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A possible contract extension between the Indians and Jason Kipnis

What might an extension for the Tribe's best player look like?


Between now and Opening Day is the time when teams and players who've not yet reacher free agency often work out contract extensions. The Indians player with the most chatter about a possible extension this winter has been Justin Masterson, who's entering his final season of team control, and is likely to earn close to $10 million through arbitration, if the two sides don't work out a longer deal. I wrote about a possible extension for Masterson a few weeks ago, but he's not the only player the Tribe could look to extend before the season gets underway. In fact, Masterson isn't even the best player the Tribe might extend, Jason Kipnis is.

I wanted the team to work out an extension with Kipnis a year ago, when he was coming off a relative down season, and could have been had for pretty cheap. Based on his production and contracts for similar players, I speculated in March that he could be had for 6 years, $30 million, with a team option for a 7th year. For whatever reason(s), nothing was worked out.

The season began, and after a slow first week, Kipnis got going at the plate, went out and had the best June ever by a Tribe hitter, which won him AL Player of the Month honors, then got himself named to the All-Star team, and won our Indians MVP countdown.

Needless to say, his price has gone up.

Kipnis is currently under team control through 2017, when he'll turn 30. He isn't yet arbitration eligible, so the Indians can pay him ~$500,000 in 2014, while the following three years will be far more expensive. To try and get a sense of what an extension for Kipnis now might look like, I found other players one season away from arbitration eligibility (the same point Kipnis is at now) who signed an extension in the last two years. Here are the four players fitting that description:

Player Position Team Age* Contract**
Andrew McCutchen OF Pirates 25 6 years, $51.5M, plus 7th-year team option ($14.75M)
Starlin Castro SS Cubs 23 7 years, $60M, plus 7th-year team option ($16M)
Allen Craig 1B Cardinals 28 5 years, $31M, plus 6th-year team option ($13M)
Cameron Maybin OF Padres 25 5 years, $25M, plus 6th-year team option ($9M)
A 5-year deal buys out what would have been each player's first year of free agency, and you can see that all recent extensions for players like Kipnis included that year. Each deal also included a team option for an extra year at the end. Such options are fantastic for teams, because either they retain the player for a reasonable cost, or they get to let him go, if he hasn't been playing well (each of those options had a $1-million buyout).

Here are those four players and Jason Kipnis, with some key statistics from the year before they signed, and the two years before they signed combined:

Player 1-year Games 1-year wRC+ 1-year fWAR 2-year Games 2-year wRC+ 2-year fWAR
Kipnis 149 130 4.5 301 115 7.6
McCutchen 158 130 5.4 312 127 8.8
Castro 162 98 3.1 320 103 6.3
Craig 119 138 2.8 194 143 5.2
Maybin 137 105 4.2 219 95 4.7

McCutchen signed his deal before 2012, and is now the reigning NL MVP, so his contract now looks like a steal. He was two years younger when he signed than Kipnis is now, and he'd been a better player, so while inflation has raised salaries over the last two years, I wouldn't expect Kipnis to command quite as much money as McCutchen did.

Castro signed before 2013. He'd been a solid player before the extension as a league-average hitter who could handle shortstop, was signed mostly due to his youth and potential (Castro went out and had a brutal 2013, with some of the worst hitting in baseball). Kipnis has less room left to grow, because he's four years older than Castro was, but he's also been a better performer. I also doubt the Tribe and Kipnis would land on a 7 or 8-year deal.

Craig also signed a year ago. He was a year older then than Kipnis is now. He'd put up great hitting numbers, but provided little other value (and his hitting wasn't that much better than Kipnis' in the year before signing). Between Craig being a lesser player overall, and a year older, I have to think Kipnis would cost more money.

Like Kipnis, Maybin made big strides in the year before he signed (due in Maybin's case largely to staying healthier). Health concerns still deflated Maybin's price some, and with Kipnis also being a much better hitter, he's going to cost more to sign.

Less than McCutchen, but more than Craig or Maybin. Similar money to Castro, but for fewer years.

My best guess on an extension: 5 years, $37 million, with a $13M team option for 2019.

That would keep Kipnis under team control through his age-32 season, at which point he'd be entering the phase of his career in which he's likely to decline sharply.

The Indians can instead go year-to-year with Kipnis, paying him ~$500,000 in 2014, and (if he continues to play the way he did in 2013) something like $7 million in 2015, $10 million in 2016, and $13 in 2017, at which point he'd likely leave for another team. That would work out to $30.5 million for the next 4 years, so the extension I'm proposing means the team risks Kipnis suffering a major injury or serious decline, in exchange for keeping him under team control for an additional two years for very little additional money ($6.5 million for the 5th year, $13 million for the 6th).

Which would you prefer?