The Cleveland Indians should have some cash to play with this winter. Should the front office spend it to bring back Yasiel Puig?
Regardless of what narrative ownership tries to sell in the next couple months, the Cleveland Indians aren’t as financially hamstrung as they were last offseason. With Trevor Bauer gone, Cleveland will shell out just one lofty arbitration raise to Francisco Lindor.
Jason Kipnis is off the books, leaving the Tribe with just four players who will make more than $10 million in 2020: Lindor, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Carlos Santana. Meanwhile, the Indians have a core of very talented young players in Jose Ramirez, Oscar Mercado, Franmil Reyes, Shane Bieber, and Mike Clevinger all locked up in varying team-friendly financial situations.
What the outside world views as financial flexibility is admittedly different from how Indians ownership views it, but the fact of the matter is that Cleveland is in a position to spend some money this winter.
As a result, there will inevitably be speculation on whether the Indians can (or should) bring back Yasiel Puig on a long-term deal.
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It’s not easy to find a mirror-image comparison in terms of what Puig will get on the open market, especially with how free agency has unfolded the last two years. But it seems reasonable to believe he’ll get paid somewhere in between A.J. Pollock‘s five-year, $60-million and Lorenzo Cain‘s five-year, $80-million deals.
He figures to be worth more than Pollock based on his age and not nearly as extensive an injury history. He’s two years younger than Cain was when he signed his deal with the Brewers, but isn’t quite as valuable as Cain was offensively or defensively in the years leading up to his payday.
Let’s meet in the middle and put a five-year, $70-million price tag on Puig. That’s an average salary of $14 million a year, which seems feasible for a player two years removed from his last campaign of higher than 2.0 fWAR.
Can the Indians afford that? In a vacuum, yes.
But factoring in the naively optimistic hope that the Tribe will try one last time to extend Lindor, as well as the possibility of looming extensions for Bieber and Clevinger, should they pay market value for Puig?
The answer to that question is probably no, regardless of whether or not any of those other financial decisions come to pass in the near future. And the reason for this is almost as simple as Puig being a right-handed hitter.
Cleveland already has two righties in the outfield in Mercado and Jordan Luplow. Whether Luplow is given the chance to become something more than a platoon bat against left-handed pitching in 2020 remains to be seen, but either way, what the Indians sorely need is a lefty.
Jake Bauers and Bradley Zimmer could potentially provide just that if one or both takes a giant leap forward next season. They both qualify as uncertainties, however, and the Indians can’t afford to deal in those after missing the playoffs in 2019.
Moreover, just because the Indians find themselves with some breathing room in the payroll department doesn’t mean it should all be spent in one place. For what Puig will likely command on the open market, the Indians can probably land two players.
If ownership is inclined to pay up for a right-handed outfielder, the Indians might as well go all-in and get Marcell Ozuna. In the very likely event that the front office is not given that green light, the wise move would be to spread around the available funds in an effort to shore up as many aspects of the roster as possible.