(Michael Bourn, above, is now a Cleveland Indian. Photo by Getty Images).
I heard an interesting discussion on ESPN 710 this morning as I was driving to work, as Mike Salkand Tom Wassell debated whether the Indians had a more productive offseason than the Mariners. I believe their conclusion was “no,” but I arrived at work and didn’t get to hear the end.
The Mariners and Indians have had interesting parallels over the years. Both teams thrived, on the field and at the box office, in perfect timing to opening up great new stadiums. When Jacobs Field (now Progressive) opened in 1994, the Indians were on the verge of a real powerhouse, an exciting team that dominated the American League for several seasons, winning pennants in 1995 and 1997. They routinely drew 3 million fans and had a 455-game sellout streak from June 12, 1995 to April 4, 2001. The Mariners, meanwhile, moved into Safeco Field midway through the 1999 season, made the playoffs in 2000 and 2001 (setting an American League record with 116 wins in the latter season), and then won 93 games in both 2002 and 2003. In that stretch, they also attracted three million fans annually and led the majors in attendance in 2001 and ’02.
But neither run proved sustainable. The Indians wound up tearing their team down, rebuilding under current Mariners manager Eric Wedge to the point of coming within one victory of the World Series in 2007, and tearing down again. They have lost 90-plus games in three of the last four seasons, including 68-94 last year. The days of constant sellouts is a distant memory. They sunk to a low of 1.3 million attendance in 2010 (from a peak of 3.4 million), and drew 1.6 million last year. They’ve gone from being a top 10 payroll team (often in the top five) during the glory years to ranking 21st last year at $78.4 million.
The Mariners, of course, have hit rough times as well, finishing in last place in seven of the last nine years (the initial decline coming despite actually raising their payroll above $100 million — but with unwise decisions). Attendance has plummeted from a high of 3.5 million in 2001 and 2002 to 1.7 million last year. The Indians and Mariners ranked 29th and 26th in average attendance, and last year the Mariners were 18th in payroll at $81.9 million
So it has been a surprise to many this year that the Indians have had a very aggressive winter, capped by yesterday’s signing of Michael Bourn to a four-year, $48-million deal with an option for 2017. They were the only team, in fact, to sign two of the top 10 free agents on the market, having landed Nick Swisher earlier in the winter for four years and $56 million with a vesting option for a fifth year. That’s a commitment of $104 million from a team that had a $49 million payroll in 2011, with a chance they will pay $130 million if both options are completed.
Ken Rosenthal of FOX wrote today that the Indians “suddenly are relevant again.” It certainly has been a busy offseason, starting with the hiring of Terry Francona to manage and including the trade of Shin-Soo Choo (a free agent after the season) and utility man Jason Donald to the Reds for outfielder Drew Stubbs; the trade of reliever Tony Sipp and first baseman Lars Anderson to Arizona for Trevor Bauer (the No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 draft and a potential future ace); the signing of former Orioles free agent Mark Reynolds (one-year, $6 million); the signing of pitcherBrett Myers to a one-year deal; and bringing in the obligatory reclaimation pitchers in Scott Kazmir and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
That’s to be contrasted with the Mariners, who signed free agents Raul Ibanez, Kelly Shoppach, Joe Saunders (that should be official soon) and Jason Bay, traded for Mike Morse, Kendrys Morales and Robert Andino, and brought in the obligatory reclaimation pitchers in Jon Garlandand Jeremy Bonderman. All of the above are on one-year deals.
So how did the Indians wind up being more aggressive than the Mariners when it came to locking up two big-ticket items to long-term contracts?
One factor is that the Mariners tried to be aggressive but were unable to consummate deals forJosh Hamilton and Justin Upton, among others. But fans don’t want to hear about how hard they tried. They want to see results.
It is plausible that the signing of a well-known manager like Terry Francona, with two World Series under his belt, made the Indians more attractive to Swisher and Bourn. But two other factors loomed more important:
One, the Indians, by virtue of having the fifth-worst record in baseball, were one of the 10 “protected” teams that didn’t have to give up their first-round draft pick for signing free agents that received qualifying offers. Both Swisher and Bourn fell in that category, but the Indians will have to give up only their second-round pick for Swisher and a competitive-balance pick (No. 69 overall) for Bourn. The Mariners, who draft No. 12 and were thus unprotected, were very leery of giving up that pick to sign either Bourn or Swisher (though were willing to do so to sign Hamilton). I will point out again, for what it’s worth, that had the Mariners not won their final two games of the season against the Angels, they would have had a protected pick.
The second factor, just as important, is the fact that the Indians sold their regional sports network, SportsTime Ohio, to Fox Sports in October for a reported $230 million. It’s not up there with the billion-dollar deals of the Dodgers or Angels, as Rosenthal points out, but they will also receive rights fees of $40 million annually over the next 10 years, an increase of $9 million a year according to Rosenthal’s sources. That fact, plus the increase of the national TV package that will net every team an additional $26 million from 2014 to ’21, emboldened the Indians to step aggressively into the market.
And that bodes well for the Mariners, as well, who are likely to be renegotiating their television package in the upcoming couple of years, as Geoff has written about. They made efforts, ultimately unsuccessfully, to land some big fish this winter. The days when they will be major players for elite free agents should not be far off — and for the Indians, they arrived this year thanks to a favorable confluence of events.