A specter looms over the Cleveland Indians as spring training approaches. It’s somewhere between an expectation and a dire hope, among fans as well as the front office, that they’ll sign shortstop Francisco Lindor to an extension of some kind. As is the way with the Indians since the early ‘90s with Sandy Alomar and Carlos Baerga, they want to buy out those yucky arbitration years so nobody has to spend a day in a conference room explaining why the player is terrible, and get a few cheap free agent years too. Lindor is the best position player they’ve had in a long, long time. They want to lock him up long term. He has no reason to agree to this.
Lindor is entering his third full season, meaning he’s still under the stunningly cheap rookie contract structure. In 2018 he’ll make somewhere just south of $600,000. It goes without saying that he’s worth considerably more than this. If we take the free agent average cost of a single win as the generally agreed on $9 million (though with how quiet the free agent market has been, that might slide a bit), he’s already been “worth” over $140 million to the Indians, meaning he’s provided about $139 million in surplus value.
That’s the nature of the rookie deal, of course, we all know these guys are underpaid for at least the first six years of their career. Young players don’t have the representation they probably deserve during collective bargaining negotiations, so they get the shaft in favor of veterans. So even stunningly talented players like Lindor, or Mike Trout or Bryce Harper or anyone, they have to bide their time and be a little lucky. Or they do what Trout did, sign away free agency years at a reduced rate. He, in particular, is still getting nearly $35 million each of the next three years, but even that is a shocking underpay. Even this injury-shortened year, he brought $60 million in on-field value to the Angels. Say what you will about savvy front offices, but this smells rather exploitative.
Lindor may be sucked into that as well, and cost himself money in favor of a bit more financial security. But he really shouldn’t. He should ride the arbitration years to their end and hit free agency when he’s just 2022 rather than selling his worth away for a bit of short-term greed. It wouldn’t be unprecedented, Manny Machado is doing exactly that right now. He’s on the last year of arbitration, already made $18 million not even counting this year, and he’s going to get about a quarter billion dollars come next winter.
Machado even had the thing happen that everyone warns against, and is the reason youngsters sign away their value. He had two bad knee injuries that he came back from because modern sports medicine has essentially solved that joint. Think about it - if the worst did occur and Lindor went down with some kind of knee injury, would that really preclude any wanting Lindor to stick around with the Indians forever? No, probably not. Short of something hideous, there’s not much that could really make me think Lindo would suddenly be very terrible. Not with how advanced medicine is for pro athletes these days.
I like Frankie Lindor. He’s a joy to watch. But he’s too great to be nickel and dimed by ownership. I don’t want that for any player. I’d rather the players have the money, not the owners. This whole offseason has been a big old load of nothing because teams just don’t want to pay free agents because they can use players like Lindor for cheap. Why lay out a bunch of cash for JD Martinez or Lorenzo Cain when they could just keep that money as profit? Lindor surely sees that. He’s of a different caliber than anyone on the market right now, but the point stands. If these guys aren’t getting paid now, what kind of discount is he going to have to put on himself if he doesn’t take control of his own life?
Lindor is around Sandy Alomar all season, that right there is the cautionary tale. As a young player Alomar took the below market rate deal the Indians offered. Once he was used up and too damaged for them, he was unceremoniously cast aside. Just because the team drafted him, and pays him, Lindor doesn’t owe them anything. If the Indians had their choice, they’d pay him a Jose Ramirez contract, if that. Instead, he said no once, and should again to a buy-out deal. Sure, the Indians aren’t loaded like the Dodgers or Yankees. But they have money. They offered him over $100 million last spring. They can up the offer to something fair. It’s the ugly part of baseball, the part I like the least. But if someone is going to come out ahead, I’d prefer it be the player who has injected untold amounts of fun into my Indians watching the last two years.