What the Jayson Werth Deal Means for Shin-Soo Choo and Chris Antonetti

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.

  • crazycav

    We have seen this play out over and over again in cleveland. Player becomes good in Cleveland and signs elsewhere. I see it happening with Choo too.

  • http://www.heyhokie.com Vengeful Pat

    @1, I don’t see that happening with Choo for the reasons Jon put forth in the article. He can’t leave the Indians for another 3 years… unless they’re dumb enough to trade him for a box of light bulbs.

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-6513-Cleveland-Sports-Examiner clevexaminer

    It almost makes you hope that these guys will play good baseball, but not TOO good. If Choo puts up 2010 numbers for the next 3 years, there’s no way the Indians can afford him. If he starts showing signs of decline, then maybe we have a shot. But at that point, do you even want to re-sign a declining player?

    Funny thing is Grady Sizemore’s injuries the last few years might actually give the Indians a shot at resigning when his contract is up. Unless he comes back in 2011 with a 30/30/.300 season. This is why I will never buy an Indians jersey with a name on the back.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Jon

    @ clevexaminer:

    Funny you should write it that way. On a top-secret, internal, WFNY headquarters email chain this morning, I wrote the following:

    Yeah, that’s about right. Either Choo continues to be awesome for the next three years, and he becomes “worth” $130 million on the free agent market, or he stinks it up and regresses as a player.

    If the first scenario happens, well, I don’t think the Indians should be paying any player that type of money, much less a corner outfielder on the wrong side of 30. We all saw what happened when we tried that approach with Hafner: if he lives up to the contract, you’re barely getting what you paid for. If he doesn’t, the organization has to be fully rebuilt, which is what we’re experiencing now. (There is a post kicking around in my head about how the Hafner deal is the sole reason for this rebuild–the driving factor behind everything from the Sabathia trade to the low attendance to the general antipathy toward the team. It all stems from signing Hafner to the biggest deal in team history, taking a gamble, and losing big. On the one hand, it seems obvious, but I’m not sure it gets enough play.)

    If the second happens, why keep him?

    Like minds…

  • Lyon

    Awesome article. With you all the way. No point in paying that much to someone over 30

  • Reggie Ruckus

    As much as it pains me to say this, I’m not sure that keeping Choo till 2013 even makes sense. I don’t think any of us believe the 2011 Indians will be much better than the 2010 team. If you dont’t think you can contend by 2012 move him. Given Choo’s team friendly price doesn’t it stand to reason that we might be able to move him for quality prospects after next season? Choo is a fine player but he’s had his share of injuries and let’s face it, with Choo in this lineup it’s still a 90 loss team. I’m not sold on LaPorta, Brantley, Kipnis, Chisenhall, etc. Trade him for some quality prospects, get rid of Hafner’s contract, hope Grady stays healthy and produces enough to trade him and pray you get lucky in order to turn this train wreck of a franchise around.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Scott

    “If you dont’t think you can contend by 2012 move him.”

    I believe this will be discussed in a future Jon Steiner amazeblog, but I believe 2012 is actually a target season for contention. I could be wrong.

  • 216in614

    i think they need to hold on to a high profile name until they become a free agent just to reset the poker hand. we got pretty bad returns on cliff lee and victor because teams knew we were never going to hang on to them so they didn’t have to offer much at all in return…

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com DP

    If Rachel Phelps could get anyone to come out and WATCH this team, none of this would be necessary.

  • Reggie Ruckus

    “i think they need to hold on to a high profile name until they become a free agent just to reset the poker hand.” Good point 216in614, however if we move Choo while he’s still under a team friendly contract, doesn’t that open the door to dealing him to someone other than Boston, NY or Philly? A team like Tampa Bay has a pretty good minor league system. If they are still a contender maybe we can get some quality prospects from someone other than the usual suspects?

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com DP

    More seriously, though, I for one believe the 2011 Indians will be better than the 2010 Indians just by virtue of health and progression. A full year of a healthy Santana; a full year of Brantley, who has progressed in each of his two full seasons in the Tribe’s system; Sizemore coming back hopefully healthy; a full season of an improved bullpen with more appropriate roles going forward (PURE RAGE!); some kids in AAA that could possibly help in a pinch.

    2012 is the year that they should be able to compete. Whether that comes to fruition is anybody’s guess. Still, though, packing in 2012 during December of 2010 seems a bit defeatist, IMHO.

