CLEVELAND -- This winter's free-agent market has been filled with uncertainty, brought about by the nation's financial crisis. And yet, surprisingly, the mid-market Indians were one of baseball's more aggressive clubs in that market -- making their big free-agent splash in early December, during an otherwise slow Winter Meetings. In signing Kerry Wood to a two-year, $20.5 million contract with a vesting third-year option worth $11 million, the Tribe felt it was taking advantage of a deep market for closers by landing a power arm at an affordable rate.
But the market this winter has proven that patience can be a virtue. One of the other premier closers available in free agency, Brian Fuentes, ended up taking a deal with the Angels that was well below his perceived value at the end of '08. When he did sign, he got two years at $17.5 million with a $9 million option for a third year. In light of this information, does general manager Mark Shapiro wish his Indians had been more patient in this department? In a word, no. "At that point, Fuentes was not considering the deal he signed," Shapiro said. "It's not revisionist history. You don't have the ability to say, 'We know Fuentes is going to sign for two times $8 million, and we have Wood for two times $10 million.'" In early December, when the Indians signed Wood, there was still a chance a number of teams could decide to allocate their resources to a closer, Shapiro said. Additionally, the Indians, who had already scratched Francisco Rodriguez off their list because of his high price tag, felt there was a clear dropoff in the quality of closing talent available after Wood and Fuentes. "We wanted to land one of our top options, because we felt that was our best chance to add a player of impact at a position of need," Shapiro said. "There was a realization that there was the potential to save some money if we waited. But the downside of that would be having the decision dictated to us. It was like every decision we make. It was a risk-reward at that time." The Indians took a few risks this winter, yet they did so within a reasonable budget. They now have about $78 million guaranteed to 15 players for 2009. Because the Tribe's budget was already tight to begin with, the Indians' front office didn't feel too much of an impact from the global economic situation in baseball. "We've clearly dealt with adversity in Cleveland prior to this," Shapiro said. "But we were one of the teams that was afforded the ability to have some flexibility this offseason in the scope of our operation. It was pretty much business as usual for us." Now, if the economic picture doesn't improve in the next year, it could be a much different story next winter, Shapiro said. "We're still in a position right now where our [ticket] sales are still very much in flux," he said. "We're certainly hopeful they'll pick up as we get closer to Spring Training. There's a sense of caution, and there's an understanding of what this could mean if it continues." In the meantime, Shapiro said the Indians, as an organization, have taken measures to control expenses without laying off any personnel. And the consideration of what might lie ahead, from an economic standpoint, will undoubtedly have some impact in how the Indians go about deciding which players to approach about contract extensions -- Cliff Lee included. "Every decision we make is going to be affected," Shapiro said. "It doesn't mean we won't talk extension. But the backdrop of the financial climate will impact all of our decisions." In a market such as this one, where teams are more careful than ever about handing out multiyear deals to free agents, every move is under the microscope. And Shapiro acknowledged that there were some members of the front office who felt it might be best to hold off on signing a closer as early as the Indians did. "There were some strong voices to wait, internally," he said. "I was definitely the strongest voice not to wait."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.