The Cleveland Indians recently announced plans to renovate Progressive Field, their home since 1994. The project is aimed at innovating and improving the stadium to remain competitive with newer MLB ballparks, as well as drive attendance.
The team has the second-lowest attendance in the majors, averaging merely 18,659 fans per game, so the improvements seem to be a logical approach to attract more people to Progressive Field.
The renovations will be drastic, lowering the park’s capacity from around 45,000 to 38,000 and mainly taking place in right field. Next to the new Jim Thome statue in Heritage Park, a Larry Doby statue will be erected — in 1947, Doby became the first African American ballplayer in the American League. Additionally, the bullpens will be elevated so fans can watch relievers warm up, an expanded kids zone will be constructed and an elaborate double-decker bar will be built.
Unfortunately, as Indians President Mark Shapiro conceded while unveiling the renovation plans, the No. 1 factor driving attendance is not the quality of the ballpark, it is the play of the team. The Indians currently sit at 57-58, 6.5 games behind the stacked Detroit Tigers in the AL Central and are four games behind Kansas City in the chase for the second Wild Card spot.
The Indians won 10 games straight to end last season and secured the top Wild Card spot before losing to the Tampa Bay Rays in the play-in game. This past offseason presented the Indians’ front office a chance to build on its brief playoff appearance and add major talent in free agency. However, the Indians’ biggest addition was outfielder David Murphy, coming off his worst season as a pro. The front office failed to add serious talent, and the team has underperformed.
Stadium renovations will compel some to come out to the yard, but a big-time free agent signing would be far more compelling. The Indians have the league’s 26th lowest payroll at $82,534,800. Ultimately, they should spend every extra cent on improving the Major League roster.
Refraining from free agency splurging is the nature of a small market baseball team in a league without a salary cap. Often times, payroll constraints mean small market teams must perform above their talent levels just to play .500 ball. That being said, the Indians brass is foolish to invest millions into its stadium when it could be invested in its team.
The Oakland Athletics play in the Coliseum, the MLB venue most in need of an overhaul, and they stole Scott Kazmir from the Indians’ this past offseason before trading for Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester at the deadline. The Athletics have the best record in baseball.
Cleveland fans will turn out for a front office that actively pursues serious talent upgrades for the roster. It is not just about winning, but also building on success when the opportunity is there. Accordingly, the Indians front office should take notes from the A’s and invest in their team rather than their stadium.