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What if the Indians Had an Infinite Payroll Starting from 2007?

It’s a pastime of any wishful thinking baseball fan: what if I had a few billion dollars and could buy my favorite team? What would happen? Well, that’s a great question. The Dolans are far from poor, but the revenue streams the Indians have coming their way are all too minimal. So let’s have some fun, let’s spend some time re-breaking hearts and opening old wounds, let’s imagine the Indians signed a distribution deal with Fox Sports in, say, 2007 for more than what the Dodgers just did. How would that be different? Where would we be today?

I picked 2007 because it was the high point of the last decade for the Tribe, and with TV revenues spiraling upward league-wide, it was a perfect “strike while the iron’s hot” kind of time. Even if they are fans, the Dolans are businessmen and surely willing to move an asset at the right price Let’s imagine for a moment, a bison magnate from the west newly entranced by the beauty of baseball, sweeps into town with an offer the Dolans can’t refuse and gets right to work.

First things first: resigning CC Sabathia. He signed a $160 million dollar deal with the Yankees, and he made it known he wanted a big market that was either NYC or California. A certain amount of zeroes can convince anyone of anything though, and with healthy eating driving up the price of bison, our magnate has zeroes to add. So they resign CC (who would remain C.C.) for seven or so years, and we have an ace.

Step two is retaining the services of Cliff Lee. Like Sabathia, he has remained great in Philly and could anchor a rotation. The two of them together would essentially give the Indians the leg up in the division for years to come, even with the rotational moves the Tigers have made over the years and the Twins…never mind.

So the pitching staff is (relatively) tied down. With Lee and Sabathia retained there would be no Carlos Carrasco, and the Indians likely wouldn’t have had the fifth pick in the 2010 draft which yielded Drew Pomeranz. They picked Alex White a year earlier with the 15th selection, but we’ll discuss him later. It all leads to no Ubaldo Jimenez. This is where it gets interesting. The rotation today would look worlds different if this was how things were. They likely wouldn’t trade Jake Westbrook, which means no Chris Perez to close things out.

What about Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez, though? He pitched so well in 2007, he was bound to have a spot in the rotation in 2008 and beyond. But with that collapse he had (and it was bound to happen), the best thing I could imagine is exactly what the New York Yankees did: sign A.J. Burnett and end up eating the Fausto contract. The key here is, instead of the pressure-cooking, miserable time he had in NYC, Burnett truly finds his groove in Cleveland and along with the veteran core of Lee and Sabathia, forms a world-beating combo. Burnett has never been a brilliant pitcher, but he’s got two fantastic pitches and if he doesn’t get lost in his own head he’s pretty good. I have to think being in Cleveland, away from the bright lights and despite the sudden money the team came into, he’d be able to keep within himself. Just look how good he was in Pittsburgh. As a number two pitcher in New York, Burnett is simply fodder for the Post and Daily News. In Cleveland as a No. 3, he’s the toast of the town.

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Next, instead of trading Victor Martinez in the midst of a tailspin, the Indians re-sign him. However, they still move Casey Blake to the Dodgers because Mark Shapiro recognizes Ned Colletti’s foolishness in dealing away Carlos Santana, so they move Jhonny Peralta to third where his stone feet don’t hurt so much, then give Asdrubal Cabrera the starting shortstop position. Outbidding the Dodgers for Orlando Hudson would be a solid move, and would give the infield a veteran presence and the Indians a chance to win then and there while still developing their 2009 draftee, Jason Kipnis. It solidifies the infield for then and for the future.

Speaking of drafting, let’s jump in Shapiro’s head and make some proper moves. The Indians picked Alex White in 2009’s first round with the 15th pick. However, had they been able to tie down CC and Lee, who’s to say they wouldn’t go for a little outfield help, considering how Grady Sizemore had already been dinged up, Trevor Crowe was still showing no signs of development, and Franklin Gutierrez‘s offense had just disappeared? Plus, no Michael Brantley since the Sabathia trade never happened. That means Mike Trout falls to them. If a team has unlimited-seeming money and can get most any player, why not take a shot at a high school kid? I know every baseball fan likes to look at that draft as a what-if, but the Indians had a real shot to get Trout, even if they’d been a little better in 2008 than they were. Since CC started out bad, Grady got hurt and Hafner was ineffective, I figure the 2008 season would have been a bit of a wash anyway, so Trout to the Tribe is far from unfeasible.