    I’m not sold on LaPorta, Brantley, Kipnis, Chisenhall, etc. Trade him for some quality prospects, get rid of Hafner’s contract, hope Grady stays healthy and produces enough to trade him and pray you get lucky in order to turn this train wreck of a franchise around.

    Here’s what I don’t quite get: you’re not sold on ANY of the young prospects this organization has assembled, and yet you’re advocating they trade a known commodity for more prospects? Is it me, or does that just not add up?

  • OmegaKing

    I would think that if 2012 starts poorly, you’d have to trade Choo – but you would HAVE to get another outfield prospect that’s close to the show. You can’t start another full rebuild at that point.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Scott

    Yeah, Chisenhall and Kipnis are top-three prospects that are also close to being MLB-ready, both are top-50 within all of MLB…

  • mgbode

    Jon, what you said makes sense and I tend to agree. But, it’s a little early to worry about losing Choo in 2013.

    By then, Weglarz, Santana and ‘the Chis’ will all be knocking the ball around so well that we won’t miss what will be a lesser player in Choo :)

  • mgbode

    @Omega – you don’t need a OF prospect back if Brantley/Sizemore/Weglarz are all playing well by then.

    that’s why it’s too early for this, too many unknowns (including team needs)

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com DP

    Sizemore’s probably gone after 2012, also, FWIW. Just a reminder that his last year is a club option for 2012.

  • mgbode

    Sizemore might be gone after 2012. It will depend on how good his next couple of years are and if anyone is pushing him from the minors.

    I’m on the record (and I stand by it) that I wouldn’t mind trading him this offseason because I don’t trust his knee and I want Brantley in CF.

    But who knows what random vet-IF trade will net us our next great OF that replaces Sizemore as well.

    as noted, it’s too early to tell what will happen in the 2012 offseason.

  • Reggie Ruckus

    “Here’s what I don’t quite get: you’re not sold on ANY of the young prospects this organization has assembled, and yet you’re advocating they trade a known commodity for more prospects? Is it me, or does that just not add up?”

    Brantley has shown he can play in August and September but I want to see him come out and do it for a full season. LaPorta has shown absolutely nothing. Granted, some of it is due to his hip but he has to produce in 2011. Chiz, Weglarz and Kipnis are the 2011 versions of Santana. They are the guys we all want to see but it probably won’t happen until mid-season at best. Hard to judge how MLB ready a player is by a half-season performance. That takes you to the 2011 off-season. What the Tribe will need to decide is if a 2012 team with Grady and Choo has a legit chance of contending or if they would be better off moving both for MLB ready prospects who can put them over the hump in 2013. Plus by then they’ll be free of Hafner’s contract. I hope it all comes together but this franchise has spent over a decade drafting poorly so until these guys produce at the MLB level I’m going to be a cynic.

  • mgbode

    “Chiz, Weglarz and Kipnis are the 2011 versions of Santana.”

    I stopped reading there. Really, is this true?

    My god. If they are, then forget 2012, we’re winning the division THIS YEAR!!!!

    3B, LF, and 2B are locked up for the forseeable future and we can trade Sizemore for a middle rotation starter once we hit June.

    :) :) :)

  • OmegaKing

    @15 mgbode – Yeah, but how would you know that with Choo playing in right field? Even if Sizemore and Brantley were playing well, how would you know about Weglarz? He would have to be platooning with someone at that point in order to get any real time (unless he was the DH or 1B). Anyway, too many unknowns – you’re right about that. These are all just idle musings.

  • Bobby Joe

    If Sizemore is healthy he will be gone by his walk year and Choo will follow whenever he is eligible. Ownership will not shell out the money needed to keep any front line players.It will be unload them for prospects and hope that they catch lightening in a bottle once in a while. They have demonstrated repeatedly that they will not get involved in a bidding war for their own talent let alone some one elses.

  • Anthony

    Did anybody notice the tribe also lost J-Rod with the first pick in the Rule 5 draft to the Pirates?

  • cninja

    how in the world do you not see choo leaving?

    to me he’s already got a foot out the door with Boras as his agent

  • Rich

    Untill the MLB gets with the times and puts in place a salary cap, this will always be the problem. Because of that, I’ll continue to simply ignore baseball.