Olney: Can Cleveland sustain a contender?

Will dwindling attendance handicap the Indians' ability to sustain a contender? Jason Miller/Getty Images

Chief Wahoo will soon disappear from the uniforms of the Cleveland Indians, but the caricature might be more prominent than ever at Progressive Field, on the jerseys and hats of fans angry about the decision to abandon the logo -- which is viewed as traditional by its supporters and blatantly racist by others. Because of all of the conversation and the controversy, this promises to be the Summer of Chief Wahoo.

This will distract from the larger question that looms over the Indians franchise -- the question of how long the market can sustain a competitive team. The viability of interesting baseball in Cleveland is at stake.

The Indians will go into this season as heavy favorites to win the American League Central, which appears to be the weakest of MLB’s six divisions. Cleveland won 102 games last season, including 22 straight in a streak that was the talk of baseball, before the Indians were knocked out by the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series. Terry Francona’s lineup will again include MVP candidates Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, as well as the entire rotation and most of the bullpen. First baseman Carlos Santana, center fielder Austin Jackson and relievers Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith departed as free agents, but the Indians will mostly field the same team.

Yet for executives with other teams, the Indians’ inaction this winter has been a telling sign of what looms on the horizon. Cleveland’s only notable move was the signing of first baseman Yonder Alonso to a modest two-year deal.

“They’re not spending, and that probably means they feel like they’re overextended [financially],” said one team's vice president.

Last winter, the Indians’ ownership surprised the industry and extended itself to sign slugger Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year, $60 million deal. There were other moves, as well, to improve a team that played to the 10th inning of Game 7 of the World Series, and the Indians’ payroll surged from the team-record $97 million in 2016 to $124 million in 2017.

The Indians’ average annual regular-season attendance increased, but relative to the rest of baseball, Cleveland lagged again.

2012: 19,797 (Ranked 29th)

2013: 19,661 (28th)

2014: 18,428 (29th)

2015: 17,806 (29th)

2016: 19,650 (28th)

2017: 25,285 (22nd)

The Indians have won the most games in the AL over the past five years -- 454, 22 more than the next-closest team, the Boston Red Sox (432). The Indians have won more games than any AL team over the past three years. Last summer, they fielded a defending league champion with dynamic players such as Lindor and Ramirez, Cy Young ace Corey Kluber and relief stars Andrew Miller and Cody Allen -- indeed, a solid supporting cast. The winning streak created a lot of interest, and walk-up sales.

Yet, in the end, the San Diego Padres drew more than the Indians. So did the Minnesota Twins, the Detroit Tigers, the Arizona Diamondbacks and 17 other teams.

The Indians’ challenge to maintain a competitive team will grow in the next few years. Their best relievers, Miller and Allen, will be free agents this fall, and it’s hard to imagine the Indians successfully bidding for either. Ramirez signed a team-friendly deal, but Lindor turned down an extension offer, and he will be eligible for arbitration next winter. Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar are all under contract for the next few years, but because each of the core players under contract will get more expensive -- and because the Indians might well shrink their payroll from the 2017 high-water mark -- Cleveland might not have much to spend on the other parts of its team.

Soon enough then, maybe after the 2018 season, the Indians’ front office might be confronted by the same sort of challenge the Pittsburgh Pirates just faced: If the Indians don’t believe the team is good enough to win 90-plus games and contend for a championship, when is the right time to sell off high-priced assets and better position the team for the future? (And the Pirates traded away Gerrit Cole two years removed from free agency and Andrew McCutchen with one year left on his contract.)

When the Indians’ home ballpark first opened (as Jacobs Field), the team sold out daily. With that history, there might have been some question for ownership in recent years about whether the team might be a big draw again under the right circumstances: a great team with marketable players and legitimate championship hopes.

The Indians’ front office and ownership checked all those boxes, aggressively marketed the team, drew big local TV ratings -- and the team has still not gotten close to averaging 30,000 in attendance.

The NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers are a popular draw, perhaps gaining a chunk of the discretionary spending dollars in an area hit heavily by economic conditions over the past 20 years. It’s possible the Cavs’ success has pulled some revenue away from the Indians.

But you could make a reasonable case, based on the Indians’ journey the past few years, that the popularity and marketability of baseball in Cleveland is as close to fully defined as it is going to be in the time Francona is manager of the Indians. It might be that a signing such as Encarnacion, or a trade for Miller in the midst of a championship drive, won’t spike the attendance to the degree the Indians can rationally justify pushing their payroll from a small budget to a midlevel budget.

The gripes over the demise of Chief Wahoo figure to be the loudest. But they won’t be the most important development for a historic franchise in the midst of a very critical time in its history.

News from around the majors

Some free agents will be get sizable contracts, eventually, once they work out terms. But others will have to continue to wait, in spite of excellent performance history.

Five players, among many, who don’t have jobs for 2018 -- remarkably:

  • Jonathan Lucroy, catcher: He was the most coveted catcher at the deadline in 2016.

  • Neil Walker, second base: The veteran infielder played for the qualifying offer of $17.2 million last season.

  • Mark Reynolds, first base: The 34-year-old had one of the best seasons of his career in 2017.

  • Carlos Gonzalez, outfielder: The 32-year-old had a .921 OPS in the second half of last season.

  • Jaime Garcia, starting pitcher: The lefty threw well enough in the first half of last season to compel two trades to contenders -- first to the Twins, then to the Yankees; he threw 157 innings in 27 starts.

• Now that the Cubs have signed Yu Darvish, these are the biggest holes that remain unfilled among contending teams:

1. Slugger for the Red Sox. They continue to be the team that appears best positioned to pick up J.D. Martinez, after making a five-year, $100 million offer -- which could grow if the time comes when the Red Sox and Martinez’s representation work to push the deal across the finish line.

2. Third base, for the Yankees. Mike Moustakas is the best free agent available at the position, by far, but the only way he could land with the Yankees would be if he decides to take a short-term deal. And even then, New York might want him to take a deal in the $12 million to $15 million range because of its luxury-tax concerns and the draft compensation it would have to give up to sign him.

3. Starting pitcher, Twins. Their offer to Darvish was similar to the Cubs’ deal for the right-hander. If the Twins are ready to use some of their enormous payroll flexibility on another pitcher, the next-best starters in the market, behind Jake Arrieta, are right-handers Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn.

And today will be better than yesterday.