Monday, January 25, 2010

Copying Cleveland

When the Cleveland Indians opened up Jacobs Field in 1994, they were in a bit of slump. Kind of like Delmon Young has been in a bit of slump - since 2006.

But believe it or not, the Indians' slump was worse, because it went back about 35 years. They hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1954. They had just six winning seasons since 1959. And since 1947 they had played in Cleveland Stadium, derisively referred to as The Mistake by The Lake.

That was about to all change. The opening of Jacob's Field corresponded with a surge of talent from the Indians farm system. The anticipated revenues from the new stadium led to a tripling of payroll from $8 million in 1992 to $28 million in 1994.

The popular story is that the Indians used that money to tie young, talented players to long-term deals and fuel their astounding success for the latter half of the decade. That's only half the story. They certainly had success. Their win rate improved +26 games(!) on average between the five years before The Jake opened and the five years after the Jake opened. And there's no question that they were able to reward and keep homegrown talent like Kenny Lofton, Charles Nagy, Jim Thome, Albert Belle, Omar Vizquel and Manny Ramirez with the revenue from the new stadium.

But the other half of the story is that the Indians were aggressive regularly in the free agent market, starting the first year the park opened. That year they signed veteran Eddie Murray to be the designated hitter and pitcher Dennis Martinez received a top-25 contract to anchor the rotation. (It was during that contract that Martinez hit Kirby Puckett in the head with a pitch, ending his career.)

It wouldn't be the last time that decade that the Indians would use their new golden goose to acquire expensive talent from outside the organization:

  • In 1998 they traded for third baseman Travis Fryman, who was just 28 years old and would finish his career with Cleveland.
  • In 1999 they signed a 30-year-old Roberto Alomar to a five-year contract to play second base. He responded with three unbelievable seasons before being traded to the Mets to finish out the contract.
  • In 2000 they paid pitcher Chuck Finley $28 million over the last three years of his career.
  • In 2001 they signed Ellis Burks as a free agent and paid him over $18 million to DH for them over the next three years.

In each case, the Indians used their payroll to acquire a high-end player at a position of need and extend the organization's success from the late 90s. It worked. The Indians posted a .585 winning percentage from 94-2001, which translates to about 95 wins over a 162-game season. That included a 100-win season in 1995, six trips to the playoffs and two trips to the World Series.

The model for success had been built, and numerous MLB teams tried to copy it. But only half of the strategy was trumpeted by the baseball public. Yes, a strong farm system and long-term deals had established a base for the success. But Cleveland's management raised the level of their team from "good" to "elite" by spending money strategically on high-end players outside of the organization.


The preceding is loosely based on a much (much, much) longer story I wrote for the Maple Street Press Minnesota Twins Annual, coming to a magazine rack near you in March. (Or you can pre-order it here.) The story is a comprehensive review of what other "small market" teams have done with their new found revenues as stadiums opened.

Tuesday Night on Seth Speaks Podcast, he's going to have a special two-hour show featuring so many minor league Twins prospects that I can't name them all. Make sure and check it out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Cleveland during that time... Just a few things to note. Vizquel was not homegrown, they got him from Seattle b/c Seattle needed to make room for some SS named Alex Rodriguez. They did have a very good model. They also locked up their young talent through their arb years for very cheap contracts. That allowed them to keep that team together much longer than what they normally would have.

The Twins are in a bit different place b/c we already have established stars. CLE didn't have much in terms of stars when the gateway project opened. I do agree though that it makes a ton of sense to spend the FA money on a stud that fills an area of weakness, especially if there's nothing in the farm to replace it. For us, that is where 2B comes in, and making a deal for a guy like Lopez makes a ton of sense.