If Adam Eaton and the White Sox just set the market for outfielders, the Indians might be in trouble. The two sides came to agreement Tuesday on a one-year deal with that will see the 32-year-old playing in Chicago for $7 million in 2021.
Eaton, whose steep decline is plain to see, failed to make MLB Trade Rumors’ list of top free agent predictions. While he did make honorable mentions, it’s worth noting that he was not able to crack a list that had Chris Archer making an estimated $4 million next season. There was no reason for him to be high on anyone’s radar, even a team as outfielder starved as the Indians. But here he is, pulling in $7 million riding face-first down a steep decline.
Needless to say, he overperformed on this deal.
Eaton joins a growing list of free agents slowly trickling into new teams on one-year deals with a market that doesn’t look nearly as dead as once feared. Pitchers Kendall Graveman, Josh Tomlin, Matt Wisler, and Dan Winkler all signed deals worth less than $1.5 million, while Mike Minor signed a two-year deal worth $18 million, and Trevor May signed with the Mets for $15.5 million over two years. To date, Marcus Stroman and Kendall Gravemen top the free agent list signing $18.9 million deals with the Mets and Giants, respectively. Michael A. Taylor is the only other position player to sign a contract so far, joining the Royals for $1.75 million.
The Atlanta Braves have been the big team spenders, signing pitchers Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly for a combined $26 million.
It should come as no surprise that the Indians have been quiet so far outside of a couple small trades. They are likely hard at work finding the best return possible for Francisco Lindor, who is positively not signing a long-term contract to stay in Cleveland and would account for a third of the team’s payroll in 2021 if he were to stick around past arbitration.
If the Indians are going to spend at all, Eaton’s contract could be a bad sign. Now, keep in mind that it only takes one team to offer a bad contract. Reportedly the White Sox were also interested in Michael Brantley and Joc Pederson before settling on the rapidly declining Eaton, so maybe they were just flinging money around and Eaton was the only one to jump at it.
Teams across the league are crying poor — none harder than the Indians — so Eaton getting $7 million for a projected 1.0-or-so WAR is not the total death knellfor the Indians’ free agent hopes. But considering the Indians are looking at a sub-$40 million payroll and potentially dipping even further, it’s not great.
Going by Steamer’s projection of a 1.2 fWAR season, Eaton’s contract comes out to about $5.83 million per win. Back in 2019, when things were more normal, the average $/WAR ranged from about $1.2 million (teams like the Pirates and Twins) to $2.5 million (teams like the Cubs and Red Sox). Obviously, Eaton’s number is a huge leap from that, but if other free agents look at it as a starting point, it means much higher paydays.
Again, going by Steamer, Michael Brantley and his projected 1.9 fWAR would be looking at a $11 million AAV; Jackie Bradley Jr. somewhere around $8.2 million, and Joc Pederson a budget-busting $14 million. Oh, the humanity.
If Eaton’s contract is setting the market, the Indians are essentially priced out of every outfielder expected to be worth a win or more in 2020. In which case, if they are stuck with sub-1.0 fWAR players and total lottery tickets, they might as well stay with in-house options such as Daniel Johnson, Oscar Mercado, Bradley Zimmer, Josh Naylor, Nolan Jones, and others.
Maybe that’s not the worst thing.