Cleveland Indians: A deal that works for Yasiel Puig?

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

As the Cleveland Indians continue to seek outfield help, Yasiel Puig remains unsigned and perhaps there is still a deal that works for club and player.

The Cleveland Indians have a big hole in the outfield right now. One that was filled at the end of 2019 by Yasiel Puig. We’re now into January and Puig remains a free agent with very little public interest to date. So if the team has a need and the player needs a home, there should be an easy fit, right?

Well, with the Indians it’s not that easy, and Puig and his struggles don’t make it any easier. But recent history shows that there may be a deal that could work for both player and team.

Yasiel Puig is coming off a weird season. He posted a 1.2 fWAR and hit just .267/.327/.458 in 149 games. That was “good” for a 101 wRC+ and 100 OPS+, making him essentially exactly league average with the bat. He did hit 24 home runs, which were the second-most in this career while also stealing a career-high 19 bases so there were some positives there. He still has that enticing power/speed combination.

However, he was Jekyll and Hyde in Cincinnati and Cleveland. With the Reds he was all power, hitting .252/.302/.475 with 22 home runs in just 100 games. However, that included just a 95 wRC+ and a 0.6 fWAR (that’s a sub-1.0 WAR pace for 162 games). With the Indians, though, he was the complete opposite hitter batting .297/.377/.423 with just two home runs in 49 games. He posted a 112 wRC+ and 0.6 fWAR (a 2.0 fWAR pace). Power was nonexistent but overall he was the better player (albeit with a crazy high .380 BABIP).

So which player are teams going to get in 2020? The power hitter or the on-base machine? Or could they get both like Puig was when he broke into the league in 2013 and 2014? That’s impossible to say, obviously, which is likely why he remains unsigned despite being just 29 years old. He’s almost certainly looking for a multi-year deal with a good annual salary. But the up and down career of late makes that a tough sell…which brings us to the potential solution.

Mike Moustakas signed a four-year, $64M deal with the Reds this offseason; however, two years prior he entered free agency as a 29-year-old free agent coming off a 2.0 fWAR season. Many thought a multi-year deal was in the works but after declining a qualifying offer he ended up going back to the Kansas City Royals on a unique one-year deal that included a big mutual option for a second year.

The deal was a $6.5 million guarantee with $5.5 million in 2018 and a $15 million mutual option (or $1 million buyout). The mutual option gave either KC or Moustakas the right to decline the option. There were also $2.2 million in very easy to meet incentives. The result? Moustakas got paid $8.7 million that year after the option was declined.

The same thing happened to him the following year (though with no qualifying offer) and he signed a one-year, $10 million guaranteed deal with Milwaukee that included $7 million in 2019 plus a $3 million buyout on an $11 million mutual option. Again, the result was a one-year, $10 million payday in 2019 for Moustakas (though technically $3 million goes towards the Brewers 2020 payroll figure).

Puig actually had a similar 2019 season to what Moustakas had in 2018. Moustakas hit .251/.315/.459 with 28 home runs and a 105 wRC+. He did have a much higher 2.4 fWAR though but the bat and up-and-down career left teams leery yet again. Puig is certain to want a big deal but if it doesn’t come, a one-year deal that allows him the chance to re-enter the market at age 30, potentially coming off a season close to what he did in the second half of 2019, could boost his value to the point where he gets the deal he wants.

The interesting part here is that an $8 million figure for Puig is something that Mandy Bell dropped in a recent Indians Inbox saying it “wouldn’t be far-fetched” if the price dropped to that. Perhaps Puig isn’t to that point yet, but with outfielders Nicholas Castellanos and Marcell Ozuna both still available it’s getting hard to see where that big contract will come from. Castellanos and Ozuna are both under 30 and both were much better overall compared to Puig in 2019.

Perhaps the Indians could even give him more than $8 million, going with the same contract the Brewers gave Moustakas in 2019: $7 million in 2020 with another $3 million coming in 2021 via a buyout of a mutual option. This deal would seemingly work for both parties. Puig would essentially get a pay increase as he made under $10 million last year in arbitration.

That $3 million buyout will go on the 2021 payroll which could help the Indians but would still be paid in the 2020 calendar year, giving Puig the money heading into free agency 2021. Could even add in some incentives if you want, tied to All-Star Game, Gold Glove, etc.

The only downside for Puig is he risks getting a qualifying offer this time from the Indians, which could really hurt his value in free agency. But of course, he’d have to play good enough to get one and the Indians didn’t give one to Michael Brantley last winter so it’s hard to see where they’d give one to Puig.

I’m sure most of our readers will be screaming “Yes!” to any Puig deal, let alone a one-year, $10 million one. But remember, he was only “worth” $10.0 million according to Fangraphs last year. Not like $10 million is actually some bargain for Puig, especially when one figures players like him are rarely paid for their WAR value.

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So if I’m the Indians, this is the type of offer I make to him. Room to add a year or two if needed but this still feels like the best compromise for player and team. Whether it happens though…