved in identifying the reason for the Indians' recent prosperity. They went to the World Series with a depleted roster, got healthy, stayed in tact and even got better through their offseason dealings. Obviously the rest of baseball recognizes and respects the Tribe's successful business model or they wouldn't be trying to hire folks away from the organization. This is a sound and savvy sports franchise that deserves the support of its fans as it embarks on the next chapter of this journey towards, what appears to be, an increasingly inevitable World Series title.