The Indians started something once upon a time. In the mid-to-late '90s, they had a gaggle of young superstars. Up until then, the typical small-market approach was to squeeze every last drop of production out of a player, and then trade him in his walk year at the deadline. The Indians decided to aggressively pursue long-term deals before the players were making a lot of money. The players got a guaranteed windfall; the Indians got a couple extra seasons with those players.
It seems simple now. Players from Evan Longoria to Madison Bumgarner have traded potentially monster contracts in the future for still-lucrative deals in the present. But what the Indians were doing was quite novel at the time, and it allowed them to hang onto players like Jim Thome and Omar Vizquel longer than they otherwise might have.
When did that end? Maybe with the ownership change at the turn of the millennium, maybe when salaries went from big to ludicrous. If there's a spiritual end to the strategy, it was probably the Grady Sizemore extension. The Indians tried it again, signing their star outfielder to a deal that 29 other clubs would have given a partial ownership stake to match, but Sizemore's body broke down. Every generation has its what-if superstar; Sizemore is this one's. Luck of the draw.
Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said they have tried to extend Choo "multiple times'' over the past few years, to no avail. Antonetti was asked how much reception he's gotten to the possibility of a multiyear deal, and the GM answered candidly, "None.''
This isn't the best example of the Indians failing to retain a star player. Scott Boras is involved, which means that Choo is just as likely to sign a contract with the Browns as he is a team-friendly extension. But it's looking like the Indians will be trading their best player again, just a couple of years after trading Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia in miserable deals.
And this is where there's an intersection of on-field and off-field baseball concerns. Because whatever team signs the 31-year-old Choo to a multi-year deal is almost certainly going to be overpaying him at some point in the deal, possibly by a substantial amount. Choo's great -- really, one of my favorite players. But I'm going to take a wild guess that he's not going to be worth $20 million when he's 36. That's not really the kind of deal a budget-constrained team should explore.
That's not what the typical fan will see, though. They'll open the paper or click on a link and read that Player I've Heard Of was traded for young players. Again. It will fit a narrative they've already constructed in their own head. Again.
The typical fan probably wouldn't have plunked down $1,000 for season tickets this year if both Sabathia and Lee were making a combined $50 million, though. If those two were locked up, the average attendance at Progressive Field probably wouldn't be that much different, right? One or two players rarely, if ever, affect attendance that much. A $100 million deal for Choo wouldn't pay for itself in ticket sales. Not even close.
Maybe it's not the specific players, though. Maybe it's the overall feeling, the expectation that players are going to leave eventually. Maybe it's not about one player leaving, but rather the why-should-I-get-attached feeling that fans might have with the Indians' players, whether it's Sabathia or Victor Martinez.
That still doesn't mean it'd be a good idea for the Indians to extend Choo at all costs.
Back and forth. There's no good answer for the Indians. What the Indians need, and what they'll eventually get, is their Andrew McCutchen -- a homegrown player who will come up and succeed at an early age, which will make him eligible for free agency sooner. That will allow the Indians to lock up a fan favorite throughout his mid-20s and say, "See? We can keep a guy around when it makes sense."
Choo isn't that player. So the recent cycle will continue, and the Indians will get slammed. Eventually they'll get back to the paradigm that the other teams in baseball all follow now, the one the Indians started in the first place. They'll just need the right players first.