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Inbox: Should attendance drive payroll?

Inbox: Should attendance drive payroll?

It's hot outside. Nasty hot. Hotter than a two-dollar pistol. Hot enough to make a brass monkey blink.

So, what better way to beat the heat than to sit in air-conditioned comfort and see what landed in the Indians Inbox this week? (Yes, I'm aware that there are plenty of better ways, but just humor me, all right?)

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Last week, you wrote, "Attendance drives payroll, not the other way around." I disagree, to a point. What drives attendance is a winning team. The reason why the 1990s were so special was because the ownership at that time did what it could to put a winning team on the field. The fans saw that, for the first time in a generation, the Indians were trying to win a World Series, and they responded by selling out the season before it even started.

There is a big disconnect between current ownership and fan expectations. Serious fans realize the economics, and nobody who truly understands the game expects the Indians to spend in the Yankees/Red Sox range. But at the same time, we wonder why we can't spend in the Twins/Cardinals range and get a consistent playoff contender and avoid these sell-offs every few years. Indians fans want a chance at a championship. If they see a salary dump and unproven talent, you won't sell advanced tickets and will instead get a "wait-and-see" crowd.
-- Bob B., Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio

Bob, would this be a bad time to point out that the Indians' Opening Day payroll ($81.6 million) this season was higher than that of the Cardinals ($77.6 million) and Twins ($65.3 million)? If so, forget I mentioned it, OK?

UPDATE: It has been pointed out to me by a persistent, yet polite, reader that the figure I used for the Cardinals' payroll was a total incorrectly reported by USA Today and that the Cards' actual payroll was, in fact, $88.5 million on Opening Day. So the Cardinals had a higher Opening Day payroll than the Tribe. (They also, by the way, have drawn more than three million fans in each of the last five seasons, while the Indians haven't drawn that many since 2001, which should tell you something.)

Yes, a winning team is what drives attendance in Cleveland. That's what I implied when I wrote that this is a fair-weather baseball town. And the more fans the Indians draw, the more money they have to spend on payroll. That's the way it was in the '90s, and that's the way it is today. In a market this size, the bulk of a team's revenue is generated by attendance, not television rights fees or anything of that nature.

You're dead-on when you say this is a "wait-and-see" crowd. That's why attendance was modest, at best, for much of 2007, until the stretch run, and why it was modest again at the beginning of '08, after the Indians had come within a win of the World Series. The payrolls are modest, too, in line with attendance.

Look, I'm not blaming the fans for the Indians' problems. The fans aren't the ones with the poor drafting record, the fans aren't the ones who swung and missed on contracts given to the likes of Travis Hafner, David Dellucci and Masa Kobayashi, and the fans don't fill out the lineup cards every night (though God knows many of them would love to). I'm just trying to talk some sense into the people who comment on these stories and have a one-track mind about the Dolan ownership "not spending money." Because the Dolans spend within the means of this market.

Cleveland's economic climate is much different today than it was in the 1990s, and the sporting scene is much different, as well. If you don't like where the Indians fit in on the payroll food chain, you should be more upset with Major League Baseball's economic structure than with the Dolans, themselves. And if you didn't like the product on the field this season, I think you should keep in mind that the Tribe's payroll was the seventh-highest in the American League. It's the way that money was spent that was more of an issue.

Lastly, if you're one of those people clamoring for the Dolans to sell the team to an owner with deeper pockets who can somehow ignore these economic realities, then by all means send this crazy billionaire over to Carnegie and Ontario.

Have a question about the Indians?
Jordan BastianE-mail your query to MLB.com Indians beat reporter Jordan Bastian for possible inclusion in a future Inbox column. Letters may be edited for brevity, length and/or content.
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I think most people will agree that significant talent has passed through the Indians over the past couple years. I think one problem remains from the last rebuild -- the manager. Will he be here next year?
-- Steve G., Erie, Pa.

Last winter, both team president Paul Dolan and general manager Mark Shapiro said 2008 might have been Eric Wedge's best year as a manager, because the team kept playing hard down the stretch of a lost season. That exact scenario is playing out again here in the second half, yet Wedge remains under intense scrutiny.

When Dolan addressed the state of the club recently, he said, "We believe we've had the talent the past two years, and we haven't gotten it done, and we need to understand why. And we'll make the changes we need to make."

That obviously doesn't bode particularly well for Wedge and his coaching staff, but we'll see in October. Even if Wedge survives, the Indians might press him to make changes to his staff.

In all the interviews and responses you've posted from the Indians' front office, I have heard nothing of the Tribe's atrocious record in drafting good talent. Does the front office even acknowledge that this is a huge problem and that it needs to be fixed, especially as a small-market team with projected losses in the coming years?
-- Ben T., Seattle

We can safely assume the amateur scouting department will come under review this offseason, as well. I wouldn't be surprised to see some changes made.

Dolan also addressed this with reporters, when he said, "Since the early '90s, we've only had one pick in the top 10, and that was the year we drafted Jeremy Sowers. We'd like to see more of our higher-round picks perform at a higher level. We haven't had that, so we have to understand why."

I'd read somewhere a while ago that most teams carry insurance on big contracts to cover themselves against players being injured. If I remember correctly, the Tribe had it with Albert Belle, among others. Assuming the Tribe has injury insurance on Jake Westbrook and other contracts, when would it kick in and how might it affect the team's payroll status for next season?
-- Phil C., Cudahy, Wis.

If Westbrook is still injured at the beginning of next season, the Indians would get some financial relief as a result of the insurance they took out on his contract. How much, exactly, is information I'm not privy to, but I'd imagine the longer he's out, the more the Indians could potentially recoup.

Such insurance assistance is only granted for the most catastrophic of injuries that cover a significant portion of the contract. So, if Westbrook is still out of the picture next April, his contract would certainly qualify. The Travis Hafner situation last season did not.

From my observation, the new Andy Marte looks a whole lot like to old Andy Marte. He has dropped his hands a bit, but the swing is still looping and long and is still mostly helpless against the offspeed pitch. With Jhonny Peralta seemingly entrenched at third and Matt LaPorta waiting in the wings, what possible chance does this guy have of sticking around next year?
-- Jack H., Clermont, Fla.

If Marte is on this team on Opening Day next season, I'll be surprised. Then again, I'm still surprised he's here now.

In Marte's defense, his playing time has been rather inconsistent. He's yet to start more than two games consecutively. But you're right, Jack. Marte isn't doing much to suggest he should be getting more consistent starts, and he's not doing much to suggest his Triple-A success is going to translate at the big league level.

What are the chances that Grady Sizemore plays his entire career in a Tribe uniform?
-- Corey L., Wilmington, N.C.

Sizemore is signed through 2012. If he's still with the Indians in 2013, suffice to say it would buck an organizational trend. I don't see it happening.

My guess as to why we have not seen LaPorta back up is because the frugal Indians don't want this season to count toward his arbitration-eligibility. Can you tell me how many at-bats or games it would take for 2009 to qualify as a year of service for him?
-- Bradley H., Columbus, Ohio

You're referring to "Super 2" status in arbitration-eligibility, and you're right that this is a major piece of the decision-making process for the cost-conscious Tribe. But it's not a factor in LaPorta's current absence.

All players are arbitration-eligible after they accrue three years of Major League service time. Some players become arbitration-eligible with less than three full years of service, and they are known as "Super 2" players. Each year, the top 17 percent of players with at least two but less than three years of service make the cut for "Super 2" status, which is generally somewhere around two years, 128 days.

LaPorta earned 23 days of service time in May. So he could have been called up basically at any point in the last month and not been a threat to become a "Super 2."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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