Note: Most of this was written before Carl Crawford became the highest paid outfielder in MLB history. So everything here, times two, should be about right.
When Jayson Werth accepted a 7-year $126 million deal from the Washington Nationals this past week, two thoughts went through my head: (1) that it was a really stupid move for Washington; and (2) that Shin-Soo Choo’s price tag just went way, way up.
Let’s take these thoughts one at a time, and try to figure out what any of it might mean for the Indians moving forward.
First, why would it be stupid for a team to invest its money in a good player? Isn’t that what teams are supposed to do? Well, here goes. The Washington Nationals are not the New York Yankees. They have a budget. And it’s not wise to contribute a large portion of your budget to only one player. It hamstrings your ability to make those complementary moves that all good teams must make. Of course, if you work without a budget (like the Yankees) you can still make the other moves you need to. This is what is meant by “wallpapering over the mistakes”. The Nationals are most certainly not the Yankees, though. And there will be no wallpaper in Washington for the next seven years. They’re all-in on Jayson Werth. And, as any poker player will tell you, you never want to go all-in unless (1) you’re sure you’ll win (they’re not); or (2) you absolutely have to (they didn’t, but Boras convinced them they did.)
But beyond even those caveats, Jayson Werth is no spring chicken: he’ll be 38 by the time his contract expires and making nearly $20 million per year. What if he gets hurt? What if his production drops off a cliff? In short, what if he becomes Travis Hafner?
I say it like that because I’m pretty sure most Indians fans now understand firsthand the risks associated with locking a player up to a long-term, high-money deal. Pronk’s contract extension was only for four years, but it could be argued (and should be, whenever I get the energy) that it is the single biggest reason that this team is now in full rebuild mode. When contracts like that work perfectly, you’re barely getting what you pay for; when they don’t, your franchise gets sunk for years.
So no. I think the deal was not a smart one for Washington. They’re not close to contending in that division, and unless Strasburg miraculously heals this off-season and Bryce Harper eschews the entire minor league system and arrives swatting 30 homers next season, they’re not likely to contend for at least several years. It’s just an unfathomably stupid move for a rebuilding club.
Which, of course, brings me to your Cleveland Indians. No sooner do I utter the phrase “rebuilding” and ears perk up all around the North Coast, I know.
Well, believe it or not, Jayson Werth is about as good a comp for Shin-Soo Choo as exists. Earlier this year I dug up a bunch of comparable players who were approaching arbitration, but none was quite as good a fit as Jayson Werth. Both are corner outfielders with plus defensive skills. Both are late-bloomers. Both are good baserunners. Both have quietly put together some very good, borderline great offensive seasons. Both are represented by Scott Boras.
And one of them just got the third largest contract ever given to an outfielder.
Before you get your undergarments in a fussy mess, keep in mind that this probably means nothing for the next three years. Because Major League Baseball has a legalized version of slavery built in to its bylaws, players aren’t allowed to become free agents for the first six years of their careers. For their first three years, they get the league minimum. For the next three, they can get more, but they can’t yet let other teams bid on them–which is where it gets really expensive. Choo only has three years of MLB experience, so the Indians will have his rights for at least three more seasons.
So right now, the Indians can sign Choo to a deal—for one year, two years, three years, six years, 142 yearas, whatever—so long as Choo agrees to the deal. No other team is allowed to do that. And if the team and Choo can’t agree to a deal, then they go to arbitration for the next three seasons and pay Choo whatever some lawyer thinks he’s worth.*
*I’ve written before that Choo will likely be undervalued by the arbitration system; if you’re interested, read this. Or this. Or this. Or this. I do occasionally write about other topics, I just can’t remember any right now.
But this Werth deal throws an interesting wrench into the mix going forward. If Chris Antonetti really is talking to Boras about an extension for Choo, Boras is likely coming to the table with the Werth deal as an indication of Choo’s value. While Boras knows that he can’t get quite as much for Choo right now (since he’s not yet a free agent), he’s still got a huge number in his head, and probably a lot of years.
So let me be clear: I want to keep Shin-Soo Choo for the next three years. I would like to sign a contract this off-season that keeps him here through his arbitration years, and I hope that Boras and Choo feel the same way. But if Choo and the Indians need to go to arbitration each season, that’s fine too. I want Choo to be an Indian through the 2013 season, during which he’ll turn 31 years old.
And after that 2013 season? I’ve been hinting at this for a while, but it’s time to come out and say it: I don’t want him after 2013. I know it’s blasphemy. I know it sounds awful to say I don’t want our best player. I know it will be a never ending PR disaster if another Cleveland Indian were to leave town to the highest bidder. It’s not that I don’t love Shin-Soo Choo; I promise that I do. But someone is going to end up paying Shin-Soo Choo “Jayson Werth money”. Some owner is going to listen to the sweet nothings that Scott Boras whispers in his ear and believe that he needs to “make a splash”, consequences be damned. Some GM is going to be forced to gamble his franchise on Choo’s upside, while not considering the risk.
After this past weekend, Scott Boras ensured that someone is going to play the role of the Washington Nationals when Shin-Soo Choo hits the market.
And if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that I don’t want to play that role. Not again.