Success is a subjective term, with its boundaries open to interpretation. In baseball, success usually means having many more wins than losses throughout the season, so in that literal sense, the Indians’ past few seasons have lacked success. They have more losing seasons (six) than winning seasons (three, if you include a .500 season) since 2002. Prior to 2002, the Indians had made six playoff appearances within a seven-year stretch—including five straight berths and two advancements to the World Series. From then on, the team has gained entry to the tournament only once, and even that experience left a bitter taste in the proverbial collective mouth of Clevelanders.
The Indians have won 215 games over the last three seasons, a disappointment when juxtaposed to the three years prior, in which they tallied 267 victories. That's an obvious decline, sure, but the team remains a success story of sorts as the Indians work under a different set of circumstances. The little team that could saber is a distinction now reserved for another franchise, but the Indians are not too shabby in front-office talent themselves. The proof resides in the numbers—specifically the payroll totals. Providing factoids about the Indians' payroll can be illuminating; for instance, the sum of Cleveland’s 2008-2010 payrolls equal the Yankees’ 2010 payroll. It's more helpful to look at how often the Indians should reach the playoffs based on their cash outflow.
Accomplishing such an exercise is easy by using methodology developed by Tom Tango. He goes into detail on the process, but essentially one can arrive at the desired results by finding the team’s Payroll Index—or simply dividing the team’s payroll by the league average, then multiplying by 100. Think of this number as OPS+ or ERA+ for payrolls, wherein a Payroll Index of 100 represents a league-average payroll, numbers above 100 represent more than, and anything below represents less than. From there, a team’s playoff odds can be found through a simple equation ((Payroll Index/2)-23). The Indians come out looking like this:
Cleveland has sat safely below league average since the 2003 season while managing to field one playoff-worthy team and a 93-win team that makes the playoffs in most seasons. Two post-season berths in eight seasons is unimpressive until you consider the team’s average playoff chances were 13 percent thanks to an average payroll just under $60 million (league-average being a hair more than $80 million). Making the playoffs once is to be expected; essentially fielding two playoff-worthy teams during the stretch surpasses those expectations.
These numbers serve as a baseline and ignore divisional competition, but potentially underestimate the playoff chances of teams stocked with two kinds of players: cost-controlled (usually younger) players, and players who provide substantially more value than their wages. The Indians just so happen to play in a winnable division, and had most of their core locked up before beginning to rebuild during the 2008 season. Nate Silver had good reason to write, “No team in baseball, except perhaps the Mets, has a better head start on a championship [than the Indians]” back in the summer of 2006.
The Indians responded to Silver’s praise by making a run deep into the postseason. Three underperforming seasons later (their Pythagorean Record suggests they should have won 13 more games), and most of the players Silver wrote about have moved on. In the place of CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Victor Martinez are rising stars like Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana, with Grady Sizemore possibly replicating his role from those teams should he stay healthy.
Former general manager Mark Shapiro built successful Cleveland teams behind a few stars surrounded by strong supporting casts. Chris Antonetti’s teams appear headed toward a similar template. The Indians already have the star power, and they may have the role players in place as well. Asdrubal Cabrera is capable of strong on-base percentages while playing one of the middle-infield positions (although defensive metrics and fan observations seem to differ). The Tribe would benefit from an improvement from a player in one of their ace-trades, like Michael Brantley, Matt LaPorta, or Jason Donald. The rotation lacks an ace, but Carlos Carrasco appears likely to break camp with the team, which should only help.
If those youngsters cannot help in the pursuit of relevancy, then a loaded farm might. Kevin Goldstein described the system as deep earlier this offseason; he granted second baseman Jason Kipnis and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall five-star ratings. Former top picks Alex White and Drew Pomeranz are also on the rise and should assist in rebuilding the rotation. The Indians also hold the eighth overall selection in June’s draft; adding another top-10 talent should further sweeten the farm’s offerings.
Cleveland's potential to fill out the roster with cost-controlled players should allow the team to allocate more of its funds toward locking up its stars—an understated benefit given the Indians' payroll restrictions—much as it did under Shapiro and even John Hart. These things seem to work in cycles, so don’t be surprised to see the Indians ascending the AL Central totem pole come 2012.
All salary data courtesy of USA Today’s database