Chris Perez may have had it wrong.
Just over two weeks ago, the Cleveland Indians closer told Fox Sports' Jon Paul Morosi that the 18-game gap between the Tribe and the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central standings could be attributable to each ownership's willingness (or unwillingness) to spend money.
Yet singing the small-market blues sounds out of tune. The teams with the five highest payrolls coming into this season, according to USA Today, could miss the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Oakland Athletics are in position to win one of the AL's wild-card spots despite the second-lowest payroll in the majors. Also in the wild-card hunt are the Tampa Bay Rays, who rank among the lower third of team salaries.
So if Indians owner Larry Dolan isn't going to try to match dollars with Tigers owner Mike Ilitch in the AL Central, he obviously has to try and build a team a different way. And there's nothing wrong with that approach, because it's obviously worked for other small-market teams. The Tribe and general manager Chris Antonetti have to follow the model established by the A's and Rays.
Unfortunately, Antonetti already made one move that Oakland's Billy Beane and Tampa Bay's Andrew Friedman wouldn't have. Neither of those GMs would have traded top pitching prospects Drew Pomeranz, Alex White and Joe Gardner to the Colorado Rockies for Ubaldo Jimenez.
Though Jimenez is under club control for another two seasons, he's been anything but a top starter for the Indians.
This season, Jimenez has been awful with a 9-16 record and 5.43 ERA. Pomeranz and White could possibly have been contributors to Cleveland's rotation this year. That kind of young talent shouldn't have been traded for a pitcher who wasn't going to be an ace.
However, the Indians can still look forward with the approach taken by Oakland and Tampa Bay. Signing Carlos Santana to a five-year contract that bought out his arbitration years was a smart move.
But there are several other steps the Indians can follow to small-market success.
Don't Let Them Get Expensive
One key to Oakland's revival has been developing young players but trading them before they become too expensive.
For example, the A's dealt Andrew Bailey to the Boston Red Sox just before he became eligible for arbitration this season. His salary would have increased over the next three years, but Oakland no longer has to worry about that.
Another player Beane traded before his salary escalated was Trevor Cahill. Yes, the A's signed him to a five-year contract to buy out his arbitration years. But the higher salary kicked in this season and is going to escalate over the next four seasons.
In return for Cahill, Oakland received Jarrod Parker, Ryan Cook and Collin Cowgill. All three have made major contributions to the A's playoff run and for a fraction of the money that Cahill was owed.
The Indians need to do this with outfielder Shin-Soo Choo.
Choo has one more arbitration season remaining and will surely get a raise over his $4.9 million salary. Plenty of teams are looking for a power-hitting, left-handed outfield bat and will trade prospects for such a player.
Chris Perez is another player who should be dealt for minor league talent. Not only has he worn out his welcome by running his mouth and alienating management all season, but he is also in position for a raise in his final arbitration season.
Build Through Pitching
Both the A's and Rays have been successful due to their excellent young starting pitching. Each team is among the top five major league clubs in team ERA this season.
Tampa Bay's starting rotation is loaded with young arms, including David Price, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb. Oakland features Parker, Tommy Milone and Brett Anderson (who is now unfortunately lost for the season with an oblique injury).
The Indians have a young No. 1 starter in Justin Masterson and have him under club control for two more seasons. Zach McAllister and David Huff are another couple of promising arms to build a rotation with.
Unfortunately, Cleveland has an uphill climb in this area due to the pitchers they gave up in the Jimenez trade. Trading Zach Putnam to the Rockies in a separate deal for Kevin Slowey wasn't a good move either.
Antonetti needs to stop trading young arms—especially to Colorado—and sell off some of his major league talent to rebuild the pitching depth in the Indians' minor league organization.
Shop for Bargains
One of the things the Rays have done extremely well is sign lower-cost relievers to fill out their bullpen, rather than sink big money into free-agent bullpen help.
Fernando Rodney is the latest example of the Rays' smart approach. Friedman signed him to a one-year, $2 million contract.
That's virtually nothing in today's market for a top reliever. Yet Rodney has been one of the best closers in MLB, compiling 43 saves and an 0.66 ERA.
Oakland paid more for Grant Balfour, giving him a two-year, $8.1 million contract. But that's still far less than, say, the $9 million the Tigers are paying Jose Valverde or $11 million Rafael Soriano is getting from the Yankees this season.
Another smart move the A's made was signing Brandon McCarthy to a one-year, $4.3 million contract. Before getting injured, McCarthy gave Oakland excellent production at the back end of its starting rotation with an 8-6 record and 3.24 ERA.
An even better bargain was inking Bartolo Colon for $2 million this season. Yes, Colon was eventually suspended for 50 games after testing positive for PEDs. But prior to that, he was arguably Oakland's best starter with a 10-9 record and 3.43 ERA.
The Indians need to take a similar approach this offseason in filling the holes in their rotation and outfield. Bargains will be available on the free-agent market. Antonetti just has to make sure he picks the right players.
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