Reports have surfaced that Mookie Betts is seeking a contract of over $400 million. Will Francisco Lindor have a case for the same demands in 2021?
The Boston Red Sox have had a pretty quiet offseason. Well, perhaps that’s the wrong way to phrase it. The Red Sox haven’t done anything, but they are under investigation for sign-stealing allegations, they fired their manager, and their best player has been relentlessly mentioned in trade rumors.
The Cleveland Indians thankfully can’t relate to those first two developments, but that last one sounds awfully familiar.
The immediate future of Mookie Betts continues to be speculated upon daily, with teams like the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers reportedly “in” on the former MVP right fielder. Betts’ short-term future isn’t up to him; if he is traded, he’ll spend 2020 somewhere other than Boston. There are worse places to land than sunny Southern Cal.
His long-term future is very much up to him, and he has apparently taken a stand on that front. The Red Sox reportedly offered Betts a 10-year deal worth $300 million after the 2018 season, but Betts held fast, allegedly countering with an asking price of 12 years and $420 million.
It’s not often an organization could be accused of low-balling a player with a $300 million offer, but that is evidently the way Betts sees it if these numbers are accurate. Twelve years and $420 million would align more with what Mike Trout is currently under contract for with the Angels; 10 years and $300 million would relegate Betts into the Manny Machado tier.
The ocean that separates Boston’s offer from Betts’ asking price is wide enough to suggest the two sides coming to any agreement in the next 10 months is unlikely. Wherever Betts spends the upcoming season, it does not appear he will forego free agency when it’s over.
Whether Betts deserves to be paid in the same neighborhood as Trout is up for debate, but he’s one of only a handful of players for whom you could even make the argument. If he’s content to strut into the market this November with his sights set on such a deal, one has to wonder what Francisco Lindor will seek one year later.
There are similarities and differences between Betts and Lindor, but both will dominate the media attention of their respective free agent classes in 2020 and 2021. How close their paydays might come to matching up with one another is worth examining in detail, if for no other reason than that stuff like this is fun to do.
Let’s start with ways in which Lindor and Betts are comparable in terms of how they’ll be regarded on the open market. Betts has been the best right fielder – and the second-best position player – in the league for several years now. Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich are catching up to him among right fielders, but the best-player-not-named-Mike-Trout mantle still belongs to Betts at the moment.
Lindor has been the best shortstop in the league since his first full season in 2016, flashing a combination of 30-home run power and Gold Glove defense that few at his position have ever possessed. Assuming neither drops off significantly in 2020-21, both he and Betts will hit free agency as the best players at their respective positions, and both will be 28 years old.
In other words, they’re going to have about the same market leverage as Machado and Bryce Harper had in 2018. Harper and Machado were two years younger, but neither was considered to be the single best player at his respective position.
With these factors in mind, it’s easy to see not only why Betts and Lindor are eager to have their day in free agency, but also why they’ll be totally justified in demanding ultra-lucrative contracts when they get there.
But then there is the matter of wins above replacement, a metric heavily emphasized when determining the true market value of a baseball player. Though WAR is not the lone deciding factor, it is more directly correlated to what a player is ultimately paid than, say, a Gold Glove or a Silver Slugger award. And it’s when we get into WAR that we are able to highlight what is a surprisingly large gap between Lindor and Betts.
*Because I’m the one writing this, and because I think four years is a perfectly reasonable and fair sample over which to analyze a player’s value, we will be using the seasons spanning 2016-19 for most of this discussion.
Per FanGraphs, Betts has accumulated 30.7 fWAR since 2016. Twice in this span he has eclipsed the eight-win total, including his 10.4-win MVP campaign in 2018. In the same time frame, Lindor has amassed 23.2 fWAR, and has never achieved the eight-win threshold.
Betts trails only Trout in WAR since 2016; Lindor ranks fifth. If we average the win totals for both Betts and Lindor since 2016), Betts is running at a clip of 7.675 and Lindor at a rate of 5.8.