First base is the real position I wonder about. Perhaps moving Matrinez to first would have been the logical choice since he was never good behind the plate and an offense-first catcher is never as important as a first baseman with a decent glove who can club the ball. The Indians haven’t had a first baseman like that in ages, so you almost have to do that. Ryan Garko was far from the answer, and with the evolution of Carlos Santana behind the plate and perhaps a stopgap acquisition after the 2008 season, the infield would be pretty alright. Plus, then maybe they could hire Garko as a coach, thus fulfilling a private wish of mine. (Those Stanford boys just have something about them.)

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Just to throw this in for fun, the Indians make a move for some outfield depth with the Pittsburgh Pirates for a player to be named later and acquire journeyman Jose Bautista. He finds his swing in left field—long a power vacuum for Cleveland—and leads the league in homers. Also, with the steady decline of Travis Hafner in 2008, the Tribe’s hand is forced and they pick up Adam Dunn in free agency, another little wish I had then. Again, though he didn’t want to DH when he signed with the Nationals, money is a great equalizer and our mysterious magnate figures Dunn gives enough of his money back to the bison industry, so it’s a deal swiftly done.

The toughest, most nebulous and hardest-to-describe part about all this is the key would be continuing to develop a pipeline of players to the big club. Drafting is key, but money can pay for better and more scouts, better minor league people, better training staffs and all that. With money pouring from every orifice, the international scouting and the academies in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic would all be state of the art. The Cleveland braintrust knows what they’re doing and surely they know that combing the backcountry is where talent can be found. It’s not as sexy as a bunch of ridiculous free agent signings but it leads to lasting success as the old guys drift away.

Let’s flash forward to 2012. The outfield would include Shin-Soo Choo, Mike Trout and Jose Bautista—beastly. The infield would be V-Mart, Kipnis, Cabrera, and Chisenhall with Santana behind the plate to start and Dunn to DH, unless the Indians signed Josh Hamilton or Albert Pujols (even for a dream scenario that’s a bit farfetched). Even with Choo’s disappointing season this is an incredible lineup both offensively and defensively, at least in the outfield. That’s 73 homers in the outfield alone assuming Bautista had the same injury woes were he a Clevelander along with some of the best defense in the game (yes, I still believe in Shin-Soo Choo). Cleveland had 136 dingers as a team. You figure 35 or so from Dunn, 25 from a healthy Martinez, another 20ish from Cabrera and Santana and that’s a powerful group of guys, easily enough to win the division and a title or three.

Especially with that pitching. Besides Sabathia, Burnett and Lee, I figure they could have blown everyone away with the Yu Darvish deal, plus they could impress him with how much better he’d be in Cleveland than in Texas because of weather. They just need a No. 5 pitcher, and that could be anyone, from a warmed-over Roberto Hernandez to Drew Pomeranz (though they probably wouldn’t have drafted him) to holding onto Jake Westbrook. He’s still alive and pitching decently well (97 ERA+ is meh, but alright for a fifth starter) so that could fill the hole if none of my imagined found talent comes through.

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Chances are, outside of Chris Perez the bullpen would have looked similar, with someone like Rafael Soriano or even Craig Kimbrel closing instead. Yes, instead of the immortal Trey Haley in the second round of the 2008 draft, they reach a bit and grab Kimbrel, sealing up the bullpen for a couple years. The use of hindsight might be a bit bold, but if a guy’s going crazy with the money, who knows what happens. Having a firebreathing pair in Vinnie Pestano and Kimbrel, along with hopefully Joe Smith and some other wise additions, would make for a solid ‘pen that doesn’t have a lot of work to do because the rotation is a bunch of horses.

I took some liberties here, and gave the boys in the front office the benefit of the doubt, and got blinded by the idea that players will reach the potential they’re showing now regardless of the environment they were brought up in. It’s fandom, I don’t have to be rational. But everything here is in the realm of possibility. One day I’ll be a multibillionaire and make stuff like this happen. The Tigers can’t have all the fun.

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Tags: A.j. Burnett Adam Dunn CC Sabathia Cleveland Indians Cliff Lee Craig Kimbrel Jose Bautista Mike Trout Victor Martinez

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