Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff held their season-ending media event this afternoon, discussing numerous topics with The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Paul Hoynes, MLB.com’s Mandy Bell, The Athletic’s Zack Meisel, and other reporters.
As has become a trend during these wrap-up events in 2020, there was much discussion about how the economic uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the Tribe’s payroll going forward. While Antonetti said “we don’t have a specific number for a payroll at this point,” no implication was given that the Indians would increase spending in such a “daunting” financial environment.
“The reality of the finances in baseball in 2020 is that the industry lost billions of dollars and as a team we lost tens of millions of dollars. That puts us in a really difficult financial position that will take us years to recover from,” Antonetti said.
Pre-pandemic, the Indians had a projected payroll of just under $100MM for the 2020 season and that number could drop significantly given the amount of money coming off the books. Cesar Hernandez, Oliver Perez, and Sandy Leon are all free agents, and Cleveland holds club options on Carlos Santana and Brad Hand for 2021. If all five of those players departed, the Tribe would save approximately $39.5MM in salary, though obviously the team would be left needing to fill multiple roster holes.
Francisco Lindor represents Cleveland’s biggest obligation, as the shortstop is arbitration-eligible for the third and final time and will earn a raise on his $17.5MM salary for 2020. Given his rising price tag, Lindor’s name has swirled in trade rumors for months, and this offseason could represent the Tribe’s last chance to get a significant trade return on his services.
While Antonetti said “I don’t think I ever take that view” that Lindor is a surefire trade candidate, the executive did say that there hadn’t been any more extension talks with Lindor’s camp since negotiations broke off during Spring Training. “What has happened with the pandemic has added an entirely unexpected layer of complexity as to what the future may look like. So we haven’t even started to wrap our head around what that may look like,” Antonetti said.
Perhaps more tellingly, Antonetti also made multiple comments about the approach the smaller-payroll Indians have taken to put a consistent winning team on the field. “I think we’ve made consistent decisions over the course of the past few seasons to infuse young talent to position us to sustain that competitiveness….And had we not made some of those decisions, we’d be in a much worse position right now heading into 2021,” Antonetti said.
“I think we can afford any individual player. It’s less about that. It’s about how do we build a team that’s capable of contending? And how do we allocate resources in a way that gives us the best chance to win as many games as possible?”
While Lindor’s Cleveland status may be up in the air, one person who is expected to return next season is manager Terry Francona. Due to both gastrointestinal problems and surgery to correct a blood-clotting problem, Francona missed 46 games during the regular and both of the Tribe’s playoff contests, with first base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. stepping in as interim manager. It isn’t yet known if bench coach Brad Mills or hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo will also be back in 2021 — both coaches opted out of the 2020 season.
In other notable news, Antonetti implied that Jose Ramirez would remain as a third baseman, which creates a few ripple effects for the Tribe. For one, it will put the focus on acquiring a second baseman (whether re-signing Hernandez or adding someone else) this winter, rather than widening the search to third basemen and moving Ramirez back to the keystone.
It also means that top prospect Nolan Jones could move off third base and see time as a first baseman or corner outfielder. “We have talked to him a little bit about the possibility of adding some positional versatility,” Chernoff said. “He’s out at our fall programming in Arizona now and will mix in potentially at some other spots.”
Jones played shortstop in high school and shifted to third base in the minor leagues, though there have been long been whispers that first base or the outfield might be his eventual position. A second-round pick in the 2016 draft, Jones has hit .283/.409/448 over 1453 minor league plate appearances, reaching the Double-A level in 2019. The cancelled minor league season robbed Jones of his first taste of Triple-A ball, but he did work out at the Indians’ alternate training site all summer as part of the team’s 60-man player pool.