The “cost of a win” phenomenon is fluid, as salaries continue to rise and the economic environment of baseball continues to change. The practice of assigning an exact dollar amount to a statistic and then trying to project what that same stat will be worth 10 years from now isn’t without its flaws. Fortunately, the minds over at FanGraphs provide us with a baseline we can use to estimate how much a specific player is actually worth in terms of his performance.
Going by 2019 data, Betts’ 6.6 WAR would have been worth $53 million; Lindor’s 4.4 WAR would have been worth $35 million. Both values are more than double what either player was actually paid, of course, but we’re always going to run into this discrepancy with superstars. Simply put, if teams adhered solely to a payroll structure based on dollars-per-WAR, their best players would eat up such a massive portion of their budget that there’d be little left over to build a full roster without barreling through the luxury tax threshold.
This is true even beyond arbitration years, a period during which players are customarily underpaid. The math suggests even Trout’s record-setting contract is not enough to compensate him for what he actually contributes on the field – which will consequently affect Betts and Lindor when they hit free agency, right or wrong.
Anyway, the dollar value assigned to one win in 2019 comes out to roughly $8 million, a figure that hasn’t changed by any truly noticeable measure since 2016. For the sake of trying to simplify a complicated concept, let’s just pretend that number is static and won’t move at all going forward. If the dollars-to-WAR ratio has hovered in the $8 million range for four straight years, it’s unlikely to change exponentially by the time Betts or Lindor get to free agency in the next two.
Because players are primarily paid for what they’ve already done as opposed to what they’re going to do (especially in the case of contracts of eight or more years), let’s imagine that Lindor (5.8) and Betts (7.675) sustain their four-year WAR averages heading into their respective free agent turns. Below is what they’d actually be worth per year in terms of WAR and dollars.
- Lindor: 5.8 WAR x $8 million = $46.4 million
- Betts: 7.675 WAR x $8 million = $61.4 million
The interesting thing here is that Lindor could theoretically come close to this figure if he settles for an eight-year deal. How many owners out there would be adamantly opposed to paying the best shortstop in the game $320 million ($40 million per year) over eight years? No, he’s not going to remain at that level into his age-35 season, but elite all-around production at a premium position from ages 28-32? Let’s label it “not impossible” for now.
Betts is a bird of a different feather; as great as he is, he got here about 30 years too early to see a $60 million AAV. For more clarification on what he might be looking at, let’s apply the same loose math to Trout and Machado from 2015-18 (the four seasons before they signed their current deals). The $8 million-per-win figure still applies for 2015.
- Mike Trout: 8.875 WAR x $8 million = $71 million
- Manny Machado: 5.4 WAR x $8 million = $43.2 million
Now we’re able to understand, in no uncertain terms, why Betts would scoff at $300 million over 10 years. He’s worth nearly $20 million more per year than what Machado was when the latter hit free agency, but he’s supposed to settle for the same AAV over the same number of years?
On the flip side, the extension Trout inked with the Angels is paying him an AAV of $35.45 million, around half of what he’s worth in WAR dollars. In order for Betts to be willing to provide the same percentage of surplus value to his future team, he’d have to accept an AAV of roughly $31 million, which… isn’t very far off from that of Machado.
Over the life of a 12-year deal, maybe some team gets away with paying Betts under $35 million a year. For anyone looking to commit for fewer years than that, $35 million seems like it’s going to be the starting point. In the case of Lindor, it’s the same principle in the opposite direction. He might be able to ask for more than $35 million a year if he’s willing to go shorter on term.
It’s worth wondering if being 28 years old won’t make it challenging for either Betts or Lindor to command a deal of more than 10 years anyway.
Plenty can change between now and when these two youngsters hit free agency – particularly for Lindor, who still has two full seasons to go. If Lindor goes ahead and posts consecutive eight-win seasons in 2020-21, his value will soar into the vicinity where Betts’ stands now.
And as was mentioned above, WAR is only one piece of baseball’s financial puzzle – albeit a large piece. In any case, Betts is going to get to free agency first. Whether he and Lindor wind up in the same value stratosphere or not, we’ll have a good read by this time next year on what the Indians’ shortstop is looking at when it’s his turn.