Last week, I spoke on the potential for the Cleveland Indians and Francisco Lindor to come to agreement on a contract extension and what such an extension would look like. At the time, I reached the conclusion that there might be a number out there that is both a reasonable possibility for the Tribe as well as Lindor, based off the context of some of Lindor’s peers. Of course, the one thing I did not consider in this entry was the idea that perhaps Lindor really isn’t interested in an extension at all. There is a chance out there that he has seen the type of dollars that a player like Xander Bogaerts received for his contract extension, compared that to someone like Bryce Harper and decided that he stands to make a lot more money by playing the long game and testing free agency. Mid-contract extensions seem to lead to discounts and it sure seems that Lindor wants to be paid his full worth.
Regardless of all that, there is a question to be asked from the Indians perspective in this. That question: is such a contract extension really worth the price in the long-term for the Indians? For this exercise I will consider the extension figures that I previously used for Lindor. Those terms were 8 years and $192 million for an Average Annual Salary of $24 million.
Let’s start with looking directly at Lindor himself. He will be 26 years old for the entirety of the 2020 season. Over the last three seasons he has accumulated more home runs and runs scored than any other shortstop in baseball.
Only Bogaerts, the Yankees’ Gleyber Torres and Houston’s Carlos Correa have a better weighted Runs Created+ rate (an all encompassing offensive stat from Fangraphs.com, get used to seeing it in this entry) as a shortstop than Lindor over those 3 years. However, Torres has only played 2 seasons, possibly helping his sample. Additionally, Correa has averaged only 98 games played a season, and also has had the aid of the garbage can drum.
Over the same three years Lindor is the second best fielding shortstop in baseball according to Ultimate Zone Rating Per 150 Games with only the great Andrelton Simmons (he might get in the Hall some day off his defense alone) of the Angels being better.
For comparison, Bogaerts ranks 11th with a just barely above average rating of 0.4 (Lindor’s is 9.5 for context). Torres has been an absolute mess at the position. He doesn’t have enough innings under his belt to qualify for Fangraphs’s regular leader-board, coming in with just 811 2/3, or about 90 games worth in 2 seasons. He would rank 21st of 23 candidates if he did qualify with an abysmal -8.1 rating. Correa doesn’t have enough innings to qualify either. His 2547 innings (283 games) over 3 seasons record a UZR/150 of -4.5 which is also below average, and would rank 21st as well if he qualified.
Factor in the fact that over the last 3 seasons Simmons has a below average wRC+ of 99 and Lindor is the clear cut answer to the question “who is the best shortstop in baseball right now?”. I should’ve just given you his WAR number of 17.7 over the last three seasons, mentioned it was nearly 3 wins better than the next closest challenger (Bogaerts) and we could have gone about our lives, but I think all this data drives home a point.
All of this goes to say that right now Lindor deserves to be the highest paid shortstop in baseball and that figure of about $24 million per year would be justified. Factor in that most baseball players peak at 29 or 30 years old and you can then recognize he should have five more seasons before we even begin to sniff a decline. Really, it would not be unthinkable for Lindor to even find one more level to raise his game before we are done. An eight year extension right now would conclude at age 33. The vast majority of that contract should be money well spent.
Still, what sets Lindor apart even more is his ability to embrace being a leader and his absolute exuberance for the game he gets to play every day. He is a star. He is super marketable and the type of ballplayer that would be on the tip of everyone’s tongue every day if he played in New York or Los Angeles.
That however brings us to the other side of this issue. I’ve now spent a lot of time over two different entries defending the idea of Lindor being deserving a boatload of money. Say no more. He is. However, can the Indians afford to put together a sustainable product while also tying so many dollars into just one player, regardless of how talented and exuberant he may be?
Now, I don’t want this to either be either a condemnation nor blind support of the Dolan family. We can argue about whether the Dolans are thrifty, cheap, frugal or Mr. Krabs incarnate until we are blue in the face. For our purposes it won’t matter. Only the facts matter. Cleveland is ranked as the 19th largest media market in the country with 1.37 million homes to count for. There are six other markets in Major League Baseball that are ranked within five places above or below Cleveland. Four of them: Detroit, Minneapolis, Miami and Denver rank above Cleveland. St. Louis and Pittsburgh ran below it.
Of these six teams, three of them have ever signed players to contracts with total values as high as my proposed Lindor deal. All three of them are the teams that rank higher than Cleveland in the media market list: Colorado, Miami and Detroit. Beyond this, St. Louis committed $26 mil per year to first baseman Paul Goldschmidt when they traded for him last winter, but that money is over just five years for a total of $130 million.
