With Terry Francona in fold, Indians can’t be so cheap

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The Indians’ move to hire Terry Francona looks like a coup. Getting a two-time World Series-winning manager to come to Cleveland and take over a team that hasn’t finished over .500 in five years makes for quite the turn of events.

Now we’ll just have to wait and see if it does any good. Francona was a great handler of personalities in Boston and kept a roster loaded with big salaries and big egos pointed in the right direction for the vast majority of his tenure.

This will be an entirely different kind of gig for Francona. He won’t have to worry about handling a Manny Ramirez or a Josh Beckett or a David Ortiz. Of course, he also won’t have any of those kind of talents to rely on.

Here’s a truth about the Indians: even as salaries have continued to increase throughout the game, their franchise-high payroll came back in 2001. They spent $93 million that year. The last three years, they’ve come in at $61 million, $49 million and $65 million.

Now the good news: Travis Hafner’s awful contract is finally off the books. At $13 million, he was the team’s only player to make more than $5 million this year. Also, the guy who made $5 million, Grady Sizemore, likewise contributed nothing and is now a free agent.

That leaves five guys, all of whom will get raises over $5 million if they’re kept in 2013: Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Ubaldo Jimenez, Justin Masterson and Chris Perez. Many view Choo and Perez as trade candidates. Cabrera and Masterson could be as well. Jimenez has a $5.75 million option that could be declined after his rough year.

Essentially, the Indians have the ability to start over and build around Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis if they want. And that might have been a good idea had they chosen Sandy Alomar Jr. as manager. The Francona hiring suggests that they want to contend in 2013. And they need to after drawing just 1.6 million fans this year.

So, it seems a lot more likely today that the Indians will be keeping Cabrera, Choo and Masterson. They’re not going to be major players in free agency, but they need to bring in at least one first base/DH-type, an outfielder and a starting pitcher. A Perez trade might fill one of those needs.

Fortunately, the Indians won’t need to be a great team to contend for a playoff spot in the AL Central. If Kipnis and Santana can play their best for full years instead of half-seasons and some young arms come along, it’s hardly a hopeless cause.

MLB Network airs segment listing “good” and “bad” $100 million-plus contracts

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On Wednesday evening, Charlie Marlow of KTVI FOX 2 News St. Louis posted a couple of screencaps from a segment MLB Network aired about $100 million-plus contracts that have been signed. The list of “bad” contracts, unsurprisingly, is lengthier than the list of “good” contracts.

As Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus pointed out, it is problematic for a network owned by Major League Baseball to air a segment criticizing its employees for making too much seemingly unearned money. There’s a very clear conflict of interest, so one is certainly not getting a fair view of the situation. MLB, of course, can do what it wants with its network, but it can also be criticized. MLB Network would never air a similar segment in which it listed baseball’s “good” and “bad” owners and how much money they’ve undeservedly taken. Nor would MLB Network ever run a segment naming the hundreds of players who are not yet eligible for arbitration whose salaries are decided for them by their teams, often making the major league minimum ($545,000) or just above it. Similarly, MLB Network would also never think of airing a segment in which the pay of minor league players, many of whom make under $10,000 annually, is highlighted.

We’re now past the halfway point in January and many free agents still remain unsigned. It’s unprecedented. A few weeks ago, I looked just at the last handful of years and found that, typically, six or seven of the top 10 free agents signed by the new year. We’re still at two of 10 — same as a few weeks ago — and that’s only if you consider Carlos Santana a top-10 free agent, which is debatable. It’s a complex issue, but part of it certainly is the ubiquity of analytics in front offices, creating homogeneity in thinking. A consequence of that is everyone now being aware that big free agent contracts haven’t panned out well; it’s a topic of conversation that everyone can have and understand now. Back in 2010, I upset a lot of people by suggesting that Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract with the Phillies wouldn’t pan out well. Those people mostly cited home runs and RBI and got mad when I cited WAR and wOBA and defensive metrics. Now, many of those same people are wary of signing free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer and they now cite WAR, wOBA, and the various defensive metrics.

The public’s hyper-sensitivity to the viability of long-term free agent contracts — thanks in part to segments like the aforementioned — is a really bad trend if you’re a player, agent, or just care about labor in general. The tables have become very much tilted in favor of ownership over labor over the last decade and a half. Nathaniel Grow of FanGraphs pointed out in March 2015 that the players’ share of total league revenues peaked in 2002 at 56 percent, but declined all the way to 38 percent in 2014. The current trend of teams signing their talented players to long-term contract extensions before or during their years of arbitration eligibility — before they have real leverage — as well as teams abstaining from signing free agents will only serve to send that percentage further down.

Craig has written at great length about the rather serious problem the MLBPA has on its hands. Solving this problem won’t be easy and may require the threat of a strike, or actually striking. As Craig mentioned, that would mean getting the players all on the same page on this issue, which would require some work. MLB hasn’t dealt with a strike since 1994 and it’s believed that it caused a serious decline in interest among fans, so it’s certainly something that would get the owners’ attention. The MLBPA may also need to consider replacing union head Tony Clark with someone with a serious labor background. Among the issues the union could focus on during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement: abolishing the draft and getting rid of the arbitration system. One thing is for sure: the players are not in a good spot now, especially when the league has its own network on which it propagandizes against them.