If you’re an Indians fan with an eye on the long term, chances are you’ve played the numbers game a time or two regarding Francisco Lindor and what it’s going to take to keep him with the Cleveland Indians well into the latter part of his career.
Early in 2017, Lindor turned down a contract extension rumored to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million. At the time, it looked like a sound decision on Lindor’s part, choosing to bet on himself with the expectation he could garner an even better deal down the road.
Then the winter of 2017-18 happened. MVP-caliber players like J.D. Martinez, front-line rotation arms like Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish, and World Series champions like Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain are still looking for jobs well into January. Front offices throughout the league have elected to play things historically close to the vest this offseason, potentially altering the courses of future free agent markets in one fell swoop.
We could spend all day discussing why this stalemate has emerged seemingly out of nowhere after nearly 20 years of exorbitant contracts being thrown around without the bat of an eyelash (as well as the long-term ramifications of this development). But that’s a topic for another day. Instead, we’ll focus on one question: Is this offseason the new “normal” in Major League Baseball?
The answer, to an extent, is yes. As abruptly as the realization seems to have occurred, front offices finally appear to have recognized that signing players in their late 20s or early 30s to long-term mega-deals very rarely yields positive results. Teams are now apparently unwilling to pay a player upwards of $25 million when he’s 37 in return for his services at the ages of 31 or 32, and the result has been shorter-term contract offers to players in this age group.
On the other hand, not every player enters free agency at 30 years old. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will both go into the open market as 26-year-olds after the 2018 season, and both figure to sign contracts so long in term and high in salary that we might just forget the 2017 offseason ever happened.
Which free agency class will have a greater impact on Lindor’s future with the Cleveland Indians? Will it be the slow-moving winter of 2017, or the potentially record-breaking deals of 2018? Let’s take a look at how the Tribe can keep him for the long haul, starting with the worst of two scenarios.
Scenario 1: Lindor hits the open market.
This scenario is based on the idea that franchise players will continue to earn super-deals despite the standstill we are in this winter.
Lindor is under team control through the 2021 season, and he will begin the 2022 season at the age of 28. There is no telling how many players from the expected 2021 free agency class will actually hit the open market, but as it stands now, position players like Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa and Corey Seager headline what could be one of the most talented pools of all time.
Lindor is undoubtedly in the same conversation as these franchise-defining names, and they all figure to receive similarly lucrative paydays.
The player that should worry Indians fans the most, however, is Seager. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Los Angeles Dodgers don’t extend him, and they have the financial ability to set the bar pretty high for a young shortstop. It wouldn’t be at all shocking if the Dodgers lock him in with something close to a 10-year deal worth over $200 million.
If that’s the case, then Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff would have a problem on their hands. Considering the similarities in age, position and talent level between Lindor and Seager, the Tribe superstar would have every right to look for a contract of equal term and value.
The Cleveland Indians aren’t known for being big spenders. Even Edwin Encarnacion‘s three-year, $60-million deal was surprising to many. Moreover, the Tribe is not a team with a perpetual championship window like the Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals or New York Yankees. They have to allocate their money more judiciously, and if by 2022 the team does not have realistic World Series aspirations, a mega-deal to keep Lindor into his mid-30s might not be in the cards.
If Lindor’s value at the time he hits the open market is in fact somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million, there could be plenty of big-market teams in the mix to sign an elite player at a premium position, and the Indians will have missed their chance.
Scenario 2: The Indians extend Lindor, and soon.
If the Indians want to make sure their franchise shortstop spends most or all of his career in Cleveland, their best bet is to resume negotiations on an extension as soon as possible. The stagnant offseason we are currently trudging through affords the team something of a bargaining chip on that front.
Lindor is no doubt aware of what’s been taking place since free agency began back in November. He sees the likes of Martinez and Hosmer, both darn good ballplayers in their own right, falling victim to a dragged-out negotiation process.
In this regard, it would serve him well to take stock of the full scope of everything that has (or hasn’t) happened this offseason.
The Seattle Mariners, in need of a center fielder, elected to trade for a second baseman to fill the position rather than sign Lorenzo Cain. The Los Angeles Angels took the same path, signing Zack Cozart and converting him to third base rather than banking on a repeat of Mike Moustakas‘ 2017 numbers.
The Boston Red Sox, clearly in need of a first baseman and middle-of-the-order bat, chose re-signing Mitch Moreland over Hosmer. The Cardinals got their power-hitting outfielder not by giving Martinez $200 million, but by trading for Marcell Ozuna.
Teams are finding more cost-effective ways to fill their voids, and that should, at the very least, be cause for concern in the minds of future free agents.
Some of the other shortstops set to hit free agency the same year as Lindor include Trevor Story, Addison Russell and Brandon Crawford. Story and Russell are both serviceable players at the position who don’t figure to cost nearly as much. Crawford, a three-time Gold Glove winner, will be significantly cheaper due to his age, yet will likely remain a solid option for a team in need of a short-term addition.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the 2017 free agency stalemate is the beginning of a trend as opposed to an aberration. For this reason, perhaps signing an extension in the near future is the best course of action for both Lindor and the Indians.
The Indians can get out ahead of the astronomical numbers we expect to be associated with Harper and Machado next year, as well as any other signings or extensions that may transpire in the next few seasons. Lindor can avoid the risk of getting trapped in a free agency swamp, and be guaranteed lucrative compensation for the best seasons of his career.
What kind of contract can the Cleveland Indians expect?
As of right now, the highest-paid shortstop in the league is Troy Tulowitzki, who is making an average of more than $15.75 million per season over 10 years. A 10-year deal might not be an avenue the Indians are looking to take, but how about wiping out Lindor’s arbitration years, making him the new highest-paid shortstop in baseball, and locking him down through 2026?
With that idea in mind, here is my proposal for a contract offer, beginning in the 2019 season: eight years, $164 million. That’s an average annual value of $20.5 million from ages 25 through 32 for Lindor, and if the Cleveland Indians are going to spend that on anyone at any time, it may as well be on the face of the franchise during the prime of his career.
Suffice it to say, regardless of how this all plays out, both sides have a lot to consider before arriving at their respective decisions. Here’s hoping Lindor and the Cleveland Indians agree on the decision in which everybody wins.