Recent signings an extension of 1990s Indians
Tribe locking up youngsters, a policy so successful under Hart
CLEVELAND -- Sandy Alomar Jr. remembers a time when he cared more about the number in the win column than the number in his bank account. That is one reason why the former catcher opted for financial security early in his career instead of holding out for a blockbuster contract.
The Indians were on the cusp of something special when Alomar suited up for the club in the early 1990s, and John Hart, Cleveland's general manager at the time, approached his core players with an innovative idea. Hart offered multiyear contracts to a select group of future stars well before they reached arbitration or free-agent eligibility.
"To survive in this market, and to survive in baseball, you almost have to do it," said Alomar, now a bench coach for the Indians. "It keeps you afloat, and it gives you a chance to win instead of moving players and bringing guys in and seeming like you're in a constant development all the time. You want to try to avoid that at all costs, but some players and some agents don't want to do it."
Sitting at a table inside Cleveland's clubhouse, Alomar discussed the Indians' blueprint for success in the '90s while filling out Wednesday's lineup card for the contest against the White Sox. On the sheet -- in the second and fourth spots -- were shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and catcher Carlos Santana.
The Indians have taken steps to ensure that Cabrera and Santana can be in the lineup for years to come. On April 4, Cleveland announced that it had signed the shortstop to a two-year, $16.5 million extension that will keep him in the fold at least through 2014. On Tuesday, the Tribe followed that with the signing of Santana to a five-year pact worth $21 million that runs through 2016.
Cabrera's contract ends with what would have been his first year of free agency. Santana's deal includes a $12 million club option for 2017, which is the first year the catcher could potentially test the free-agent waters.
The two signings -- struck under the watch of second-year general manager Chris Antonetti -- reminded Alomar of the way the Indians operated under Hart. During his run as GM from 1991-2001, Hart locked up a handful of core players, including a few that came during pre-arbitration years.
Players such as Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Charles Nagy, Carlos Baerga, Omar Vizquel, Kenny Lofton and Alomar signed multiyear deals early in their careers. With that core group, Cleveland enjoyed a run of six American League Central titles in seven years, reaching the World Series twice.
"A lot of players now like to go to arbitration," Alomar said. "In the past, when we were here, we were more concerned about trying to keep the core players, and everybody seemed like that. We had a good core of players that came up with the organization and they treated us very well. We all wanted to stay together.
"The winning was a huge part of it. When we started winning, I wanted to stay here. I didn't want to start bouncing around, trying to get the top dollar, and then not win."
Indians president Mark Shapiro -- one of Hart's assistants, along with Dan O'Dowd, at the time -- continued the trend after taking over as general manager in 2001 with the signings of Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta, CC Sabathia and Roberto Hernandez (formerly Fausto Carmona).
The Hernandez contract in 2004 was the last time -- prior to Santana's deal -- Cleveland signed such a contract with a pre-arbitration player.
"We all learned and trained under John to some degree," Antonetti said. "Obviously, Mark was here working side by side with John longer than I did, but I had the benefit of working with John, as well. He was the leader of the organization during an exceptional time of our franchise. ...
"I think John and Dan, when they were here, pioneered that practice in doing it for a large number of their young players. A number of teams, not only us, have followed that pattern in building championship teams."
It is a practice that is most popular among small- and mid-market ballclubs.
Dating back to the beginning of the 2007 offseason, there have been 18 multiyear contracts handed to players with less than two years of Major League service time. Each of the 11 teams to hand out such contracts has a payroll under $100 million for 2012, and nine of the clubs fall in the lower half of baseball's 30 clubs in terms of team salary.
The Rays (four), Rockies (three), Brewers (two) and Royals (two) are the three teams that have done more than one such deal. Besides the Indians, the Padres, Pirates, Blue Jays, A's, Twins and D-backs have also completed similar contracts.
"When you have the cost certainty that you achieve when you enter into these kind of multiyear deals," said Indians chairman and chief executive office Paul Dolan, "it becomes easier to plan and budget around them, because you know what costs are for your core players."
Among players who signed with less than two years of service time, Santana's contract is the largest in terms of guaranteed money since Toronto signed pitcher Ricky Romero to a five-year deal worth $30.1 million in 2010, and the biggest for a position player since Milwaukee gave outfielder Ryan Braun an eight-year, $45 million deal in 2008.
Santana received the largest such contract for a catcher since Atlanta handed Brian McCann a six-year, $26.8 million deal in 2007.
"At the end of the day, you had two parties that wanted to get a deal done," said Andy Mota, one of Santana's representatives. "That's why it got done. Carlos always expressed that he wanted the security so that he can play some baseball and become the best player that he can to help this team win championships."
Alomar remembers feeling the same way when he was a young ballplayer for the Tribe.
"I had a couple of knee injuries early in my career," Alomar said. "I couldn't take the chance to go out there and say, 'Well, let me see what happens this year.' I felt like I was going to do good, but I'd rather just have the peace of mind and secure my family. And later on, if I busted out a great year, I can say, 'OK, now it's time to reward me on the market.'
"But I felt like I was paid well. We had a great team and I wanted to be established as a player that stayed a long time with one organization. I loved it here. I enjoyed the time here."