In honor of today’s tilt between the Oakland Athletics and Cleveland Indians, a look at both teams’ approach to contract extensions.
The Oakland Athletics and the Cleveland Indians are two very similar teams. Both have frugal owners, as well as general managers who might be just a bit too crafty for their own good at times. They are small market teams, competing in big-market divisions. While the Indians have the Twins and the A’s have the Astros, the other three teams in each division are typically big spenders.
That means that both teams rely heavily on good trades and good drafting – although neither has really perfected drafting just yet. It also means that a bad contract can sink the organization for years. Just ask Cleveland about Travis Hafner, a power-hitting designated hitter who struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness after signing a big deal.
Recently, though, the Indians have taken a new stance on contracts.
Following Corey Kluber’s surprise Cy Young win in 2014, the Tribe took the opportunity last April to lock him up for, hopefully, the better part of a decade. Kluber’s deal was a good one for both the team and the pitcher: $38.5 million over five years guaranteed, with two team options and some incentives in the final guaranteed year that would allow him to make up to $77 million over seven years.
For a reigning Cy Young winner – even one that many people had written off as a bust just two years prior – that’s a fantastic price. That same weekend, the Indians also agreed to terms on an extension for Carlos Carrasco – another one of their young starters. His deal was smaller, but similar in structure – $22 million over three years guaranteed, with two seasons of team options that could result in about $40 million total for Carrasco.
The Tribe has made it clear that they are focused on locking up their core players long-term and building around them, rather than starting over each season.
The Athletics need to be willing to take the same kind of gambles, especially when it comes to their most prized possession: their ace. Suffice it to say that Sonny Gray is incredibly good at pitching – there’s no reason to rehash all of his statistics, because it would be difficult to find anyone who would argue that statement. The Athletics need Gray if they want to be contenders.
Following the 2016 season, Gray will enter arbitration for the first time. That will present a new set of challenges to the A’s. Is it risky to offer someone guaranteed money, especially a pitcher? Of course. Gray is young and relatively healthy, but the arm was not meant to withstand the strain of pitching forever. Pitchers can blow out elbows and shoulders without warning, and just because there aren’t any glaring reasons for concern doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
But if the Athletics are serious about keeping Gray long-term, they need to take that risk sometime – preferably before the start of next season.
At the moment, Gray has just slightly less service time than Kluber did when he agreed to an extension. The fact that the A’s passed on a deal this winter isn’t surprising, given that they still had a year before arbitration – but they can’t afford to do it again.
Unlike Kluber, Gray has not won a Cy Young Award. However, he’s been consistently good from the time he was drafted through now, without the struggles that Kluber faced early in his career. When Gray eventually does get some hardware to back up his results, it’s going to make it even more expensive to keep him than it was for the Indians to keep their ace.
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The Indians have proven that it’s possible to evaluate a pitcher and determine whether the cost of an extension is worth the risk. They passed on former ace Justin Masterson, who has seen his career fall off dramatically after declining what he deemed to be too small of an offer. The Indians had the opportunity to increase their bid, but chose not to, and now they must be extremely satisfied with that decision. In addition to Masterson’s struggles, if the Tribe had successfully signed him, there’s almost no way they could have also afforded to lock up Kluber and Carrasco the following year.
Therein lies the issue. The A’s front office is afraid that if they sign Gray and it doesn’t pan out – whether due to injury or a drop in performance – they’ll be stuck with an albatross of a contract through 2021, or some other unfathomably far away season, depending on the length of the deal. Those types of errors can make it impossible to rebuild the roster or replace the player in question.
But structuring a contract similar to Kluber’s – one that would buy out Gray’s arbitration years, include a year or two of free agency, and offer a club option for an extra year – seems like a very safe bet for both Gray and the Athletics. The sooner they sign him, the less they need to pay him in his free agent years. What the A’s cannot afford to do is to wait until Gray’s price skyrockets following an MVP or Cy Young season, which seems almost an inevitable event at this point.
Cleveland has even offered a lesson in getting rid of bad deals.
They shipped Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn off to the Braves in exchange for an equally bad contract, but one that would shift most of the money the team owed to the aging duo to a later season. It gave them the leverage to stay in contention despite the bad signings, and it’s a pretty solid strategy if the Athletics were to encounter a similarly disappointing situation with Gray.
Small-market teams often find themselves competing with each other to see who can find an edge that helps them to stay competitive, but this is one area where the Athletics should take a lesson from their fellow notoriously-cheap team. Cleveland’s strategy has helped them amass a strong team core to build around, and despite playing in the same division as both the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals, they’ve stayed competitive the last three seasons, and appear to be heading that way again this year. The A’s should follow the Tribe’s lead, and take a gamble on locking up their ace long term.