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Indians continue to pay for misjudgments

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues at No. 23 with the Cleveland Indians.

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Travis Hafner isn't living up to his hefty contract for the Indians.
(Getty Images)

2009 record: 65-97
Finish: T-Fourth place, AL Central
2009 final payroll: $77 million
Estimated 2010 opening day payroll: $62 million

OFFSEASON ACTION

The disconnect between the Cleveland Indians and their fans has spread from fissure to full-fledged canyon, and this offseason is doing nothing to heal a relationship gone rocky. In woebegone Cleveland, where the sting of 1997 is still rubbing-alcohol-in-open-wound bad, the dismantling of a team on the brink of a World Series in 2007 offended even the most loyal fans.

Equal parts of the blame go to Indians ownership and management. The Dolan family runs the team on a tight budget. It doesn't spend much in the draft. Not quite the flowerbed for prosperity. And yet general manager Mark Shapiro is the one who gave Travis Hafner(notes) – a designated hitter – a contract extension that runs $11.5 million this year and $13 million the next two years, plus a $2.75 million buyout for 2013. And he traded CC Sabathia(notes) and Cliff Lee(notes) the season after each won the AL Cy Young award for a grab bag of prospects, none of whom has come close to distinguishing himself.

All of which is to say: The Indians are in one of those awful spirals that never seems to stop, one issue begetting another. They locked up all that money in Hafner, which means they can't spend elsewhere, which increases the chances of a rough season, which makes the Dolans wonder why they're spending any money in the first place. It's vicious.

Shapiro is banking on his biggest acquisition this offseason, manager Manny Acta, to change the culture that grew stale under former manager Eric Wedge. Acta is used to managing a group of kids, which is what the Indians will have, as only seven players on the roster today have reached arbitration. The Indians could fill out their roster with some late-January and early-February bargains, which look a lot better for an AL Central team with a chance of stealing a weak division than for bottom feeders in other divisions.

REALITY CHECK

Lord, is that Hafner contract bad. Not Alfonso Soriano(notes) bad, not Barry Zito(notes) bad, but then the Cubs and Giants live very different lives than the Indians.

Low-revenue franchises like Cleveland cannot afford wholly miserable contracts. It torpedoes them. The New Yorks and Bostons of the world aren't the best because they spend the most on players but because they can afford to take chances, completely whiff and write it off like a businessman does an expensive dinner. That cost a lot, huh? Oh, well.

The Indians will devote more than half their payroll to Hafner, Kerry Wood(notes) and Jake Westbrook(notes) this season. Such is not the formula for Rust Belt success. The Indians must develop players (which they've done) and engage in the fine art of flipping them for a new crop of young players (which they had done prior to the Sabathia-Lee miscalculations). It's not mid-'90s anymore, not the sellout capital of the baseball world where revenues supported Cleveland acting like a club much bigger than the size of its city.

This is a transition year, to megaprospect Carlos Santana at catcher and Matt LaPorta(notes) at first base. Grady Sizemore(notes) still straddles the cusp of stardom, and perhaps elbow and abdominal surgery will allow him to look more like his 2006-08 self. Some Indians pitching prospects are facing put-up-or-shut-up seasons.

There is something here, something missing after the Indians became another casualty of the Panic Number. Just not enough to repair that relationship quite yet.

INDIANS IN HAIKU
First CC, then Cliff?
Replace 'em with an old star
Wild Thing, where are you!

NEXT: Toronto Blue Jays

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