2019 has brought a wave of astronomical mega-deals across MLB. In the wake of these paydays, one can’t help but wonder if Francisco Lindor’s is on the way.
In January 2018, I sat down at my computer all wide-eyed, innocent and hopeful, and tried to figure out what it might cost for the Cleveland Indians to sign Francisco Lindor to a long-term deal.
I took into account what other star position players were being paid at the time, as well as what some of Lindor’s contemporaries could reasonably be expected to command, whether in the form of extensions from their current teams or offers from the league at large upon reaching free agency. I also naturally factored in the simple truth that the Indians aren’t playing with the same bankroll as many of the other teams at the MLB craps table.
The goal, of course, was simple: to come up with a number that would pay Lindor handsomely during his arbitration years without utterly crippling the team’s overall financial flexibility, and also to keep him around well beyond his current free agency date of 2021. The figures I ultimately settled on were eight years and $164 million; an AAV of $20.5 million through his age 32 season (2026).
It was an admittedly ambitious idea, seeing as how Edwin Encarnacion’s three-year, $60-million deal was (and remains) a franchise record. Still, if the Indians would have thrown something in that vicinity at Lindor on the frozen free agency tundra of 2017, it could have worked. Then the winter of 2018-19 happened. And now, the quest to extend Lindor ranges from “totally out of the question” to “more plausible than ever” in terms of likelihood.
Five players and literally a billion dollars
Since the 2018 season ended (even though it took a while), we’ve seen both Manny Machado and Bryce Harper ink free agency deals of double-digit years and $300-plus million on the open market. We’ve also seen the Rockies lock up their franchise player, Nolan Arenado, with an eight-year, $260-million mega-extension.
More recently, the Astros agreed to terms with Alex Bregman on a five-year deal worth $100 million. And of course, to top it all off, the Angels went ahead and made Mike Trout the highest-paid player in baseball (and deservedly so).
What does this all mean for the Indians and Lindor at the moment? Well, Lindor has been an excellent player for three full years and a truly elite player for two. That’s a shorter track record than those of Machado, Harper, Arenado or Trout (although I’m willing to make the bet that from 2019 forward, he outplays Machado for the rest of their respective careers).
Bregman, then, is a much better comparison. Both Lindor and Bregman are coming off 2018 seasons in which they eclipsed 7.0 WAR, though Lindor had the better 2017 campaign. With these statistical and age comparisons in mind, a shorter-term extension north of Bregman’s $100 million seems like a genuinely reasonable expectation for Lindor at the negotiating table.
The naysayers have already written this possibility off, and I won’t argue with them. History does suggest that there’s a better chance of Tris Speaker’s ghost walking out of Heritage Park to play center field than there is of the Tribe forking out $100-plus million to one player.
But I refuse to go quietly into the night on this. There has to be a way to keep the guy who launched one of the most majestic grand slams in franchise history around for longer than six years. I’m not even going to waste my time posting a video or an image of the home run to which I am referring because if you’re reading this you already know. And now you’re now reliving Matt Vasgersian’s narration of the event.
I don’t care how financially hamstrung Cleveland is; you don’t let that guy go play somewhere else without putting up a fight. So this is me, as insignificant and powerless as I am, doing my best to put up a fight.
Three years is better than none
The Indians may not be able to match these decade-long commitments worth $30 million a year, so if that’s what Lindor is ultimately looking for, well then I guess I’ve wasted my time on less productive endeavors than this. If he’s willing to accept a shorter extension with an upper-echelon AAV, however, then it’s not impossible for the two sides to find a middle ground.
The Tribe’s biggest financial concerns beyond 2019 come in the forms of Corey Kluber, Carlos Santana, and Trevor Bauer.
Kluber could make as much as $52.5 million from 2019-21 if the Indians pick up both his options after this season, but that is a known quantity for which they can prepare accordingly.
Santana’s contract is guaranteed through 2020 at $34.5 million remaining (2019-20), with a $17.5-million 2021 option the Indians are unlikely to exercise.
