CLEVELAND -- Signing a free agent of Edwin Encarnacion's caliber did not appear realistic for the Indians when the offseason began. Even with some added revenue from the Tribe's run to the World Series, the kind of contract required typically exceeds Cleveland's financial reach, making it seem like an improbable pairing.
With a roster built to not only contend right now, but for the next few years, the Indians' ownership opted to step outside its comfort zone in an effort to seize the franchise's momentum. The signing of Encarnacion to a three-year, $60 million deal marked the largest free-agent deal in club history, increased the Tribe's payroll dramatically, and served as a statement that Cleveland will put its foot on the accelerator in an opportunistic environment.
"Quite frankly," said Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti, "at the start of the offseason, we didn't think that this would be possible, because of the economic commitment that it would take to sign Edwin. But, [ownership] made a leap of faith. They made a leap of faith in our team -- in the belief that we're a good team that has a chance to compete for a postseason and, hopefully, a World Series.
"They also made a bet on our organization that we can drive the revenue and fan support to make this make sense."
At that point, the talks between Cleveland's front-office members and ownership gained steam, and adding Encarnacion morphed from pipe dream to reality.
"Ownership has always stepped up in situations when it seems like the right investment to make," Indians general manager Mike Chernoff said. "We've always had faith that ownership would be willing to support us in the right moment. This is one of those moments. It's incredibly refreshing. We're really grateful for that. They made a huge commitment in this team.
"We still know who we are and how we have to operate. And I think the bulk of our team is here, because of our scouting and development, and the work that those groups have done over the past five to 10 years to put this team in place. That put us in position to be able to make an opportunistic investment and we're incredibly grateful to ownership for making that investment."
With the salary arbitration process looming, here is a look at how the Indians' 2017 payroll is shaping up:
Combined, those nine contracts will account for approximately $74.5 million of Cleveland's payroll this season. That is only $12 million shy of where the Indians were on Opening Day in '16. With the additions of Miller at the non-waiver Trade Deadline last summer and Encarnacion this winter, the Indians parted with five prospects (four in the Miller trade, plus the 25th pick in the 2017 MLB Draft for signing Encarnacion) and added $23.67 million in payroll. Looking ahead, the Indians have roughly $66.1 million committed on six guaranteed contracts in '18 and around $56.2 million on four contracts in '19.
According to the salary projections by MLBTradeRumors.com, that group of eight players could net around $28.7 million combined in arbitration. The Indians are optimistic that they can settle most of those cases before Friday's deadline for exchanging salary figures. Allen figures to earn the largest contract of the bunch, with MLBTR projecting a $7.7 million salary for '17 for the Tribe's closer. Until the players sign on the dotted line, all arbitration projections are just educated guesswork. There is also the chance that Cleveland would explore extensions for players like Allen, Bauer or Salazar.
As of right now, the only perceived locks for the Major League roster beyond the names already mentioned are Francisco Lindor, Tyler Naquin, Roberto Perez and Jose Ramirez. Abraham Almonte will also be competing for a spot and Cleveland may still look to add external alternatives to the spring mix. That likely leaves a bench job up for grabs, plus a pair of bullpen spots. The Major League minimum salary for '17 is $535,000, though players can earn more. At a minimum, the eight pre-arbitration players will make $4.28 million combined this year.
This is the last year that Cleveland will feel the effects of the Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn trade with Atlanta from August 2015. As part of that deal, which created much-needed roster flexibility for the Indians, the Tribe took on Chris Johnson and a portion of his contract. That includes $9 million this season, plus a $1 million buyout. The Indians were not on the hook for the $750,000 buyout of Coco Crisp's contract. That was paid for by the A's as part of the Aug. 31 trade that sent Crisp to Cleveland last season.
Considering all of the above, Cleveland's projected payroll for the Major League roster for '17 looks to be around $117 million. That estimated 36 percent increase will likely place the Indians in the top half of MLB payrolls after Cleveland hovered in the bottom third for the past several seasons.
Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.