A small-market team signed an MVP-caliber player to a long-term extension, but that by itself does not mean the Cleveland Indians should be on the hot seat.
With the exception of the Boston Red Sox–a gigantic-market baseball franchise that just traded its best position player since Ted Williams, because, money–no team will be more scrutinized in the immediate aftermath of Christian Yelich‘s reported long-term extension than the Cleveland Indians will.
The obstacles standing in Cleveland’s way of extending its own franchise player, Francisco Lindor, suddenly seem surmountable.
The Milwaukee Brewers don’t play in a large market, a disadvantage often spun as the lone determining factor in whether or not a team can afford to keep its best, most expensive players. If the Brewers can lock up a guy who should probably be coming off back-to-back NL MVP awards, why can’t the Indians or other small-market teams make similar investments?
The deal itself is surprisingly team-friendly in a vacuum, considering the player Yelich has proven to be over the last two years. The most commonly reported figures peg the contract as encompassing nine years and paying Yelich in the neighborhood of $215 million, with a mutual option for 2029.
It does not appear as though Yelich’s salary figures for 2020-21 have changed, meaning he’ll still be wildly underpaid for the next two seasons. If the extension begins in 2022 (which is my best understanding of the deal as reported), wiping out what would have been an option year, the “new money” in Yelich’s deal will be about $190 million over seven years.
We’ll have to wait and see how that cash is ultimately distributed over the life of the contract, but it does not seem like Yelich’s AAV will cripple the Brewers financially from one year to the next. If he were to hit the open market right this instant, he could quite easily command an AAV of at least $30 million.
Again, if Milwaukee was able to arrange a deal like this, why can’t the Indians?
Let’s start with one of the most important factors in free agency and contract extensions: age. Yelich is already 28, and wasn’t set to become a free agent until he was 31. There will undoubtedly be arguments that Yelich took a hometown discount to stay in Milwaukee because he likes it there. Even if that’s partly true, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
The reality is that Yelich likely felt more comfortable signing for guaranteed long-term money now, as opposed to waiting to see what happened when he hit free agency in 2023. Who knows what the market for a 31-year-old outfielder looks like in three years? By signing this extension, he doesn’t have to worry about that anymore.
Lindor, on the other hand, will be 28 when he gets to free agency. The three-year difference between 28 and 31 is an enormous one when it comes to negotiating lifetime contracts. A shortstop on the right side of 30 will have a much easier time naming his own price than an outfielder on the wrong side.
Not to be dismissed is Milwaukee’s applause-worthy willingness to commit to a contract that will likely outlast Yelich’s reign as an elite player. Would the Indians be comfortable signing Lindor well beyond his prime? That’s a bullet often bitten by teams that truly wish to keep their franchise-defining superstars, and the Brewers rolled those dice.
Finally, extensions require a desire on both sides to work something out. Regardless of whether Yelich intentionally took less money to play out his days in Milwaukee, it is quite obvious that he wants to play out his days in Milwaukee.
Lindor has said all the right things in regard to his love for the team he plays for and the city he plays in, but a young superstar cannot be faulted for at least being interested in the possibility of a relocation.
As predictable as it was that the Yelich extension would rekindle the flames of ire toward Indians ownership, the similarities between Yelich’s situation and Lindor’s end with market size. Believing that the Brewers’ good fortune automatically indicates the Indians are destined to pull off their own miracle would be unwise. By the same token, as much criticism as Indians ownership deserves, it’s not entirely fair to use Yelich’s deal as ammunition in that crusade.
What will be truly confounding is if the Indians don’t at least make Lindor a lucrative offer within the next 18 months. The Tribe’s relationship with its fan base is tenuous, to put it lightly. One incredibly easy way to begin mending that relationship would be to publicly offer Lindor something like an eight-year, $220 million contract.
If he accepts, the Indians get to keep the face of their franchise for under $30 million a year. If he declines it because it isn’t $30 million a year (the more likely outcome), the Indians aren’t any worse off, and they can say they tried. One result is a win for the team, the other a win for the organization. Both the team and the organization could certainly use one of those right about now.