Details are below:
Almost one year ago, Colorado signed third baseman Nolan Arenado to a 8 year, $260 million extension ($32.5 AAV). He took up nearly 18% of their payroll last season and while he was productive with a .315 average, 41 homers, 128 wRC+ and 12.0 UZR/150 (tied for best for a 3B in baseball) the Rockies went 71-91 and there are already talks that they need to rid themselves of the burden of Arenado’s contract by trading him.
Miami signed outfielder Giancarlo Stanton to an incredibly lucrative 13 year, $325 million deal ($25 mil AAV) before the 2015 season. He proceeded to hit .265 and average 38 homers with a wRC+ of 145 (good for 5th best outfielder) over the following three seasons. Stanton even hit 59 home runs in 2017 and won the National League MVP that year. But he only averaged 117 games played between 2015 and 2017 and the Marlins never won more than 79 games. They rewarded him for his MVP season by deciding they couldn’t handle the contract, and traded him to the Yankees going into his age 28 campaign.
Detroit has signed two players that meet our criteria. Just before the beginning of the 2014 season the Tigers signed 1st baseman Miguel Cabrera to a 8-year, $248 million extension ($31 million AAV). Cabrera would go on to terrorize American League pitching for three more seasons. He hit .320 from 2014-2016 averaging 27 home runs and recording a 154 wRC+ (2nd best of any 1B). Since 2016 Cabrera hasn’t hit over .300 or parked more than 16 home runs. He’s been below 100 (considered below average) in wRC+ twice in those three seasons and in the season where he was above 100 he only played 38 games. He will take up 32% of the Tigers’ payroll this season on a team that will be lucky to win 65 games. For all their trouble, the Tigers have made the playoffs one time since Cabrera signed this extension.
Contributing to this demise is the other noteworthy Tigers player, Prince Fielder. In 2012, Fielder signed a 9 year, $214 million contract ($23.8 million AAV) with the Tigers. This deal was easily the most successful in the short-term. Fielder hit .295 over the course of 2 seasons and averaged 34 homers in those seasons to go with a 139 wRC+ (5th best 1B). Further, the Tigers actually made the playoffs in both years. However, despite all this success Fielder was traded to Texas following 2013, likely in part because of the burden of his contract. I also imagine the Tigers needed some of his money in order to offer to Cabrera and other players coming of age. The timing of this trade and Cabrera’s extension is likely not a coincidence. Fielder played three more seasons for Texas under the contract but played less than 90 games in two of them. He ultimately had to retire due to a chronic neck injury. Not to speak poorly of someone who had misfortune that was out of their control, but this deal started with a bang and then fell as flat as humanly possible. Fielder was completely out of baseball before its completion.
That leaves us with Goldschmidt. He was traded from Arizona to St. Louis last off-season and appeared to press in an attempt to prove himself to his new team. A career .292 hitter hit just .260, and while he did hit 34 home runs, his wRC+ of 116 was just 12th of qualifying 1st basemen. The good news is that the Cardinals won 91 games and made the playoffs, but Goldschmidt is 32 and won’t be a free agent until 2025. This deal has plenty of time to go the way of Cabrera yet, at an AAV of $26 million.
So what did we learn today? To be perfectly honest, the evidence seems pretty blunt. A deal as big as the one we are talking about for Lindor seems to either create future years where the player in question doesn’t live up to his contract, or the money committed tends to cripple the team’s ability to put a competitive roster around their star. In two of five cases the player was traded while performing at or beyond expectations just in order to provide relief, and because the roster needed reconstructed in some way. In a third case there are rumors that this will happen as well. In another situation, that star is now wilting away on a rebuilding team that can’t find a way to offload his contact because his skills are so diminished.
Lindor has some things in his favor. He’s only 26 right now and keeps himself in incredible shape. He plays in the middle of the field, unlike every other player we have mentioned, and his game is predicated just as much on his speed and fielding as it is on his offense. Of the players we have mentioned he and Arenado are the only ones that have any of these traits.
However, you absolutely can’t be certain that the Indians will be able to sustain a winning team with a $194 million anchor tied to their leg. Recent history shows over and over again its just not realistic. This isn’t a Dolan thing. Its not a Lindor thing. Its a baseball thing. Making sure one of the best, most charismatic players in Indians history remains an Indian would feel absolutely blissful.
Unfortunately, ignorance seems to be bliss.