Bauer figures to get quite expensive in arbitration after this season if he outdoes his 2018 numbers, but his insistence that he’ll never sign a long-term deal makes him just as likely to be traded. One way or the other, he is unlikely to be with Cleveland after 2020.
After 2021, the highest-paid player who is guaranteed to remain with the team is Carlos Carrasco at $12 million.
This opens up a chance for the Indians to sign Lindor to an extension in which he makes the bulk of his money after 2021. They can free him from the hassles of arbitration in 2020 and 2021 by paying him closer to his actual value (in other words, more than the $10.55 million he’ll make in 2019), and then pile on the AAV in the years after.
I propose a five-year deal: give him the raise he deserves in his final two years of arbitration while locking him up for the first three years of his free agency through 2024.
Give Lindor all the opt-outs
The next measure of creativity Chris Antonetti has at his disposal in trying to persuade Lindor to stick around for the long haul is something one legendary Cleveland athlete in another sport recently utilized: player options.
Maybe Lindor is intrigued by the idea of an extra couple of years in Cleveland but would like some flexibility when he enters his 30’s, in which case he asks for an opt-out after year four of the proposed five-year deal. Or, maybe he’s perfectly comfortable with the full five years, but would like some insurance on the back end just for his own peace of mind. In that instance, he could ask for a sixth-year player option, and so on.
Either way, opt-out clauses are good-faith gestures by clubs that allow players to maintain control over where their careers and lives are headed. The Indians would be wise to entertain this idea, especially if it’s something Lindor specifically requests in a potential deal. Even if it means possibly paying him more than the team is comfortable within year six (or however many years it boils down to), it’s more than worth it to cross that bridge in the future in return for what Lindor can give in the present.
Show him the money
I can spend as much time as I want to discuss player comparisons, financial situations, and negotiation tactics, but this all ultimately ends with a concrete dollar amount. Lindor earned a nearly $10-million raise via arbitration between 2018 and 2019, and if he repeats his numbers from last year, he’s looking at another exponential boost next winter. Let’s factor that into the following proposal:
2020 – $19.5 million
2021 – $21 million
2022 – $23 million
2023 – $24.5 million
2024 – $26 million (Player Option)
2025 – $27.5 million (Player Option)
To break it down, that’s $40.5 million guaranteed in Lindor’s final two years of arbitration, plus another $47.5 million guaranteed in his first two free agent years. If he were to walk after 2023, it’s a four-year deal worth $88 million, and he could go seek a long-term contract at the age of 30. If he were to stay for the duration, he’d haul in $141.5 million over six years.
He’d be making more than Bregman from an AAV standpoint, and in the back end, he’d be getting paid in the same neighborhood as Harper. On the team’s side of things, the 2020-21 numbers don’t back the club into a corner on a decision of whether or not to exercise Kluber’s option.
Lindor’s part in all of this
It’s easy to look at this situation through the eyes of a community that collectively hates the idea of Lindor playing in another city, wearing another uniform. Through those eyes, it’s also easy to lose sight of what is really the most important question: What does Francisco Lindor want?
Maybe he’d accept this hypothetical offer I put together with Paul Dolan’s money. Maybe he’d accept slightly less if the Indians offered it. Maybe they’d (quite astoundingly) offer something greater, and he’d take that.
Or maybe he wants to bet on himself. Maybe he believes a $35-million AAV lies somewhere in his future. It’s worth noting that there’s a considerable difference between hitting free agency at age 28 and age 30 (or 32), especially for a shortstop. Maybe that big payday in 2021 is what he’s got his eye on; that eight or 10 or 12-year deal that carries him into the twilight of his career. And if that’s the case, he’s more than earned it–and will continue to earn it.
The good news is, no matter what happens down the road, he’ll be wearing No. 12 and playing shortstop at The Jake for the next three seasons. But as I proclaimed above, I’m not going down without a fight. So… Does anyone know how to raise $300 million in three years? Asking for the Tribe.