PHOENIX — Once a progressive, always a progressive.
When then-Cleveland general manager John Hart changed the major-league business model 20 years ago by betting on the come — signing talented but unproven young players to long-term contracts — the rest of the baseball community was not exactly impressed.
“The industry thought we were crazy,” said one executive who was in on the ground floor.
Six division titles in seven years proved the point. This was no mistake by the lake. Cleveland was prescient, way ahead of the curve.
“Pretty genius,” said Arizona manager Torey Lovullo, who was finishing his playing career in the organization at that time.
The geniuses are at it again.
While Hart is following a similar model since joining Atlanta in 2014, Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff, the latest in the line of Hart protégés in Cleveland, are reprising the strategy as the Indians look to solidify their ascendency after taking the Chicago Cubs to seven games in the 2016 World Series despite being two starting pitchers down.
After signing Jose Ramirez and Roberto Perez to long-term contacts this spring, Cleveland has more than 20 players under contract or control through 2018. Some of the key players, longer.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is not quite a mile up 9th Street from Progressive Field, and Cleveland has resolved to again keep the band together.
It has worked before.
Cleveland had unparalleled success in the mid-1990s with a group of young players culled and rewarded with long-term contracts via the Hart method. The franchise made six postseason appearances and played in two World Series in a seven-year period beginning in 1995.
You know the names. Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel and Charles Nagy were under contract for all seven years. Kenny Lofton, Sandy Alomar and Manny Ramirez were there for six of the seven. And what second baseman Carlos Baerga started early in the stretch, Roberto Alomar completed. Albert Belle probably wishes he would have stuck around instead of turning down Cleveland’s long-term offer of about $8 million a year to sign with the White Sox. He got the money, five years and $55 million, but his career went the other way.
Cleveland won six AL Central championships and averaged 93 victories.
Players bought in, literally and figuratively, trading the potential of outperforming the contract for the immediate security it provided.
Baerga, still in the Cleveland organization, called it a win-win, and not only from a financial standpoint.
“It was the best thing to happen to us, because that kept the pressure off our shoulders,” Baerga said. “You could go in there and just play your game. You sign that contract because you are in a city where they want you, and you like it. It’s a family. You spend more time with the players than you do with your family, so you have to like the place. You have to love the place. For the new players to sign multi-year contracts, it’s awesome. It means they are keeping the team together.”
Jose Ramíréz certainly seems to feel the love. Ramíréz has four homers, 15 RBIs and a 1.071 OPS in 14 games since signing his new deal. Ramirez is locked up through 2023, including options.
Of the current group, first baseman/DH Edwin Encarnacion, second baseman Jason Kipnis, right-hander Carlos Carrasco and catcher Yan Gomes are signed through 2020, including teams options, while right-handers Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer are under control via arbitration for that long. Ace Corey Kluber is under contract through 2021, including options, and shortstop Francisco Lindor is under control through 2021.
Like Baerga, manager Terry Francona believes the familiarity has its positives, although he cites another example.
“It is not so much getting along, because they all get along,” Francona said. “It’s being able to maybe have a tough conversation with one of your teammates when it is needed, because those are the things that are really beneficial. I think our guys do a good job of looking out for each other and doing things right.”
The market, both in Cleveland and in the game, has changed in the two decades since Hart originated the plan. There is more money because of ever-increasing TV revenue, and because of that players can be more reluctant to commit long-term. Cleveland has approached Lindor’s camp with a seven-year offer — Chernoff’s six-year old son Brody broke the news of the length during a visit to Cleveland’s radio booth late in spring training — but nothing has materialized.
Once the top dog in Cleveland in terms of fan interest, the NFL’s Browns took take some of the fans’ disposable income when they returned, and general manager David Griffin has made the Cavaliers the town’s go-to franchise after drafting, then re-signing LeBron James and making two straight appearances in the NBA Finals, including last year’s title.
The players’ union can take a dim view of young players signing for a lot of years, too, feeling those kinds of deals can depress the market. At the same time, it is hard to fault a player for seeking security — especially pitchers, whose injuries can be more profound.
First baseman/DH Carlos Santana is the only Cleveland contributor who is not under contract in 2018, and Fanrag’s Jon Heyman reported that Cleveland is exploring an extension. Santana signed a five-year, $21 million contract in 2012 that included a $12 million option for this season. The signing of Encarnacion could be a signal that Cleveland is ready to move on, since both are first basemen/DHs.
“We operate on a little different map than they used to, but I think the blueprint that the guys are using is really good. I think it will help us,” manager Terry Francona said.
“We have to be realistic about who we are. If we can get players in their first six or eight years, their productive years, I think that is the best time to have them. I think that’s what our guys are trying to do. When they get past that point and they are free agents, that may be a tough neighborhood for us. You try to get them locked up and get hopefully their most productive years.”
The locked up part is down pat.